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A most hated man—Ti #35
Criticism of Novak Djokovic often veers from legitimate and measured into personal and excessive.
21 Jan, 2021

Hello and welcome to the 35th issue of Tennis inbox. This week: fairness concerns, whiny players, surviving civil war with a tracksuit, and a hated World #1. Read on to find out more.

Fairness and privilege

Plans for all players to go through a controlled quarantine—where they’d be allowed to leave their hotels and train for five hours a day—were thrown aside when people on flights tested positive for the coronavirus, ushering all passengers on those flights into hard lockdowns.

The end result is that some players can’t access tennis courts for 14 days while others can. By now you’ve probably heard about this, so I thought it’d be interesting to assess this development through a couple of different lenses: fairness and privilege.

Is it fair that some players can train five hours a day, have access to coaches and trainers, but others are confined to their hotel rooms for two weeks? Definitely not. Can something be done about it? No. Probably not (I’ll get to Novak Djokovic’s requests for these players later on in the issue).

So what we have is two distinct groups heading into tournaments starting soon. On one hand, we have players who have access to facilities and staff, and on the other we have players stuck inside of their hotels. That’s definitely not fair.

It is for a reason, though: compared to other countries, Australia has done a great job at containing community transmission of the coronavirus. Dan Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, has also faced months of internal pressure for a large outbreak in his state a few months ago that resulted in a prolonged, intense lockdown. It’s, therefore, no surprise that the Victorian government is being so strict with its regulations.

An interesting layer to this story is that the best players in the world have gone to Adelaide and have been unaffected by hard coronavirus lockdowns, further adding fuel to the thought that players at the top of the game are treated in more favorable ways in comparison to the rest of the pack.

The other angle commentators are seeing this is through considering whether players who are complaining about the 14-day hard lockdown are privileged and entitled.

Former Australian player and current commentator Renna Stubbs made her position clear, pointing to the guaranteed $100,000 AUD players will receive for competing (if they’re playing singles), and the flights and various other amenities afforded to them. In other words, it was: suck it up.

Tunisian player Ons Jabeur responded to the tweet saying “They added this rule after [of putting players in a hard quarantine without access to tennis courts]. Plus We haven’t been in close contact with the person who tested positive.”

But Artem Sitak, a player from New Zealand, said in a video that players had been informed that there was a possibility that hard lockdown could happen. It’s difficult to put a finger on what exactly the rules were with players offering differing accounts.

So: are players whining too much about being stuck in hotel quarantine? Yes and no. Some are being ungrateful about how far Australia has had to bend to make the Open possible. But I think player frustration revolves around what we just covered: the issue of fairness. They’re probably frustrated that their competitors—through dint of chance—are being allowed to train and prepare themselves for a huge season of tennis down under while they’re stuck in their hotel rooms for a fortnight coming up with cute and kitsch ideas for their Tik Toks and Instagrams.

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A most hated man

Never have I seen someone who draws more ire in the tennis community than World #1 Novak Djokovic. The latest kerfuffle centers around a list of requests Djokovic submitted to Tennis Australia that aimed to provide respite to players stuck in the 14-day hard lockdown. SBS News reported it as:

“Djokovic wants the days of isolation reduced, the ability for players to see their coach or trainer, and as many players as possible moved to private houses with a tennis court to facilitate training. He also wanted better food and more fitness equipment delivered to the rooms of players.”

Ok. Some issues with the requests, I’m sure, but some of them seem reasonable enough. Keep in mind that Djokovic and the rest of the “elite” players aren’t hotel quarantining and are in environments where they have access to tennis courts, coaches, and their trainers. Anyone who knows tennis knows that this is a massive advantage over those stuck in their hotel rooms.

If he were a shrewd competitor, Djokovic would have kept his mouth shut and let players complete their 14-day lockdowns without any practice on an actual tennis court. After all, players in worse form is a boon for him. Yet he wrote in asking for better conditions for them. That seems like a pretty considerate thing to do.

But the way people have been reacting to these requests has been interesting to watch. Nick Kyrgios called him a “tool.” Scroll through Twitter or Facebook and you’ll find people castigating Djokovic and his requests.

Various media outlets in Australia have also been calling his requests “Demands” and the claim has been repeated credulously across radio shows, articles, and TV segments. This is how it probably started: someone somewhere in an editorial room decided to brand Djokovic’s suggestions as “demands” to increase traffic/get more eyeballs on their content. The claim was then repeated again and again until it became the dominant narrative. I suppose that’s one way of riling up your readers and viewers. A few hours after the hoopla, Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley clarified that they were just “suggestions” and not “demands” as every outlet was reporting.

