Kristina Mladenović: “Sport is in our blood.”

This is an English version of an interview published on Serbia’s B92.

Mladenović was born in France in 1993, about a year after her parents moved from the former Yugoslavia for her father’s job.  Dragan Mladenović was a professional handball player who was part of the Yugoslav Olympic team that won a gold medal in Los Angeles (1984).  “Kiki,” a top junior in 2009, made her first WTA singles final this year, losing to Sam Stosur on the Strasbourg clay.  Points from her wins at the US Open this week will put her at a new career-high ranking.
AM: What question, if any, are you tired of answering?
KM: There are obviously routine questions about matches, but it’s normal to respond to those.  I think it’s annoying to have the French press always asking, “Are you ok handling the media pressure & expectations?” because it’s been a few years now since I first arrived on the tour.  That’s part of the job and it’s actually a good sign if I have to deal with it.
AM: Both your parents were professional athletes and you & your brother have chosen to follow in their footsteps.  What do sports mean to the members of your family, since everyone is involved in sports but each person is doing something different?
KM: It’s a big thing–sport is in our blood.  To us, it’s normal and natural.  But to have such a family–my father was a professional handball goalkeeper, my mom played volleyball at the international level, my brother is a promising young football player, trying to become professional as well, and me on the tour–it’s amazing. It’s not like our parents pushed us into their way of life.  I’m actually impressed with all of us–it’s something really special. We make fun of it quite often, actually: like when friends come over, there’s always some game on tv and they ask, “Can’t you put a movie on or something?!”
AM: Are you competitive amongst yourselves?
KM: Definitely.  In our free time, I might go watch my brother or play with him or we’d go for a run all together.  We’re a really sporty & healthy family.  This is our style of life.
AM: Your parents clearly understand the pressures & traveling & other aspects of your professional life, but you’re the only one in the family playing an individual sport.  Does that mean there are some things they don’t really grasp?
KM: Yeah.  I’m quite lucky that because they’ve been professional athletes on such a high level, they understand a lot.  They can’t really help me tactically or technically, even though they’ve been by my side for many years and are also improving and learning a lot about tennis.  But they know me best and are such nice and cool parents–and they understand that though tennis is my job, it’s not my whole life.  It’s amazing to have such a good relationship with them.
AM: How did it come about that you chose tennis?  Did you also try team sports like volleyball when you were young?
KM: Yeah, actually I was playing both volleyball and tennis. My parents just introduced me to tennis as a change of pace.  There was a club close to home, so I thought it was a good idea.  As parents, they just wanted my brother and me to be healthy–you know, for kids it’s great to be sporty and not always inside playing video games or whatever.  Actually, I was really talented in volleyball–even better than at tennis.  But I was just a little bored with it; at a young age, like 8-9, it wasn’t that interesting for me because I was already much taller than the other kids & playing better.  So, I chose tennis & went my own way both because I was talented and because it was also more of a challenge.  I fell in love with the sport and had success at an early age, playing my first Slam at 14 and a half.  But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy–everyone has their own story, a tough path to achieve what they want.
AM: I wonder if there’s also a cultural aspect to it, too, with the long tradition of tennis in France, whereas in the former Yugoslavia there was more of an emphasis on team sports?
KM: Yeah, actually, I have this inside me: even though I chose tennis & I’m a professional player, I’m really a collective-minded person.  So, I really love all the Fed Cup stuff and Olympics–I get so pumped.  It’s different when I’m playing alone–I handle myself differently.  I definitely feel like I’m coming from a team-sport family and culture–and I can’t deny my Serbian roots.
AM: I was going to ask you about the cultural connection.  Obviously, you were born in France, speak the language, & play for the country; but do you go back to Serbia often to visit?  Do you still have family there?
KM: Unfortunately, my two grandmothers died recently, so I have no more grandparents left.  That makes it more difficult to get back there, even though I have uncles and cousins.  It’s especially complicated with the tennis schedule and all the travel–I’m not often at home either.  But I always say in my heart I’m French and in my head I’m Serbian–and let people guess what that means.
AM: Though you’re a singles player now near your career-high ranking, your biggest titles are in doubles. How did your partnership with Daniel Nestor come about & what effect does all your doubles success have on your singles career?
KM: It started easily: he asked me one year before Roland Garros, and I was really impressed that someone like him, a doubles legend who’s won absolutely everything, wanted to play with me.  So, I said “Of course!”  And right away we made the French Open final, then won Wimbledon and the Australian Open.  It’s amazing–really unbelievable–for me to already have all these experiences and titles at age 22.  What can I say?  At the beginning of my career, I played doubles as a way to practice for my singles, since that’s my priority.  But to have Grand Slam titles on your record is such a big privilege and I really respect that and try to remind myself every day that it’s something I can talk about with my children in the future.  I’m enjoying doubles, I’m proud of it, and I’m happy it’s helping my singles–to reach the same level in singles, if possible, is the goal.
AM: In Washington, you won the doubles title playing with Belinda Bencic for the first time. Now you’re back with your steady partner, Timea Babos?
KM: Yeah. She’s exactly my age–four days older than me–and we have such a great relationship.  I know Timea really well and we decided at last year’s Wimbledon to play together.  It’s definitely great to have a fixed partner: there’s all this routine stuff which makes it easier to practice every day. And when it’s your best friend on the tour, it makes it even better.
AM: Last December, you were one of the breakout stars of the IPTL. What were the best things about that experience?  Do you think it had an impact on this season?
