By Scott Barclay and Owen Lewis
The thick brown canned coffee stains the sides of the glass, bubbling up slightly.
It’s an unfamiliar drink for Owen but in his defence, it is 4.15am for him and he’s only just about awake. He’s also nervous, as is Scott, his partner and co-interviewer in this, the first of hopefully many attempts at a professional sit-down chit-chat with someone who works in tennis. The time zone difference means that for Scott, it’s a much more reasonable time of 9:15am. Despite this, however, he still looks as though he’s just rolled out of bed, hair tangled at all angles, unshowered and unshaved…
Our worries are very quickly put at ease with the arrival of the man we’re speaking with today.
Saša Ozmo joins our call and through initial patchy connection issues, warmly introduces himself as he finds a quiet spot to speak to us from. His words have the air of someone who’s been looking forward to this, a talk with two relative newbies trying to find their way in the complex world that is tennis media. Despite the fact that he undoubtedly has a lot on his journalistic schedule currently, Ozmo takes his time with us, asking us questions about ourselves and informing us that he’s already visited the Popcorn Tennis homepage and has enjoyed the pieces that he’s been able to read there.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Ozmo’s work, he’s a successful Serbian sports journalist. Having been fascinated with sporting coverage since he was a teenager, he worked at the B92 Serbian broadcasting company for over 10 years, before going on to find a home writing for Sportklub, a popular subscription channel that began back in 2006 and is currently available in an array of different countries. Alongside this, he also keeps a blog updated with more analytical writing, predominantly in the realms of basketball and tennis.
In short, he has experience that we’re more than interested in hearing about.
Ozmo’s tennis fandom began in childhood. He describes a move from Belgrade to Cardiff during the NATO bombings when he was a kid, where he would watch Eurosport’s coverage of Roland-Garros and sometimes Wimbledon. “I used to plead with my aunt to not go to school, to watch tennis,” he laughs.
What’s the best match he’s ever seen start to finish? “Djokovic-Nadal, Australian Open final 2012,” he says. The match in question is a five-hour, 53-minute package of draining rallies in which Djokovic and Nadal pushed the boundaries of what was previously thought physically possible on a tennis court. The final ended when Djokovic banged a big serve down the T (in a last lovely bit of parallelism, Nadal’s return landed short in almost the exact same spot on Djokovic’s ad side service box), then put away an inside-out forehand winner.
“Such a crazy day for Serbian sport,” he goes on. “The Serbian water polo team played the finals of a big tournament that day. And our handball team was playing the finals of the European championship, which was here in Belgrade. And I actually had tickets to go to the finals, but I was so exhausted after Djokovic-Nadal that I watched it on TV and gave my ticket to a friend. It was like I was playing for six hours.” Ozmo can hardly be blamed for his exhaustion. The rallies were so grueling that at 4-all in the fifth, Djokovic crumpled to the ground after losing a 31-shot exchange, and a few minutes later, he sent a rocket return at Nadal’s feet, who was too exhausted to get out of the way and simply volleyed the ball back from the baseline. That point devolved into a 19-shot rally, after which Nadal hunched over from a leg cramp. The match was surreal, and is a more-than-worthy choice for the best one has ever seen.
Both Scott and Owen have aspirations to be sports journalists, and Ozmo is a perfect person to ask about everything from his career to advice on writing. Ozmo has written a book in Serbian called Sport Journalism. “The idea first came to my mind when my professor of Political Sciences in Belgrade invited me to hold a lecture for her students,” he remembers. “So the first time I did it, I went there unprepared, y’know, told some anecdotes and blah, blah, and it was fun for them but I did not think in the end that it was very useful. And so the second time that they invited me, I thought ‘OK, let’s do this properly.’ And so I sat and made a presentation and that turned out to be a blueprint for the book.”
We saw an opening in this line of conversation to ask whether he can give us any advice. It would have been very easy for him to tell us to go and buy his book to get the inside scoop but Ozmo isn’t like that. Just the opposite, in fact. “Yeah, I can, of course,” he says. “But it’s a bit longer, we can do this Zoom some other time to talk closely about journalism.” Rather than leaving it there, he goes on to expand and offer some valuable insight.
