It’s a long-running belief among many (maybe not most, but certainly many) in the tennis community that the sport — in order to break through various layers of disinterest on the part of more casual fans — needs more “personality” among its players.
Well, this weekend at Roland Garros, plenty of personality will be on display… but will you see American sports fans tune in to NBC or Tennis Channel to watch some of the more colorful figures in tennis? Here’s a link-filled look at an issue that, while owning a measure of merit in the tennis world, is not talked about with the depth or specificity that can create a more enriching conversation.
PERSONALITY: IT EXISTS, BUT NOT IN THE WAYS MANY WOULD LIKE
On Saturday, one of the genuinely epic matches in Roland Garros’s recent history (“epic” is a word that gets overused in sports discussions these days, but it applied in this case) will be recalled as Fabio Fognini plays Gael Monfils in the third round. What the two men did in 2010 gave a large splash of color to the tournament, and tennis diehards remember the moment fondly. However, when the discussion comes up about the “lack of personality” in tennis, is the casual sports fan in the United States captured by such a memory?
Why use words when pictures and videos suffice? Very simply, Fabio Fognini and Gael Monfils are — in their own ways — crazy.
Here’s just one of many vintage Fognini moments:
His opponent on Saturday, Gael Monfils, is also insane in the brain… but not as a jerk. Monfils is actually charming, but when it comes to in-match decision making, he exhibits that disastrously French propensity to be a showman rather than a winner. His main goal in tennis seems to be to put his body at risk, all in the pursuit of good entertainment, as was seen just the other day at this very same Roland Garros tournament.
Here are some of Monfils’s greatest hits:
Personality? Flair? Color? These guys have it in spades.
And then there’s Ernests Gulbis, who will face none other than Roger Federer in a highly intriguing fourth-round match on Sunday afternoon in Paris (probably around 9 a.m. Eastern time when the order of play is announced, give or take an hour).
Gulbis oozes personality. Like Fognini, he will melt down on the court from time to time. He’s actually been an even more untamed soul than Fognini, when combining his off-court life with his on-court displays. Moreover, and perhaps most relevant to this discussion, Gulbis himself buys into the notion that the top male tennis pros in this glorious era for the ATP Tour are much too bland. He’s said so, and it caused quite a stir at the time. Gulbis will say incendiary things in the press, and while a fresh quote from Friday — after his third-round win over Radek Stepanek — has created a fresh mini-controversy, that quote could have been so much worse.
You should get the picture: Tennis does not lack personality. What’s really being implied here — this is where (and how) the conversation has lost focus over the years — is that the winners on both tours should have personality. The champions of the sport should hate each other! The semifinals and finals of major tournaments should be nasty grudge matches filled with venom and mutual dislike. The fans of the top players frequently get enmeshed in “Twitter wars,” but the players? They genuinely respect each other. Federer isn’t buddy-buddy with Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray, but none of the relationships among that quartet (including Rafael Nadal) are anything like the McEnroe-Connors-Lendl trio that stirred things up in the early 1980s.
It just so happens that having a fiery or eccentric identity is neither a guarantee of competitive success nor a gateway toward the successful harnessing of one’s talents. McEnroe, Connors and Lendl managed to use either anger (McEnroe) or an internally combative posture toward tennis (Connors and Lendl) to succeed, but they were rare birds in tennis history. Moreover, they flourished in an age before social media and nonstop online coverage of all things tennis.
Would it be nice if top athletes spoke their minds more often yet managed to be articulate and well-versed in all the major issues of the day, such that they would never embarrass themselves in public the way the Ernests Gublises of the world manage to do? Sure.
However, is it reasonable to expect athletes to be, in essence, dazzling politicians who have all the right answers to all sorts of non-sports questions about culture, gender roles, world crises in various continents, and the like?
It’s hard enough to be a champion tennis player with an explosive personality and a tendency to dump a lot of emotional energy on court. Expecting off-court entertainment, or perhaps more precisely, any form of entertainment not strictly related to the quality of one’s shots, is just not realistic. Moreover, it misses the point of tennis, a sport in which top-level success is based precisely on the ability to rein in one’s emotions when it matters. McEnroe, Connors and Lendl all did that, but much as no one should ever be expected to be the next Jordan, the next Gretzky, or the next Greg Maddux, we shouldn’t expect today’s tennis stars to have to be like “the good ol’ days.”
Personality and color exist throughout the tennis world, on both tours and at various levels of competition. It’s just that the champions aren’t the headcases or the volcanic figures fans of older generations came to love. Winning tennis is generally built on a foundation of self-mastery, not the complete loss of inhibitions. If you want to see personality in tennis, you’ll get it this weekend; you just probably won’t get it the following weekend, when the singles semifinals and finals are contested.
That might not be good enough for the casual American sports fan.
So? What’s the point?
Simply this: It ought to be.