Interview with Umpire James Keothavong

From an interview with chair umpire James Keothavong conducted by B92’s Saša Ozmo during the first round of Davis Cup in Serbia.  Brit Keothavong earned the ITF’s “gold badge” rating in 2010.

On officiating the 2014 Wimbledon final between Djoković and Federer.
“You know what, it was my first Wimbledon men’s singles final.  To be given that assignment is a great honor.  That the All England Club and the Grand Slam committee believe in my performance as a chair umpire—it’s great to have that feeling walking out on that court.  It was  fantastic: a classic five-set match between the two best players in the world, Novak and Roger.  It was about four hours and ended up being one of the greatest finals of all time.  For me to be part of that was a great feeling and an honor.”

On his impressions of Serbia.
“This is probably my fifth time here, all for tennis: Fed Cup and Davis Cup.  It’s great to be back.  The previous ties have been in Belgrade, so this is the first time we’ve actually experienced life outside the capital.  It’s slightly different, slightly smaller, Kraljevo [laughs; the city’s population is 70,000].  But it’s great for the federation to bring the tie here and promote tennis in this part of the country as well.  As you could see, it was a capacity crowd—everybody wanted to see Novak, of course, Viktor, and the Serbian team.  Overall, it was a great atmosphere.”

“Unfortunately, we haven’t had that much time to go on a tour—we’re here for four days and three of those days are for work.  But what we’ve seen so far has been really nice. . . . The people, above all, have been really warm and friendly to us, which makes our job worthwhile.  As you know, we get to see quite a bit of the world, we travel to many different countries, meet lots of different people; so, it’s great to come back to Serbia and have good memories.”

On working with “Hawk-Eye” & the challenge system.
“When it initially came out [in 2006], the chair umpires didn’t know what to expect.  But, over the years, we’ve all found a way of umpiring on a ‘Hawk-Eye’ court.  How I deal with it is that I pretend it’s not there; so, I step in when I have to, I overrule when I have to.  I think that’s the way officiating is going at the moment—all the top chair umpires are doing that.  It’s not just about calling the score or sitting there and not seeing anything.  I think it’s important that we still do our job, and we use ‘Hawk-Eye’ as a tool for officiating.  The players appreciate that and we appreciate it; but, at the same time, we still have to do what we have to do and not just rely on technology.”

“Obviously, when you sit up in that chair and things are going right, it can be the best seat in the house.  But when things start going wrong, it’s a lonely place.  There’s only you sitting up there.  Occasionally, you have players on your back—or, in Fed Cup and Davis Cup situations, captains on your back.  You know, that’s part and parcel of what we do.  If we make a wrong overrule, then we have to deal with it.  We’re human, just like the players—they make mistakes; umpires make mistakes.  But we try to keep those mistakes to a minimum.  The majority of the players now, they don’t really mind when we step in; and if we get it wrong by one or two millimeters, it’s not the end of the world.  I think they prefer us to officiate the match like that than not do anything.  I don’t think there are many mistakes made by the top chair umpires, but it’s a good officiating tool and we’re glad to have it.”

Did he refuse to shake Xavier Malisse’s hand in 2013?
“No, I have to say on record that it’s not true.  It was a misunderstanding.  It was a long match, and I shook the opponent’s hand, Garcia-Lopez, to the right-hand side and I didn’t realize that Xavier had offered his hand. Somebody got hold of it and made it news. . . . Touch wood, there hasn’t been too much controversy [in my matches].

On match fixing
“No, I haven’t had any connection, any communication, or noticed any players doing anything out of the ordinary.  So, I can’t comment on that….  You know more than I do.  To be honest, we have to do what we do—we concentrate on our matches—and whatever happens outside the matches is up to whoever decides [those matters].  But I’ve never been approached and I don’t know of any players who’ve been approached.  I haven’t umpired a match that’s had any sort of suspicion.”

On relations with players
“Let’s face it, we travel with the players week in, week out, and we see them at the tournament hotels.  As I said before, we’re human as well: it’s not us versus them.  But they have their teams, their entourage, and we have our colleagues.  It’s all civil: “Hello, how are you?”  The only thing we don’t do is go out for breakfast, lunch, or dinner with them.  It’s a professional set-up, as you would expect from organizations such as ITF, ATP, WTA.  We do our job, they do their job, and we like to keep it that way….  We don’t have friends or favorites—we treat the players equally.”