Instead of saying of the suggestions: “Ok, 1, 2, 3 are not going to happen, perhaps he has a point on 4, 5,6—and they could potentially be achieved safely,” it’s been: “Djokovic is a tool!” “What an idiot!” “Privileged tennis player!” The discourse has been very strange to observe.

I guess it’s important to keep in mind that some Australians have been frustrated with the government here for being so slow in repatriating Australians stuck abroad… and the media circus around the arrival of foreign players and their whiny behavior isn’t exactly helping that situation. Fears are also high that ushering in hundreds of international players could lead to another breakout in Melbourne.

By the way, I’m not saying that Djokovic is above reproach. Certainly there are things you can criticize him for. I’m only pointing out that the conversation surrounding him often seems untethered to reality and based on personal animosity. Which I find odd.

Djokovic released a statement on Wednesday in response to the media’s reaction.

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Surviving civil war with a tracksuit and a tennis racquet

Sam Jalloh holding a copy of his book

You and I can head to the courts, lace up our $100+ dollar shoes, pull out our fancy graphite racquets from their expensive bags, and play on perfectly maintained facilities.

For Samuel Jalloh it was different. He grew up in the slums of Freetown, Sierra Leone without electricity, slept on cardboard, and his father wanted him to have nothing to do with tennis.

At the age of six, he was offered up for adoption to his landlord in exchange for a reduction in rent for his family. It was a mixed experience, filled with cruel whippings. He escaped that situation at the age of nine, and when his parents separated, he moved into his mother’s new home—right next to the tennis courts.

His tennis journey started there. First, he learned to play with a “board bat”—a literal wooden board with a handle attached—, and then he got good enough to play nationals in Sierra Leone. Samuel competed barefoot.

Based upon his performances, he was approached by a national coach and things seemed to be looking up… but then, Sierra Leone, which had been in the midst of a civil war, tore itself apart. He saw his best friend die in front of him after being shot in the chest.

He decided then, almost as a tribute to his friend, that he would devote himself to becoming a professional tennis player

Samuel’s story is moving, fascinating, and a reminder that it’s a privilege to be able to head to the tennis courts, crack open a fresh can of balls, and play without any worries. It’s something I personally take for granted—which maybe I need to work on.

I encourage you to listen to Samuel’s journey, which details his transition to adult life, coaching, and to check out his book, How Tennis Saved My Life. Samuel also runs a foundation that aims to help young, underprivileged athletes succeed in tennis and other sports.

Listen to Samuel’s story on BBC Sounds →

Upcoming tournaments

Here are the upcoming tournaments that we can look forward to:

ATP

  • Murray River Open (ATP 250)—31st Jan–6th February
  • Great Ocean Road Open (ATP 250)—31st Jan–6th February
  • ATP Cup—1st February–5th February

WTA

  • Gippsland Trophy (WTA 500)—31st Jan–6th February
  • Yarra Valley Classic (WTA 500)—31st Jan–6th February

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    The only tool in the box is kyrios as he didn’t leave Australia to play outside as his antics would have surely got him the virus what a dickhead.
    Djokovic is trying to lookout for players to get them a fair deal as best he could he didn’t want special treatment but was told he had to go to Adelaide as this was previously arranged for those players . Do you see or hear from Rafa no no no he is happy to be away and cares only about his career and not fellow countrymen.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Hmm. Agree that it seems like Djoko is sticking out his neck to try and help other players. It’s interesting to watch reactions to this. I saw one person opine that it was a PR move to engender sympathy for himself. It’s not a good idea to automatically assume the worst intentions.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Really appreciate you properly analysing the Djokovic scenario rather than responding to the click-bait headlines and trigger words. So he wants to use his privilege to try to help everyone else get as ready as possible for one of the biggest tournaments of the year… does not warrant the reaction he’s getting.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thanks a lot, Mark. Yes—it’s been interesting to see how people are reacting to this story. If the criticism is fair/warranted, sure—have at it. But many times it seems as there’s just a need to castigate and criticize without looking past the headlines. Journalists/editors who write and publish these kinds of stories are definitely responsible. But then so are readers for believing them uncritically

      Reply

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Getting out of your comfort zone—Ti #38

Getting out of your comfort zone—Ti #38

“It seems you can’t go a day or two without some self-development guru or wanna be Simon Sinek telling you that ‘you have to get out of your comfort zone to improve!’ It’s a tried and tested truism in the space of self-improvement. But how does this idea work when it comes to playing tennis matches and competing?”

Is your mental game holding you back?—Ti #37

Is your mental game holding you back?—Ti #37

“Tennis Australia consequently announced that all matches scheduled on Thursday would be postponed a day to give casual contacts—which could be up to 600 people (players, coaches, support staff, etc.)—a chance to get tested. The postponement of play will also give Tennis Australia and the Victorian government a chance to get a handle on just how bad the situation is.”

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