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