From an interview on RTS, Serbian national television, conducted by Nenad Stefanović and aired on a 23 February 2015 episode of “Svedok” (“Eyewitness”).
During the Australian Open. . . your coach, Boris Becker, said that you don’t get as much respect as you should, being the #1 player in the world—“the man in town,” as he put it. How did you understand his comments and have you talked about it?
“Yes, we’ve talked a lot about such topics, even before that interview. Naturally, that’s a component of my career. Generally, as a player and a person, on and off the court, I take everything that goes on around me very seriously and professionally and try, accordingly, to behave with dignity and respect.
I’m aware of the fact that Federer and Nadal, given their long-term success and the results they’ve achieved on the international level, are still—even though I’m number one—the two most popular active tennis players. But I don’t mind that at all. On the contrary, it allows me to grow in another regard and perhaps relieves certain kinds of pressure.
Also, I wouldn’t completely agree with the assertion that I don’t get or enjoy enough respect in the tennis and sports world. In fact, my whole team did a lot of strategic work in order to obtain positive media coverage. Along with that, I was simply brought up a certain way; I came from a culture in which respect and appreciation—the positive things in life—are valued. So, I don’t pay too much attention to criticism, even though I’m aware that without it there’s no personal development, nor can one see things from other perspectives…”
To return a bit to this theory of a lack of respect, if it’s at all valid. One of the sport’s leading experts, Nick Bollettieri, said that he thinks you’re the most complete player in the history of tennis… Geniuses, whether in tennis or something else, don’t choose where they’re born. Is it possible that one problem with regard to respect is that you come from a country of, let’s say, “bad guys”—from Serbia, whereas, in tennis, there’s generally a belief that great players only come from great nations?
“Well, the fact is that tennis is a global sport, and it was always a sport of the upper classes. It’s a very exclusive and expensive sport, which was invented by the French and English—both well-off nations, in every respect, throughout history. So, considering this, there certainly haven’t been many champions from small countries. And there are probably certain prejudices that, in this situation, play a role. How much? I don’t exactly know.
But, I try to take advantage of that Serbian inat* (which exists and which we mention frequently)—more in the sense of enduring certain things, maybe even unfairness—and display a level of tolerance that perhaps I wouldn’t have at first. I think that’s a virtue, the right way to behave at that moment. Because if I reacted impulsively to everything—all the headlines, stories, insinuations, people, media, and so on—throughout my career, I wouldn’t have been able to withstand it mentally and emotionally. So, I save my energy, which I need on court.”
You mentioned the media and popularity. Maybe part of the problem is that after a longstanding rivalry between Federer and Nadal, a third guy arrived and ruined all of that—including for many people in media and marketing circles—by becoming a champion?
“I disrupted the world order [laughs]…. I’ve thought about it a lot, but then I got past it in a positive way. I sat down with the people who surround me, who participate in my career—from my family to my coaching team to those responsible for publicity—to devise a strategy for how I’d like to be presented off court. That is, I try to be myself both on and off court. Because I don’t like duplicity or hypocrisy—I like to be honest and open in every possible situation. Of course, there are events and certain formal occasions when one has to comply with protocols… so you don’t get into trouble.
But I try to show emotions, sometimes even ones that might seem unacceptable to some people. That’s simply me. I don’t run away from it. It’s not that breaking a racquet or letting a curse fly are things to be proud of—far from it. Kids, don’t do that! But I’ve talked about it with both Marijan and Boris and they told me (particularly Boris, who has experienced similar things on court) that it’s sometimes better to release that negative emotion, the anger that’s growing within you, than to hold onto it because in the long run it’ll eat you up from the inside.”
You used an interesting word a minute ago: humanity. I’m curious whether you three at the top of world tennis sometimes exchange private messages. For instance, did any of them congratulate you on the birth of your son?
“Yes, both personally and by text—how could it be otherwise? Just about all the players I saw did, and everyone at the top. Absolutely. I think the current generation of top tennis players is sending a positive message to all the kids who follow them and look up to everything they do. Similarly, we’re sending a good message to the media and those who occasionally try to create some tension between us.
That was the case between me and Murray after the final in Australia, when British media, in particular, emphasized some disagreement which then grew into anger and then who knows what else that really had no basis. We’ve known each other since we were 12 years old. It’s normal when you’ve been fighting for a Grand Slam title that you’re disappointed and show some emotions after the match. Everything was completely fine between us in the locker room—he came up to my team and congratulated us, and I did the same to them.
Tennis is a very particular sport, at least when we’re discussing this theme of humanity. Self-respect, respect toward your opponent, and demonstration of fair play—these are among the reasons I’m proud to be part of a generation aware of that.”
* Note: I left the word “inat” in Serbian because it has no English equivalent. If you’re interested in the origins and significance of what is widely considered a Serbian national characteristic, see here or here.
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