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.

Ana Ivanović in Dubai

“We Serbs are very emotional.”

From an interview with Vojin Veličković in the print edition of Serbian daily Sportski Žurnal (17 February 2015, page 24).  An online preview is available here.

You’ve said a few times that Serbian coaches deserve a lot of credit for your success in the last year and a half.  Why is that?

“I’m a very emotional player—I play with my heart.  Some wins as well as some losses affect me more powerfully than they should, and it’s very helpful to have a team of people around me who understand me and the emotions I’m going through—who know what’s going on.  Maybe foreign coaches can’t quite get that, but it helps you get through a match if you have a compatriot by your side.  It’s a huge difference when a coach from Serbia comes down to the court to give me advice.”

The result of these collaborations is her world ranking, which has been improving for over a year.  When she stopped working with Nigel Sears after Wimbledon 2013, she was number 18 on the WTA list.  Now, after a year with Nemanja Kontić and almost eight months with Dejan Petrović, she is in the sixth position (and was even #5).

“I’ve wanted to get back into the Top 10 for a long time.  Last year, I finally coordinated a few details and succeeded.  I played a lot of matches, did some things differently, and for the first time had a Serbian team around me.  That helped: I was more relaxed and they removed some of the pressure from meIt was truly a good year, at the end of which I felt I was much improved.”

Elaborating on what having a Serbian team means to her, Ivanović notes, “Every country has its own mentality and it’s important to have someone next to you who understands and fits in with it.  That kind of support is a huge help.  We Serbs are very emotional and we really love to compete.”

Since last summer, she’s been working with Dejan Petrović, an expert who, over the course of his career, has united the most important functions in Serbian tennis.  He was captain of the Davis Cup team, coach to Novak Djoković and Jelena Janković, and now to Ana Ivanović.

“Working with him means a lot to me—we have great cooperation and I really feel that, as time passes, we understand each other better and he can help me much moreOf course, Zlatko Novković and Dule Mitrović, as part of my team, also help me a lot.”

Since 2008, when she won Roland Garros and was number one, Ana has had many more disappointments than the anticipated celebrations.  She says she’s learned a lesson.

It takes time to get used to failures.  When I started, defeats hit me hard, but I realized that we play every weekI always want to give the maximum, but that’s simply not always possibleLast year, it went much better for me at the smaller than the biggest tournaments, but I really want to fix that—I want to be the best at the most important competitions...”

Which Ana do you like better as a player—present Ana or Ana back in 2008 when you were number 1?

“I like present Ana better.  Through various experiences, you learn a lot about yourself, you become more mature in a lot of ways, and you start to understand what’s really important and what isn’t.  I achieved a lot when I was still very young.  Although I was very lucky to have that kind of opportunity back then, I feel I’m more complete as a person now.  And I still believe I can win the biggest titles, which motivates me.”

What separates the more from the less important in tennis?

“Over the years, I’ve learned that the most important thing is today and this week; next week is something different, and the week after that likewise something else. That is something you have to understandto narrow the focus to whatever is the priority.   Sometimes, I look forward too much, toward the outcome.

Of course, the most important things in life are you and your family; but when it comes to tennis, it is today and this week.”

What are your goals in 2015?

“I’d like to be part of WTA finals again and to end this year in the Top 5.  I sincerely think that I can achieve both things.  I work really hard and I strongly believe that I can go on to do great things in the future.  Winning Grand Slam titles is my goal, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself.  I want to be able to give my maximum effort for as long as I can.”

What do you need to improve in order to be Top 5 player again?

“Even though my game is always progressing, there are always details that need working on.  My serve can be a much more forceful weapon and I’ll pay more attention to it this year.”

How is your toe?

“It’s still sore, I’m still in therapy, and I’m taking anti-inflammatory medications.  I hope that it’s going to be 100% fine in one to two weeks.  I only regret that I didn’t go straight to the doctor’s—he later told me that I shouldn’t have played that match [the first round at the Australian Open] at all.”

How do you feel about the Fed Cup tie against Paraguay?

“I’d really love to play.  With all my heart, I congratulate coach Ječmenica and the girls on a great result.  I hope I’ll be able to join them in April.  We have a big chance of getting back into the World Group, where we belong.  I’ll give my best to be there and support the team.

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Translated by Saša Ozmo with an assist from Ana.  Feedback and criticism are 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.