Posted: Wednesday December 14, 2011 1:18PM ; Updated: Wednesday December 14, 2011 6:48PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>TENNIS MAILBAG

Djokovic's backstory showcases complexities of politics and sport

Story Highlights

Novak Djokovic's upbringing in troubled Belgrade deserves context, discussion

As the youngest player in the top 10, Caroline Wozniacki still has time to develop

Increases in prize money over time have disproportionally benefitted top players

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Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1987, where it's often reported he used to play tennis in an empty swimming pool.
Bob Martin/SI

While marveling that we're only two weeks from the new tennis season...

Let's start with a discussion of Novak Djokovic. Particularly in the past year, we've gotten a lot of mail that's either praised or vilified the world's No. 1 player for being a proxy for Serbia. The discussion -- such as it is -- tends to be dominated by voices on the extremes. Still, it's clear that for many, he represents far more than a tennis player competing at an unsurpassed level.

I suspect that many of you, like me, are less than experts on the Balkan Conflict, the demise of Yugoslavia, the bid for Kosovo independence, etc. We don't get much help watching tennis. We joke often about how often the "swimming pool story" has been repeated by commentators, but how many times have we been given context? What was going on in Serbia at the time that caused NATO -- not an organization that tends to attack other nations indiscriminately -- to deploy a bombing campaign in and around Belgrade?

In any case, last week a reader drilled me for what she considered this media oversight and my complicity in what she deemed an ugly and uncomfortable aspect to Djokovic's success. It was a long, detailed, civil and -- in my judgment -- reasoned essay. After considerable thought, I tweeted a link to her piece.

The response was, predictably, swift, passionate and representative of a broad spectrum of views. I invited a response, and, after a few days, was fortunate enough to get this thoughtful, thorough and reasonable piece of writing from another reader.

A warning: Neither of these are studies in brevity. But sometimes complex issues and discussions can't be easily condensed. Block out some time and read these posts. The aim here isn't to assess blame or encourage anyone to take sides. It's to provide some context, offer different perspective and try to deepen some understanding -- both of a complex cultural/political situation and where Djokovic may (or may not) fit in. At a bare minimum, I think we can agree that he plays and performs with a burden that no other player today ever will know.

I know we'd like to hold off on Caroline Wozniacki a bit during the offseason, but after perusing the WTA website, I noticed an interesting fact. Wozniacki, 21, is the youngest player in the top 10. There's only one player younger in the top 20 (Anastasia Pavlyuchenokva), and only 13 women younger than Wozniacki in the whole top 100 (six of whom are within six months of Wozniacki's age). Would it be nice if Wozniacki had a Slam as world No. 1? Sure. But she is much, much too young in this era of old women winning Slams to be declared a perpetual runner-up. Let's talk when she's 25. Or, hell, when she's 23.
-- Jesse, Portland, Ore.

• Good call there. We forget that Wozniacki is even a few months younger than Petra Kvitova. I have my doubts about Wozniacki. The weapons just aren't there. But you're right to note that she'll have a lot more whacks at the piņata. Blanket declarations at this point are silly.

Good for Margaret Court for speaking her mind. If you actually read the article carefully and impartially, she is not being hateful at all, but merely expressing her inner beliefs, which derive from her upbringing and religious faith. If people happen to disagree, tough. Sure, you can express your disagreement, just like she can express hers. This doesn't give anyone grounds to deem the other side's comments hateful at all, and if you think it does, consider that I would consider support of gay marriage hateful toward my deeply held beliefs. It goes both ways. Comments about boycotting her court are ludicrous. What happened to respecting the other side's views?
-- Robert B., Melbourne, Fla.

• It had been a while since Court had enlightened us, but she emerged again last week, giving one of her periodic rants against gay marriage, political correctness and abominations, and generally making Rick Perry's ad team members look like they were to the left of Abbie Hoffman.

Apart from igniting some strong responses from many of you guys, she triggered the predictable conversations and debates. "What is hate speech and what is free speech?" "Must tolerant people -- by definition -- tolerate intolerance?"

Personally, I found her remarks repugnant. But like Robert B., I skew libertarian here. Court is free to express her views. The rest of us are free to react and respond in all sorts of ways -- whether it's by ignoring her, excoriating her as Martina Navratilova has, or removing her name from a show court at the Australian Open.

I tweeted the other day that it would sure send a message about tennis' sensibilities if a player were to take a stand and decline assignment in Margaret Court Arena. Why is that ludicrous? I respect her right to express views, absolutely. The actual content of the views? I don't respect them at all. I find them deeply offensive and so do a lot of other people -- some of whom have at their disposal a superior megaphone.

