When did tennis's superstars get so boring?
AP Images, Reuters
Welcome to a new feature on The Atlantic's Entertainment channel: Every week, a panel of sports fans will discuss a topic of the moment. For the inaugural conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin) talk about the blandness of tennis's current superstars.
Once upon a time in tennis, Richard Williams proclaimed that Martina Hingis was too short to compete. He then suggested that the relatively diminutive Swiss star address him as "Master" and visit him in Compton, where a friend who "when he's not high, he's a surgeon" could "saw off [Hingis'] legs and attach new legs that are a couple of inches taller."
Of course, that was then.
This week at Wimbledon, Williams reacted to the same-day upset losses of daughters Venus and Serena by chiding their technique. He was measured, reasonable, and, well, kind of bland. Much like the current state of his sport. Long the province of overwrought, immature, catty, bratty, deeply odd and downright maladjusted personalities—exhibit A: John McEnroe, SuperBrat; exhibit B: every crazy tennis dad ever—tennis has become a world of mostly polite, seemingly well-adjusted, color-inside-the-lines competitors.
I'm not sure this is a good thing.
Take Roger Federer. He travels with his family. He radiates calm. His rivalry with Rafa Nadal is respectful and collegial. His next made-for-televised-shouting controversy will be his first. Federer's on-court brilliance is matched by off-court ordinariness, driving sportswriters to increasingly dizzy, oxygen-deprived metaphorical heights in order to say something interesting. After all, he's no tortured genius, like McEnroe; no soul-searching seeker, a la Andre Agassi; no stripper-chasing reality TV washout along the lines of Mark Philippoussis. He's basically the guy you want running your neighborhood association, the face of a sport following suit—and when casual sports fans complain that tennis lacks "personalities," I'm afraid that the disappearance of tantrums, smashed rackets, soap opera frothiness, and the psychological dysfunction that once accompanied greatness is what's turning them off.
Am I foot-faulting here?