“One thing that worked quite well for me, which I note because I do a lot of mentorship as well, in the two newsrooms I’ve been to during my career, usually every time a new kid comes, they’re all ‘just give him to Saša.’” Ozmo clearly has instincts as a mentor that run deep.
“I’ve seen they don’t take criticism too well. At least that’s what it’s like in Serbia. So in my book, before journalism, you need to be open to constructive criticism. Because I know for myself, if I haven’t listened to two people’s advice to me in regards to what I was doing wrong, I mean…They helped me so much. So sometimes I try to pass on that knowledge and it does not get the same reception and that’s the key.”
It is the consistent desire to better oneself that Ozmo underlines as the most important element when looking to kickstart ANY career path, not just one within journalistic circles. He wraps up this section of the interview by reiterating his offer from earlier, entirely unprompted, to speak with us in greater detail at some point in the future to help us further.
A big aspect of Ozmo’s job is to cover Novak Djokovic. He’s the world number one, a 20-time major champion, and the best Serbian athlete of all time.
Djokovic’s rise and continued success inadvertently helped Serbian journalists such as Ozmo to be able to pursue their passion for tennis as a full-time career. “I love doing what I do for a living and thanks to Djokovic, I am able to travel so I’m really, really grateful to him.” Ozmo takes a moment and smiles before going on. “I know he didn’t really do it to help me, you know, but he did, he helped me along with many others because without him, we are not such a wealthy country… He helped me achieve my dreams and without him, I do not believe that I would be travelling, especially not to Australia. Maybe some other places, like France or London which are closer, but not Australia.”
Naturally, much of Ozmo’s tennis coverage centers around Djokovic. And naturally, we were deliriously excited to not just be one degree of separation from the world number one, but to be able to talk to someone zero degrees away. Ozmo remembers his first interaction with Djokovic well. “My first one-on-one interview with him was Roland-Garros 2015, after his second-round match. It was quite a big deal for me back then because that was my first tournament that I covered on site…it was very important for the rest of my career to cover on site. So we arranged that interview. It took a while. His PRs told me ‘we have ten minutes,’ and we ended up talking for 22. It was a great interview; I’m proud of that interview.”
The interview helped propel Ozmo’s career upwards. “I don’t have those butterflies and stuff like that, but it meant a lot. Before the interview, I told him ‘this is like a Grand Slam final to me,’ and he laughed and said ‘don’t worry, it will be okay.’ So we spoke for 22 minutes and it was a huge boom in Serbia and the international media took parts of the interview and it was a sort of beginning for me.” Ozmo is equally generous with his time, talking to us well beyond his initially outlined time frame of half an hour.
As a result of his numerous interviews with Djokovic over the years, tennis fans have frequently asked Ozmo to pass along their messages of support. “We are not buddies. We have a really good professional relationship,” Ozmo clarifies, laughing. Journalism is often a profession of objectivity.
For years, Djokovic has been under fire by media outlets, sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly. His treatment by the press has become such a debated topic on Twitter that we knew we wanted to get Ozmo’s expertise on the subject.
“I don’t want to generalize,” Ozmo says, “because there is a lot of fair treatment of Djokovic, and I think some of his fans on Twitter don’t realize that…I have a lot of friends in the Western media, and they do write really great articles.”
“But in some parts of the media, there is this portrayal that goes on, that they always pinpoint the negatives, and they put the positives in the second plan…with Federer, and mostly with Nadal, it’s the other way around.”
“Of course he’s not flawless, he’s made a bunch of errors,” he tells us, making it clear that despite Djokovic helping his career, Ozmo is aware of his imperfections. That doesn’t mean he thinks Djokovic is always done justice by the media, however. “Sometimes I do feel it’s unfair. For example, sportsmanship award: he never gets nominated. Nadal gets the award, he did not play for half of the year.”