Overall, I enjoy your columns. However, I was pretty gobsmacked by the SI.com roundtable on the ATP season. I know you're not responsible for all the opinions put forth, but how on earth could you (and several colleagues) choose Rafael Nadal's season as "biggest disappointment" over, for starters, Andy Murray? Rafa won a major. He also finaled in two others, won a Masters, finaled in four others, and clinched the Davis Cup for Spain. I'm sorry, but it's simply preposterous to call a season like that the "biggest disappointment," no matter how high a bar he has set for himself. Was his season disappointing in some ways? Sure. But biggest disappointment? You totally lost me there.

Meanwhile, Murray (who, by all accounts, should be winning majors by now) went mentally AWOL in two Grand Slam semis and one Grand Slam final, was nonexistent/miserable/depressed during Indian Wells and Miami, and even after recovering his game, still was somewhat chronically injured throughout the rest of the season (elbow, ankle, groin). He played well in the fall, but that momentum came to nothing when he withdrew from the World Tour Finals. Andy's season was almost the definition of disappointing, and yet, only one writer on your staff even mentioned him. Odd.
-- KB, Maryland

• This is really a matter of semantics and defining terms. What "disappointment" means in this context, I can only speak for myself here, but I took to denote the biggest gap between expectation/potential and reality.

I hear what you're saying; I recognize the absurdity of terming the No. 2-ranked player and Davis Cup star a disappointment; I thought I acknowledged as much in my explanation. But, again, heading into 2011, Nadal was a threat to win all four Slams. He'd won the previous three. He had continued his mastery over Roger Federer. He was healthy, confident, in good spirits.

In 2011, he not only gives up his top spot and can't figure out Djokovic, but he also admits to lacking passion. Even he used words like "disappointing" and "difficult" to describe his 2011 campaign. Not unlike Federer, Nadal is cursed by the standards he set; you're absolutely right. But it doesn't change the fact that there was a vast chasm between what was anticipated and what actually happened.

As for Murray, the expectations are not nearly what you make them out to be. "By all accounts, [he] should be winning majors by now." Really? Whose accounts? I don't know anyone who expected him to win a major in 2011. He's No. 4 at a time when the Big Three will probably each end up among the top five players in the Open Era. For Murray to finish No. 4, make one major final, reach the semis in the other three, win a Masters Series and lose a half-dozen matches he had no business losing? That's about exactly what was to be expected.

I have only recently begun attending tennis in person after many years of TV enjoyment. I have enjoyed the Mason (Cincy) Masters event the last two years. However, I find that I do miss the commentary. The U.S. Open distributes earpieces to spectators -- why do you think the Lindner Tennis Center does not? Mere cost? Other considerations?
--
Will Coy-Geeslin, Versailles, Ky.

• It's a sponsorship play with American Express. But given the presence of both Tennis Channel and ESPN at the event, maybe there's an opportunity. (There's a Xavier-Cincinnati joke here, but my wires aren't quite connecting this morning.)

I would support Congress creating a law that would make athletes who represent other nations in international competition ineligible for U.S. residency or naturalization, including forfeiture. This should apply equally to Alex Bogomolov and Maria Sharapova, along with many others in tennis as well as other sports, notably baseball and basketball.
-- Larry Larson, Alexandria, Va.

• Congress? A law? I go in the opposite direction. All's fair in love and tennis country codes. The USTA has to know that when it supports a player with a complex backstory, there's a risk that the player may eventually forsake one nationality for another. I spoke with Bogomolov last week. He was going to write up a "position paper" for us, ending the speculation and rumor and explaining why he made the decision he did. We haven't heard back from him but we know -- we just know it -- that he'll be responding soon.

Regarding Daniel Nestor: Jon, does this statement hold true for anyone outside of the doubles world (male or female)? Nestor is the only player in tennis history to have won all four Grand Slams, all of the Masters Series events, the Year End Championships and Olympic gold medal in doubles at least once. Even if there is someone else, is this the most underrated, least-talked-about record in tennis history? He has (basically) won EVERYTHING there is to win.
-- Mark Randmaa, Toronto

• The hitch, of course, is the conditional phrase "in doubles." Most players would rather win a solitary Grand Slam singles title than THE Grand Slam alongside a partner. While there aren't, obviously, Masters Series events on the women's side, Steffi Graf won an Olympic gold and every major title at least four times. But, yes, the breadth of Nestor's doubles accomplishments is exceptional.

 
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