It has been an intriguing ten months on the ATP Tour. New major champions arrived, and top 10 shake ups abounded as some of the more familiar names didn’t always pop up in latter stages of tournaments like usual. But as the year draws to its close, the Elite Eight of men’s tennis (Rafael Nadal excluded) find themselves in London for the sixth time in succession, with world No. 1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic leading the way. The Serb is fresh off of his sixth title of the season, having won a second straight Paris Masters trophy.
This time last year, the reigning Wimbledon champion faced off Roger Federer in his first round robin match on the spotlighted courts of the O2 arena and won the encounter 6-4 6-7(2) 6-2. But more so than the match itself, it was Djokovic’s post-match press conference that made headlines.
Earlier that day, Viktor Troicki’s 18-month ban from the tour had been reduced to 12 months, a decision that came less than two weeks after future US Open winner Marin Cilic saw his ban shortened from nine months to four. Djokovic has always been very good friends with his fellow Davis Cup team mates; Troicki and Janko Tipsarevic attended his wedding this summer. During that fateful press conference just over a year ago, a member of the media asked the top seed for a reaction to Troicki’s reduced ban. And a reaction is exactly what the assembled press received.
Djokovic reached for a piece of paper he had prepared in advance, having anticipated a level of intrigue surrounding his take on the saga that had unfolded over the course of 2013. In a fairly lengthy and long-winded answer, Djokovic addressed the issue; he started out by explaining his own involvement in Troicki’s case, with segue into his issues with the current anti-doping system:
DJOKOVIC: But I think it’s just not bad news for him, it proves again that this system of WADA and anti‑doping agency does not work. Why am I saying that? Because, first of all, as a tennis pro, our job is to play, of course, tennis and respect all the rules and know all the rules of our sport.
But when you are randomly selected to go and provide the test, blood test or urine test, the representatives of WADA, anti‑doping agency who are there in the tournament, are supposed to give you the clear indications and explain you the rules and regulations and what the severe consequences or penalties that you might undertake or you might have if you fail to provide the test.
The representative, she didn’t do that in his case.
Djokovic’s opening volley was a head-scratcher; since his understanding of ”all the rules” sounded as though it didn’t include a detailed knowledge of anti-doping procedures, which are inherent features to the rules of any sport. Every driver who ends up facing a roadside breath test can probably deduce that denying a sample will have its drawbacks – regardless of whether they have been informed of their rights in advance or not. The same goes for an athlete when it comes to a doping test.
The Serb continued to come to his compatriot’s defense and explained that, since Troicki struggled with fear of needles and his well-being after blood tests in the past, he had allegedly asked the WADA representative whether it was possible to delay the test:
DJOKOVIC: She did not clearly present him all the severe consequences that he will have if he avoids (the test). She told him that he needs to write a report and that he will be just fine. And because of her negligence and because of her unprofessionalism, he is now off the tour for one year. And now it makes me nervous as a player, you know, to do any kind of test.[…..]
I don’t have trust in them anymore. I don’t have trust what’s going on. I don’t know if tomorrow the representative, the DCOs who are representatives of International Doping Tests & Management [IDTM] and WADA there at the tournaments, because of their unprofessionalism, because of their negligence, because of (their) unability to explain the rules in a proper way, I don’t know if they’re going to misplace the test that I have or anything worse than that.
While Djokovic admitted that “it’s [..] (not) completely not his [NB: Troicki’s] fault,” his statements drifted into finger-pointing and paranoia not long after. It is without doubt that Troicki’s ban had been riddled with “negligence and unprofessionalism” – but at least as much on his side as on the WADA employee’s. To this day it’s still hard to believe Troicki’s own carelessness, that he didn’t ask for an ATP staff member to witness and record whatever predicament he was in that made him request a delay.
The seven-time Grand Slam champion went on to talk about his exchange with Marin Cilic, who had returned to competition at the BNP Paribas Masters the previous week, and drew his own conclusions about the Croat’s ban:
Actually I talked with [Cilic] last week. It was proven in the end, because they found apparently something that he was positive on, the banned substance, then in the end it turns out they didn’t find it in the blood.
So what happened? Who is going to be responsible for that? Whose duty is going to be that he lost four or five months of points, money, everything. That is his job, that is his life. Who is going to be answering for that?
Now in Viktor’s case, he’s going to be sanctioned until July next year, and this lady, the DCO, the representative that was there that day, she’s going to come back tomorrow for the job. Nobody is going to answer for that. Only him. Why?
Understandable as Djokovic’s support for his childhood friend might’ve been, it was equally frustrating to see a World No. 1 slam both WADA and IDTM in one swift move. The Serb questioned these organizations along with the International Anti-Doping Tribunal, and insinuated that they were all out to get players on the ATP and WTA; it is, in fact, the opposite. All three institutions provide a crucial service to the tennis community; they try to ensure the sport is as clean as possible in the hopes of guaranteeing an even playing field. To hear Djokovic explain things would lead one to believe there was a massive conspiracy occurring behind closed doors.
There is nothing wrong with a high-profile player raising questions to do with the current methods of drug testing or even openly criticizing a lack of cooperation between the ATP, players, tournaments, and anti-doping agencies. Yet in Djokovic’s case, this sermon was a fairly uncharacteristic misstep by a player who is usually very good with the media.
It is a natural, human reaction for the Serb to have felt passionate in this case, particularly if he thought someone close to him has been wronged. But such passion ultimately made him an incredible advocate for an issue about which he couldn’t possibly remain objective. Djokovic largely turned a blind eye to how careless both Troicki and Cilic were in their respective run-ins with the anti doping agencies, and chose to put most of the blame on the agencies themselves. In hindsight, the Serb probably would’ve done himself a favor by declining to comment post-match and instead releasing a statement after the World Tour Finals rather than rushing to react.
The question remains: Have the tours – and, most importantly the players – taken anything away from these two high-profile cases? Both players received vocal support from peers like Djokovic as well as more critical reactions from other players like Andy Murray, but there has been fairly little talk about an increase in talking about the matter at large. Is there a stronger urge to ensure athletes are educated about the drug test “do’s and don’ts?” Many players grew up in countries with strict national drug testing programs and are more familiar with the procedures years before they turn pro. However, it would be folly to presume all national tennis organizations provide the same fundamental training and knowledge. This is the point where the ATP, WTA, and ITF ought to provide information and education of their own. Future communication between all parties should not follow in the footsteps of the Troicki case.
Since Djokovic gave his harangue about the anti-doping agencies’ work and the ATP’s inaction 12 months ago, Cilic went on to win the US Open and Troicki has nearly worked his way back into the Top 100. It should be interesting to hear what the World No. 1 and most recent major champion have to say on the matter one year on. Do they feel there have been attempts to make improvements? Have there been further conversations between players, ATP, ITF and WADA?
This is where the members of the media gathered in London are welcome to pick up on the Serb’s comments from this time last year. As misguided as some of his points may have been, Djokovic’s press conference on November 5th, 2013 laid open a wide array of miscommunication when it comes to drug testing between all parties involved. It would be good to know that efforts have been expended to ensure there won’t be such ambiguity in the future.
The entire press conference can be seen on the Barclay’s ATP World Tour Finals’ website as well as in the embed below.