On his favorite tour destination
“I love Australia… You know, it’s winter over here in Europe during that time—the end of December, January—and it’s always cold.  Then you go to Australia and it’s right in the middle of their summer-time—it’s just great.  Straight after Christmas for us, we go over there and there’s sunshine, everyone’s happy, everyone’s wearing shorts and t-shirts, you can play tennis outside.  I couldn’t think of anything better.”

On officials’ salaries
“That’s the million-dollar question.  All I can say is that we don’t get paid enough.  You can write that” [laughs].

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“Do They Cheer for Novak in Croatia?”

An article by Saša Ozmo, who writes about basketball and tennis for Serbia’s B92.

Athletes are pioneers in the attempt to rebuild bridges that were destroyed during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, as best illustrated by the relationship between Serbian and Croatian tennis players.

However, even though they get along so well, the question is to what extent that’s reflected in the attitude of people in their respective countries.

It’s 2015: twenty years since the end of the war.  So, it’s appropriate to ask where we are now on a scale from “death to the neighbor’s cow” to “anything for a neighbor.”

In the last few months, young Borna Ćorić has emerged as a future star of international tennis.  In Serbia, many find him sympathetic; but, at the same time, the reader response to reports on his matches is often “Nobody’s interested!” and “Why are you writing about a Croatian player?”

And what is the status of Novak Djoković and the rest of the Serbian players in Croatia?

“Novak has many friends in Croatia—he’s friends with our players and he also left a good impression when he played here, as is the case with Viktor Troicki, who has competed in Umag and the Rijeka Challenger.  Each of Novak’s successes is viewed with approval in Croatia—and a lot of people root for him.  I don’t think people here would say something ugly, like “I hope he breaks his leg,” observes Zlatko Horvat, a reporter with Rijeka-based Novi List, adding that Ana Ivanović also has many Croatian supporters.

A regional basketball league has existed for over a decade, incidents of an ethno-nationalist nature are minimal, and water polo and handball have likewise “crossed the border.”  But tennis players are especially significant due to their close relationships and conciliatory statements.

At the Davis Cup tie in Kraljevo, fans didn’t whistle during the Croatian national anthem and Captain Željko Krajan emphasized that the whole team felt at home.  This impression is shared by Croatian journalists.

“Kraljevo has set a good example here—we were pleasantly surprised.  Let’s start to live better, both Croats and Serbs, rather than get caught up with trivialities,” says Horvat.

Although we’re no longer one country, Serbian media always pay closer attention to the achievements of ex-Yugoslav athletes—be it Tina Maze, Marin Čilić, Damir Džumhur, or Janica Kostelić.  There’s still a trace of additional interest, for whatever reason.

“I work at a daily paper that follows tennis, and Djoković gets quite a bit of coverage.  It varies, of course, depending on the importance of the tournament and match, but finals of Grand Slam tournaments are given two pages.  The recent Dubai final report took up a page,” says Ivan Jelkić, who writes for Zagreb’s Sportske Novosti.

Novak Djoković has become a global star and millions of people around the world root for him.  On Twitter alone, four million people “follow” him and at every tournament, autograph-seeking fans besiege him.

Unlike his colleague, though, Jelkić isn’t sure whether people cheer for Novak in Croatia.  But, he points out, they do respect him.

“There are always exceptions who’ll say, ‘He’s not one of us’ and ‘What do we care about him?’; but people who understand and love the sport know what kind of player Novak is and follow his matches, maybe even root for him. ‘Rooting’ is perhaps a bit strong, but they appreciate him, in any case.”

In both Serbia and Croatia, people like to pride themselves in their athletes—we often call them our best ambassadors to the world.  That’s why we could stand to follow their example a bit more in this respect.

It’s not necessary to worship Novak in Zagreb or Čilić in Belgrade; it’s enough not to hate each other.  There is no need—and these days in Kraljevo offer more proof that we are able to function quite normally together.

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Translated by Ana Mitrić.  Feedback is welcome; please let us know what you think in the comments.

If you would like to contribute a translation, please head to “About Us” to see how to do so.

Aleksandra Krunić on her US Open breakthrough and more

Krunić: “Everything clicked in New York”

From a pre-season interview with Saša Ozmo on Serbia’s B92.

