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?
I'd call it a minor foot-fault—a Serena Williams-at the-U.S. Open foot-fault, if you will (minus the explosive reaction). Tennis is void of aggressive and eccentric personalities at the moment, especially now that Novak Djokovic has calmed down, cut out gluten, and risen to within a hair's breadth of the No. 1 ranking. And Federer and Nadal, the current kings of tennis, have led relatively pedestrian lives for global celebrities of their stature.
But the casual sports fans you mentioned are no doubt domestic, and U.S. fans are down on the game because American tennis is at its lowest point in 50 years, especially on the men's side. If Ryan Harrison becomes a perennial Grand Slam contender or Andy Roddick or Mardy Fish can turn back Father Time to win a couple Slams, the griping about tennis lacking personalities will become a barely audible grumble.
As for the boring nature of tennis stars, I blame Pete Sampras. The GOATBF (Greatest Of All Time Before Federer) has about as much personality as an octogenarian line judge. Between his vacant on-court stare and his low-grade voice immodulation, Sampras took the fun out of each of his 14 Grand Slam titles and spawned a generation of listless, uber-talented tennis drones.
Hampton, care to weigh in?
Wait. Patrick thinks fans are turned off by dull athletes. Jake thinks the problem isn't dull players per se, just that the bores aren't American. As a wise man once said "You cannot be serious!"
Puh-lease. Every fan of a second-tier sport in this country trots out the old "Americans-only-like-sports-we-win" excuse. It's weak. Let me guess: Tennis just needs, wait for it, a Tiger Woods. With a dynamic American performer TV ratings would surely soar, right? You mean the way swimming took off after Michael Phelps? Both of you are saying, in essence, blame the fan. And you both seem to put the cart before the horse. Or, rather, the volley before the serve. At least you would, if volleys still existed.
Patrick was so right when he noted how changes in rules and equipment destroyed the serve-and-volley game. He was wrong to be sanguine about it. MLB has no problem telling players to use wood bats. The NHL regulates sticks to the millimeter. But the lords of tennis let equipment-makers run roughshod over the sport, changing it from a game of creativity and finesse into a baseline-bashing contest.
Well, create a sport where only grinders can win, you get a sport full of grinders, American or not.
The sport's leadership seems determined to crush whatever personality the players have, too. With laser-like focus on the issues facing his game, Wimbledon's chief executive Ian Ritchie last week declared that he would "prefer to see less grunting" in the tournament.
Emma, where do you stand on the all-important grunting question?
I stand behind a professional player's right to making inhuman noises while hitting a tennis ball at inhuman speeds for an extended period of time. I'm not convinced that Maria Sharapova's forehand would be any less terrifying if she didn't wail upon contact, but the woman has a method, and it works for her. Idiosyncrasies are a part of the game, boring as the current collection may be: Federer drinks a bottle of Pepsi before every match. Nadal picks his wedgies after every step. Bethanie Mattek-Sands wears awful clothing in public. Let the grunters grunt, I say.
But it does say something about this sport that its most contentious issue is the noises its players make while playing (probably second to Nadal's wedgie at this point), and there's a sad spectacle to the way tennis is dealing with its characterless state. The sport both fosters and embraces boredom. Look no further than Wimbledon and its promise to "quietly [embrace] technology" in the future. And there is no quainter wish than Ian Ritchie saying that he'd "prefer to see less grunting" at Wimbledon next year. He'd prefer a teacup-clink decibel, I'm sure.
Tennis has always tolerated its renegades—and welcomed the attention that came with them—but it's also loyal to white pleated skirts and post-match handshakes. Even at its most desperate moment (and I'd like to think that times aren't so dire, but that's because I love where the game's at right now), we know that Wimbledon would never go the way of the Preakness's Kegasus, and I think that's a good thing. The players have adapted to the new equipment and the new sod with a different game—one that I'd argue still honors that "creativity and finesse" that Hampton mentioned—but this generation has been taught to keep a pinkie out. They've been trained well.