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Australian Open Diary: The Troicki road to redemption

The sun is blazing down on Court 8. Mid-afternoon is the toughest time of day for both players and spectators, with temperatures in the high thirties, and very little shade for respite. Viktor Troicki does not seem to mind though. Wearing dark glasses and a white cap, he looks cool as he goes about business in his second round encounter against Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer.

SENIOR ANALYST
Editor's Pick 21 Jan 2015, 15:37 IST
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Viktor Troicki

Tough ban in 2013

The sun is blazing down on Court 8. Mid-afternoon is the toughest time of day for both players and spectators, with temperatures in the high thirties, and very little shade for respite. Viktor Troicki does not seem to mind though. Wearing dark glasses and a white cap, he looks cool as he goes about business in his second round encounter against Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer. The Argentine is the seeded player among the two, at number 26. But that would be hard to tell, given the players’ body language. Troicki is bounding around the court, serving strongly, and returning every shot with interest. He bends low and forward to send the ball curling away into the forecourt and out of Mayer’s reach, to break in the first set.

In mid-2013, Troicki’s tennis career was thrown into turmoil. He was handed an 18-month ban for refusing to provide a blood sample for a doping test at Monte Carlo. Troicki blamed the incident on his phobia of needles and the false assurances provided to him by the ITF drug official. Troicki felt he had been wronged, and had been handed an unjust sentence. “I took it really hard. When you feel innocent — and I know I’m innocent — it hurts you, you know? You’re being punished for something you didn’t do.”

Mayer is beginning to make his presence felt in the match. His looping single-handed backhands begin to find the mark. Troicki continues to be his expressive self. His attempt at a winner misses the baseline by inches. He gestures to his team on how close it was, and has an animated discussion with them. Mayer proceeds to close the second set. The match is now tied at a set apiece.

Troicki appealed his ban. He received a mixed reaction from the tennis community. While some supported him, others felt he had been negligent in his approach. His strongest backing came from fellow Serb and good friend, Novak Djokovic, who was vocal in his support throughout. Upon arbitration, Troicki’s ban was reduced to a year. His time in exile proved to be a period of frustration, and also preparation. “I knew I wanted to come back to be even better than I was, and I really worked hard. I really was pumped and ready for the start of, let’s say, my second career.”

Crowd support for the Serb

The crowd on Court 8 are very aware of Troicki’s personal story here at the Australian Open. There are constant cheers of encouragement. A middle-aged Australian has planted himself in the second row under the scorching sun for the duration of the match, determined to see his adopted favourite through. He punctuates every point Troicki wins with a cry of “Let’s go, Vik!” Troicki complies by shifting gears in the third set. He remains far behind the baseline, but continues to send deep balls which Mayer finds tough to handle. A final backhand crosscourt winner seals the third set for Troicki. His local fan in the crowds is on his feet. “Just one more set, Vik!”

Successful return to competitive tennis

Troicki returned to competition in July last year. His prolonged absence from the tour had resulted in his ranking dropping all the way down to 847. He was now forced to compete in challengers and work through qualifying rounds of major events. But he was prepared for the tough grind and the long road back to the top. Troicki’s 2015 began in impressive fashion at the Sydney ATP 250 event, where he won only his second ATP tour title, and his first since his comeback. The fact that he won the tournament after battling through qualifying only made the victory more special. “When you step on a court, and you’re playing some guy, you just feel stronger. I did a lot of fitness, and I just feel stronger. All of the comeback was pretty good successful, so that’s a good thing.”

Troicki is pulling away from Mayer now. He is operating increasingly like a well-oiled machine, gliding across the court with his smooth, compact strokes. Mayer, on the other hand, is looking increasingly defeated – by the sun, the opponent, the occasion. His unforced error count mounts, and he quickly falls behind in the fourth set. Troicki is now dishing out some outrageous shots, as he speeds his way to a bagel in the set. As the final tired shot from Mayer lands long, the match is Troicki’s 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0. He exults, looks at his team, and strikes a pose, flexing both his arms like a bodybuilding contestant. Troicki is moving from strength to strength.

Troicki inspired by Cilic’s comeback

Troicki’s tale makes for interesting comparison with another recent comeback story – Marin Cilic’s extraordinary return to the tour after serving a ban for a doping violation. Troicki admits the Croat’s success served to influence and inspire him. “I saw a lot of things from him, and it gave me a lot of motivation also. So I knew if he did it, why not me? It definitely pushed me a lot.” Given how Cilic capped off his return with a magical win at last year’s US Open, dare we expect something similar from Troicki now?

Living his dream

Troicki himself is not thinking too far ahead for now, and remains focused only on his next match. He does realize though, that his ranking has now moved back up to No. 54, only one spot lower than where he was when the ban came into effect. How much further he can go will depend largely on his desire for the competition and his desire to win. “Ever since I was a kid, it was a dream to be playing tennis and to be a professional tennis player. Over the years, maybe I just got used to it and I forgot about that dream. And after I got suspended I had some time to think about everything. When you don’t have something that you really love, you start missing it and you want to get back and be even better. That’s what pushed me to be better, and to work even harder, and that’s why I’m enjoying it more on the court.”

That enjoyment showed today. Hopefully, it will continue to be in abundance in his toughest test yet in the next match, against Thomas Berdych, the seventh seed. As followers of the comeback kid’s journey, that is all we hope for.

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