On her US Open experience:
“That memory is unreal to me, especially from a distance of three months, since I had poor preparation—two tournaments on clay where I wasn’t successful.  There was no indication that I’d play well at the US Open.  I didn’t have a coach either, so I was thinking about that, too… I wanted to be home in Belgrade, and my whole team is from Serbia, making it complicated to have a foreign coach.  In the end, I decided to have Bane Jevremović with me: I’ve known him a long time and trained with him when I worked with Biljana Veselinović.  I really couldn’t go to the US with a stranger.  Then, in New York, everything ‘clicked’…  For a year and a half I was ranked around 150 and I kept thinking, ‘What do I need to make a jump?’  I was training hard, I have no injuries—it really wasn’t clear to me.  But it’s no good wondering.  It just comes.”

On why things “clicked” in New York:
“The only thing I can think of is that I was a little more tolerant with myself at the US Open.  Normally, I’m a perfectionist and if something’s not ideal, I act like I don’t need it.  There will be maybe five matches of the year that go as well as that…  Then, I dropped the ball in New York—everyone makes mistakes, including me.  To outsiders, it must sometimes seem arrogant, the expressions I make, like ‘I can’t believe I missed that.’”

On her loss to Azarenka at the US Open:
“Experience was the key in that match.  Even if I’d won, I don’t know how I would’ve handled it—a Grand Slam quarterfinal would turn my life upside down.  You need to be mature enough for that kind of thing….  I was up a set and 3-2 in the second and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I could make a Grand Slam quarterfinal!’  Who made me think that?  That might have ruined the match for me.  You simply can’t completely escape those thoughts, especially in front of 20,000 people at Arthur Ashe Stadium and with Azarenka across the net.”

On her post-breakthrough perspective:
“My expectations for myself have grown—I’m always battling with that; but after the US Open, even more so.  As far as pressure from others is concerned, [it’s changed] somewhat… There are many people here who love to get involved.  I remember in 2011, when Novak lost one match and there were immediately comments like, ‘What happened to him?’ or ‘How?’ …  Or when Ana once lost to Stosur—I looked at our own and Australian newspapers and with us it was ‘Sam smashed Ana’ but with them it was merely that Sam won.  That fascinated me.”

On being consistent throughout the whole season:
“That’s the hardest part and it’s the difference between those at the top and the rest of us.  I need to be persistent in practice—that depends solely on me, which isn’t always the case in matches.  I played the best tennis of my career at the US Open, but I’m aware that won’t happen every week.  That’s why my main goal is to raise my base level of play—and not fall below that line.  It’s also important that I enjoy what I do.  Whatever is happening, I need to stay positive—that attitude will help me improve.”

On her goals for 2015:
“I want to make the Top 50 before the end of the year, but the most important thing is to stay injury-free.  I’d also like to be in the main draw of every Grand Slam tournament, which would be a sign of progress.  Plus, I want to get out of this group in Fed Cup—where we are now is a catastrophe, after being in a final.  Game-wise, I would single out needing to improve my first-serve percentage; but the main thing is to be hard-working in practice and stick to the basics. ‘Keep it simple,’ as they say.”

On what constitutes a good coach:
“Above all, I think a coach needs to be a good psychologist, particularly when working with women.  Every day is different—when someone’s in a bad mood, the coach needs to find a ‘hook,’ to think of something interesting in practice that is useful at the same time.  The easiest thing is to say, ‘I don’t care how you’re feeling; this is what we’re doing.’  So, the coach has to understand the player—of course, there has to be good communication, since no one’s a mind reader.  Also, a coach needs to adapt to the player he or she is coaching; many coaches have their own ideas about how tennis should be played and don’t take the tennis characteristics of the person they’re working with into account.  The game should build on the player’s character—you can’t make a naturally aggressive player a retriever or the other way around.

“A coach is someone you’re with 24 hours a day, more or less, so you have to be close with that person.  I don’t think a distant player-coach relationship works.  Of course, coaches are there because it’s their job, and you’re paying them—nobody’s going to work with you for free.  But if you find the right balance and your team functions well, with everyone getting along, that’s the real deal.”

On WTA stars she likes:
“I saw Kvitova crying in the gym after our match in New York—and I like her so much, I just wanted to hug her.  She’s completely normal and grounded, and she doesn’t have the need to be completely dressed up in ‘Louis Vuitton’ or drive a plane or whatever…  She’s just doing her job and I have tremendous respect for her.  Besides her, Radwanska is totally relaxed, and, of course, Jelena Janković—she’s always the same, regardless of whether she’s ranked first or the last in the world.”