“As far as the relationship with the fans, and I’ve been to many tournaments, and believe me, I know how some players behave when the camera is turned off. And I know how Novak behaves when the camera is turned off.” Ozmo leaves this quote open ended but it’s very easy to read between the lines here. It’s no secret that Djokovic makes time for his fans and many players reportedly don’t make the same level of effort.
Worst, though, are when media outlets tell outright falsehoods in an effort to smear Djokovic. “In some examples,” Ozmo says, “there are some blatant lies as well. That ‘pressure is a privilege’ quote that went viral…some people apologized afterwards, but in the world that we live in with social networks and everything, it’s a bit too late. You have to be more responsible, especially when it’s such a touchy topic.” His answer brings to mind Erica Albright’s quote from the 2010 film The Social Network — “the Internet’s not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink.”
“Just to conclude, I really don’t think this matters so much. And the fan sport, o-kay. Obviously Novak has millions of fans around the world. But if he does not get crowd support in the stadium, it does not matter. He’s won a million times against the crowd support, and then the crowd supports him against Medvedev and he loses, three-love in the finals. At the end of the day, who cares, you know?” And as for wanting to be liked, as so many claim about Djokovic, as if it is a negative characteristic: “Sometimes people in Serbia say ‘why do you care, why do you give a fuck? You can be like Ivan Lendl.’ But he’s not that kind of personality. He wants to be liked. I mean, I want to be liked, everyone wants to be liked.” We can attest to all of this, but especially that last bit…
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“But the good thing is, he stopped caring, I think,” Ozmo concludes. “In the early stages of his career, it bothered him a lot more.” It’s here that Saša finishes his answer, but we can tell that if he wanted to, he could easily go on.
Ozmo’s job extends far beyond covering Djokovic. “There are different aspects of the job. Most of the people see when I’m on-site, covering tournaments, but that’s not the high percentage of my job. Most of the time I’m just sitting at my computer typing news, doing interviews, and writing blogs — I’m not complaining, I love doing that — but when you’re on site, that’s a completely different story, and the reason why I pursued this line of work since I was in high school.”
“My favorite part of my job is the first few days of Grand Slams, especially the first two rounds, because it’s so crazy. If Djokovic is not playing, I’m always on the outer courts and never on the biggest courts. I have to of course watch Djokovic because of my work, but if not for that I would always be on the outer courts for the first few rounds. That’s the greatest experience one can have at slams. And when someone asks me ‘when should I come?’ I always say ‘the first few days, and don’t even bother buying the ticket for the biggest stadium.’”
Ozmo specifies that watching players yet to reach the spotlight allows spectators to hear every bit of the action, including the athletes’ mannerisms. “I remember watching Shapovalov vs. Tsitsipas in the junior semis, and it’s a pretty cool thing, watching those players when no one’s basically heard of them.”
“In Paris, I watched Kecmanovic, who’s a Serbian guy, playing Shapovalov in the semis of Roland-Garros. I watched Felix in New York, all when they were juniors.”
Ozmo has familiarized himself with all levels of tennis, always being open to watching and learning from matches that aren’t the most publicized. “I must say, I was pleasantly surprised at how much wheelchair tennis can be interesting,” he tells us. “It’s amazing the skill those guys have, and the strength of their arms…I mean, the guy hits the ball harder than me. It’s crazy. It demands so much skill…when people ask me what to see, I tell them ‘go at least see a set of wheelchair tennis if you have time.’”
Djokovic has received some blowback for his lack of transparency over his vaccination status in the run-up to the 2022 edition of the Australian Open, the first Major tournament to introduce a vaccine mandate for players.
To bring things to a close, we return to Djokovic, asking Ozmo his thoughts about the world number one keeping his vaccination status to himself until as close to the Australian as possible. Ozmo’s answer is immediate and concise: “My thought is that I want him to reveal his decision as soon as possible so that I know if I should apply for a VISA or not.”
We all laugh. Ozmo has more at stake in Djokovic’s decision than most of the rest of us.