KM: Yeah, of course. It’s related to what I said before about collective sports, team spirit.  It was a lot of fun and completely different from what we are used to on the tour.  It reminded me a bit of Fed Cup, but it’s not your country people.
AM: You were on the mostly Balkan team with Novak, Zimonjić, Čilić, Ivanišević...
KM: Yes, exactly. It was definitely an amazing experience to be part of such an unbelievable group, filled with Grand Slam champions in all disciplines. There were just a few exceptions–showmen like Monfils.  I was really impressed & I’m proud to have been called to participate again in such an event.  I think it’s great for tennis to have a different kind of competition & also for the crowd to follow it on tv.  The rules are fun–not that it will become like this on the tour any time soon, but to have it during the off-season is great for the fans.  For myself, I really enjoyed it: stadiums were packed, the atmosphere was amazing, and I had very tough matches–interesting to play at such a high level [during a break].
AM: Caroline Wozniacki was the other woman on your team, but since she wasn’t there as much, you had to step up. Some of those match-ups could have been quarter-finals at a major tournament. KM: Definitely. My teammates were making fun of me, saying “You are the MVP!” Obviously, there was a lot of expectation and pressure, as you had to try to bring as many games as possible to your team.  I think I responded pretty well.  I loved it and felt good playing, so I can’t wait to have some more fun again this year.
AM: You’ve been on tennis fans’ radars for a while and won your first major doubles title in 2013. Now that you’re in the top 40 for singles, do you feel like it’s taken longer or about what you expected to get here?
KM: I was also #35 about two years ago, my best ranking, so I’m coming back.  You know, everyone has their own story, their own way, their own process–you never know. For some, it goes easily and they stay at the top; for others, it’s up and down; some arrive to the top 10 and then they’re struggling.  There’s not really one key to success.  The only thing I can request from myself is to work hard every day, to know where I’m going and what I have to improve. Once I do this, I can do more.  I’m happy just trying to do my best–I’m not worried about the time it’s taking; I’m just trying to enjoy every win.  And think that’s the best way to improve.
AM: You experimented short-term with a couple of Serbian coaches, Dušan Vemić and Nemanja Kontić, but that didn’t work out. What’s your coaching arrangement now?
KM: Since February, I don’t have a coach.  And, actually, I think it’s working pretty well so far.  Those two experiences didn’t work out very well–I didn’t feel myself in that kind of structure.  So, I decided to go on my own. Of course, I’ve always had my family support around me.  They’re not annoying, pushing, and trying to advise too much in tennis–they can advise about other stuff. They would never say, “You have to do forehands like this.”  That’s why they’re really cool and bring me a lot of support about the important things in my life.  Right now, I think I’m handling it pretty well–I know what I have to do to improve, so I’m just doing it on my own.  I don’t pretend I can reach my goals alone, and the situation is pretty open–I can always find someone, but it has to be a good fit.
AM: Do you set goals for the season–and is it about ranking or more specific things?
KM: When you’re at this level, you really have to think about stuff like that–it’s what pushes you to be better.  Of course, I have technical goals–I have to improve this and that, my fitness, my forehand, my backhand–but you also try to put yourself ahead in the ranking.  So far, I’m pleased with what I’ve achieved.  For next year, I think it would be nice to be a seed [in the top 32], because I’ve been playing a lot of seeds in the first round!
AM: Getting a former US Open champion is a tough draw.  What does the win over Kuznetsova (6-3, 7-5) tell you about your current form?
KM: Yeah, when the draw came out I saw it would be difficult. I respect Svetlana a lot–she’s a two-time Slam champion and really a tough player with a huge career.  On the court, I had to play great, a very solid match, to beat her and it’s definitely one more very nice win for me. I’m definitely pleased–every first round in a Slam is very difficult to win. This is what’s amazing in women’s tennis today: everybody has improved a lot & I feel like every player can be dangerous.  I’m trying now to focus on each match, even if it’s not such a famous name.  I’m a humble person and respect every opponent–anybody can be tough and play great tennis, especially for one match.
After her 7-5, 6-1 win over Bojana Jovanovski, we followed up with some routine post-match questions.
AM: How did you feel about the match today?
KM: The score definitely made it look easy, but it was actually a really tricky match, as I expected.  I was down 4-2, almost 5-2 in the first set and I somehow fought really hard and turned it around.  I don’t think either of us played our best–it’s never easy when you know each other really well.  We’ve practiced together many times–and we’ve known each other since we started tennis.  A funny story, actually, is that I played Bojana in my very first tournament–in Serbia, when I was in holidays with my parents, around 7 years old.  When you know somebody really well, sometimes you try to change the way you play to surprise her somehow. So, with this kind of match, I’m just really glad to get through.
AM: Are you feeling lucky that instead of facing Sharapova in the third round, you’re getting an unknown 18-year old, Daria Kasatkina?
KM: Well, it’s true that it’s an unknown name and I don’t know much about her either, but it’s tough to say.  Instead of Maria, I could be playing Gavrilova, who’s beaten her in the past.  So, Maria was the higher rank and the best player in this part of the draw.  But this girl has an unbelievable story–she’s supposed to be out of the tournament already and now she’s won two interesting matches against solid players and two completely different styles of game, which means she must be pretty talented and solid mentally as well. She’s stayed composed and got two wins in what may be her first main draw of a major–that’s pretty amazing. So, I’m actually expecting a tough match.
With Maria, you don’t have anything to lose and you know her game perfectly well through watching and playing against her.  You know how to play and she has all the pressure–plus, I have the game.  This way, it looks much easier on paper and I have more experience; on the other hand, you don’t know anything about the opponent and it’s an important match, which can be dangerous.
~Interview conducted by Ana Mitrić and translated by Saša Ozmo.