On WTA players’ relationships:
“Each of us maintains distance and has certain defense mechanisms, so it’s hard to get close.  I think the male players respect each other much more—they always extend a hand.  It’s not the same with us—half the players don’t even say ‘hello.’  We’ve got some issues, that’s for sure.  Billie Jean King talks about how the players used to help each other, cheer for each other, and nowadays that’s impossible.  God forbid that you ask someone, ‘Where do you practice?’ or ‘What are your plans?’—they’d immediately wonder, ‘Why is she asking me that?’  Of course, it depends on the person: a lot has to do with what you were taught at home, then some with the team of people around you.  I just don’t see how it would help my career to wish someone else ill.”

On athletes’ rituals and routines:
“I don’t know if they’re rituals or insecurity—something is probably being covered up with that [behavior].  They’re routines which make you feel comfortable.  On the tour, we’re constantly traveling, there’s always a lot going on, and it’s normal to have a need for something that’s yours alone, even if it’s just a small ritual.  Even when we return home, it no longer has that feeling—I don’t know where my home is, though it’s probably here in Belgrade when I sleep in my own bed.  The airport is my house— I’ve already gotten used to it.

“I like to have at least an hour and a half between the end of warm-up and the match.  Before the first point, I read a prayer and that’s it.  I’m not one of those people who only pray to God when they need something, but I’m not too pious either—I believe in destiny: that a path is charted for each person.”

On sports media:
“I don’t follow the media, but my mom reads everything—both articles and comments.  Honestly, it doesn’t interest me.  Sometimes, people tag me on Facebook; so then I see stuff…  And my family got in touch during the US Open to say that I was being written and talked about, but I didn’t look at anything.  Just once, I was annoyed during Fed Cup when we played against Canada, and someone wrote: ‘Who taught this Jovanovski to play tennis?  She has no idea—and Krunić belongs in a zoo.’  It was clear to me then: there are always fools and those who are dissatisfied with their own lives, and they vent their frustration [online].  If you have time to comment all day…  We’re an emotional people.  They elevate us [athletes] to heaven, and then we fall at the first opportunity.  Yes, we love our athletes—they love us whether they spit on us or not, but I think that it’s all a reflection of dissatisfaction with their own lives.  It’d be stupid to let that affect me; but I’m sorry for my mom, who gets torn up over such things.”

On social networks:
“Everybody says, ‘Get on Instagram!’—and I don’t even get Twitter yet.  At one point, I erased all of the applications—there’s always something ringing and I can’t take it anymore.  Then, it’s a problem if I reply to one person and not to another…  On the other hand, I’ve recently signed a contract with Octagon—I needed an agency.  But if I leave it up to them to take care of my accounts, then it looks like I can’t put three meaningful sentences together by myself and that’s just silly.  People want to be in the loop, to know what you’re up to, and I guess it’s only going to be more pronounced if I keep progressing, even if I don’t like that kind of self-promotion: ‘Here I am in Amsterdam’ or ‘Here I am having lunch with my grandma.’  But that’s how it is today—everybody is always on the phone.  ‘What’s the wi-fi code’ is the first question everybody asks when they enter a players’ lounge.  I don’t like it—it’s sad how much you miss while you’re staring at your phone.”

On her off-court interests:
“I live with my grandmother—it’d be stupid to have my own apartment when I’m never there.  I stopped eating meat before the US Open, and my grandmother doesn’t get it.  Now I eat tofu, soy—I’m teaching her.  I love animals and I watched a documentary about the meat industry— the meat they produce isn’t what it should be; who knows what they put into it…. I like historical documentaries (about communism, World War II), but I also watch ‘Car Rescue,’ some mysteries, and You Tube is constantly on.  Because I’ve been to Amsterdam, I want to see the documentary ‘Red Light District.’  I’m interested in those girls’ stories—they’re almost all forced to do what they do.  My friend told me that many of them were promised jobs in fashion, dance, or something similar, and then they end up like that.  Seeing it disgusted me: not because they’re half-naked but because they’re kept in a glass case.  It’s terrible.

“Right now, I’m reading a book about the Romanov dynasty, but it’s very difficult and requires serious concentration—I can’t be tired when reading.  Honestly, I prefer to watch than read; but I still plan to read the whole school reading list.  In Russia [where Krunić grew up], they require War and Peace, Dead Souls too early; it has absolutely no purpose then—you read it and don’t know what it means.  I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame recently, and I inhaled Dreiser’s famous trilogy: The Financier, The Titan, and The Stoic.”

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Translated by Saša Ozmo with an assist from Ana Mitrić.  Please let us know what you think in the comments.