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].

“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.

~

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.

Interview with Chris Bowers about The Sporting Statesman

“Why this book?”: an interview with Chris Bowers about The Sporting Statesman: Novak Djokovic and the Rise of Serbia.  Originally published by Nicole Lucas in Letter&Geest, a Saturday supplement of Dutch daily Trouw (8 Nov. 2014, page 31).

“I had previously written a book about Roger Federer and my publisher also wanted a biography of Novak Djokovic.  At first I said ‘no.’  Djokovic told me he didn’t have time to work with me and therefore I didn’t really feel like doing it.  But my publisher insisted.  Then I said: ‘I want to write a book that is a mix of Djokovic’s history and that of Serbia.’  After all, this is a top athlete who carries the flag of a country that is still young as a sovereign state but has to deal with a heavy inheritance because of the wars of the nineties and rulings of the ICTY, which has marked Serbia as the biggest culprit.  A country that, according to me, is still little understood by the western world.

It brought together my interests. Of course, I am, in the first place, a sports journalist: I’ve been reporting about the international tennis world for more than 20 years.  But I’m also interested in the broader context.  I do not see sport as an isolated phenomenon.  And the disintegration of Yugoslavia made a huge impression on me, much more than the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

Every country has something of which it is not proud.  Let’s not pretend that Serbia has done nothing.  But let’s also not pretend that the Serbs were the only villains.  But Djokovic had to grow up with that stamp—and had to find his way in difficult circumstances.  That is of course quite different from what Federer had to deal with.

While I have not spoken extensively with Djokovic, I did talk with many people from his surroundings.  Perhaps the most important conversation I had was with Jelena Gencic, his first coach—a very special woman.  For me, that was also one of the most inspiring encounters of my journalistic career.  We started talking about music and there was an instant bond.  She didn’t only teach Novak how to play tennis but also to look outside that small world—to Beethoven, to Pushkin, to Nikola Tesla, the Serbian inventor of the alternating current motor.  How do they enrich your life?  Gencic died on June 1, 2013, during Roland Garros.  I had only met her twice, but her death made me really sad.

I found it much more difficult to write about Srdjan, Novak’s father.  Quite a few people have had problems with him.  Unlike his son, he has not exactly endeared people to him.  Yet, I think it’s important to explain the difficulties he had to go through.  You can say now that it was not always ethical what he did: he insisted, for instance, that journalists wrote only nice stories about Novak, no critical pieces.  But at the beginning of this century, maybe there was not always so much room to be ethical in Serbia.

Novak needed time to break away from his father and to develop himself.  He is not easy to fathom, but inside he is a good man.  What he does is very subtle.  He laughs, jokes, makes contact.  People look at him and say, ‘Nice boy.  Where does he come from?  Serbia?  Then they can’t be all bad there.’

In that sense, he and Federer are quite similar.  Both are not only great athletes, but also international idols that transcend the boundaries of their sport and their country. ”

~

Translation by Nicole Lucas.  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.