French Open showcases vast display of uncorked personality
Tennis is a sport of raw exposure, both body and mind. You can't really hide a beer gut or a silly walk in tennis, nor can you blanket your reaction to stress. It's all going to become quite public in time.
One of the most fascinating elements of this French Open, as with all of the majors, has been watching some of the world's greatest players in crisis. We've seen it all: battlers and whiners, champions and pretenders, the proud and the cranky. As we look a bit closer:
Murray's back injury has become a recurring topic of conversation. Jim Courier said he "looked like an 85-year-old man" in the first set of his second-round match against Jarkko Niemenen, and after watching Murray writhing about in agony, Courier said he didn't care if the back spasms vanished: The Scot should just bail out of Paris, get some treatment, and "start thinking about a tournament he can realistically win, and that's Wimbledon."
Equally unimpressed, British icon Virginia Wade referred to Murray as "a drama queen" and said, "I've more sympathy for the other guy, honestly." Henri Leconte, one of France's all-time greats, chimed in with "scandalous" and "disrespectful to the opponent and to the public."
But wait: Isn't there a shred of nobility to Murray's resolve? Not if you ask John McEnroe. Murray was periodically grabbing his back during his Monday win against Richard Gasquet, all the while playing superbly in a four-set masterpiece. "You can't pull that stuff if you're playing that well," McEnroe said on Tennis Channel. "That's gonna get old in the locker room if it keeps up."
On top of all this, Murray was heavily booed during the match by a French crowd backing the local guy. We've known Murray to be a brooder, a man who projects that all-is-lost body language when a match has gone awry, but he's proud of the fact that he has defaulted only once in his career. He just kept pummeling Gasquet -- and, in effect, the crowd -- and there's no question he savored the scene.
Good for him, I say. (A pity, though, that he'll lose to the steamrolling David Ferrer in the quarterfinals.)
As such, fans would prefer a touch of elegance or class. Azarenka can be all of that, even charming at times, but we've seen precious little evidence in recent weeks. She is constantly flustered and annoyed out there, not above smashing her racket or muttering to herself, and it is
Heading into Roland Garros, Azarenka told ESPNW, "Things are never perfect, so I never get too high or too down about things any more. I've learned to better handle things as they come." Sounds good in theory -- not the case in practice. And it's hard for fans to feel sympathetic when Vika says, upon her fourth-round exit, that she's tired and has to rediscover "my passion and desire to be back on the court." You'd think a top-ranked player would want to keep a stranglehold on the honor, charging into the Wimbledon grass-court warmups (after a short break) to maintain her edge.
Azarenka hasn't drawn a packed house in any tournament I can recall this year, to the point of embarrassment with those half-filled stadiums at the French. People simply aren't drawn to this brand of theater, and to me, her public-relations crisis isn't about boring tennis or a grumpy attitude. It relates directly to her incessant howling on every point.
Violators come in many forms, from Francesca Schiavone's double-syllable grunt to Maria Sharapova's shriek, but Azarenka's noise is especially annoying, and she blatantly cheats (unenforced) by drawing out the sound as her shots cross the net. As she got in some practice time at Roland Garros the other day, cameras captured several fans loudly imitating that sound, like kids visiting the exotic-birds section of a zoo. "Good," I was thinking; Azarenka deserves every bit of abuse that comes her way. But I also felt a bit sorry for her as she tried to go about her business, undoubtedly seething inside.
Wouldn't it be something if she just dropped the caterwauling altogether? Thunderous applause, all around.
Then there was the press-conference question about Federer in retrospect, if he looks back upon youthful opponents who turned out to be champions. "I could answer this for one hour," said Federer, who proceeded to give his customarily thoughtful answer. "I could write a book on this one."
Let us all hope that, one day, he does.
At a point when she was trailing 6-1, 2-1 to Kaia Kanepi, Wozniacki approached the chair after a Kanepi shot was called in. Even when Poncho Ayala clambered down to inspect the mark, and upheld the call, Wozniacki was appalled.
"You cannot just sit there and be so arrogant."
OK. It's cool to be ticked off.
"If we had Hawk-Eye, you'd be so frickin' embarrassed right now."
Not bad. And probably true.
"Can I ask you? Have you gone to school?"
Whoops. You just turned into a brat.
I'd imagine everyone in the interview room was tempted to ask Venus if she was on the verge of retirement. Before the issue even came up, she announced, "This is just the beginning for me." And she said the same thing a few moments later.
Two of the really sharp tennis writers, Tom Tebbutt and Steve Tignor, noted a curious Raonic reaction during the Monaco match: tapping his racket in applause after the Spaniard hit a relatively routine passing shot, setting up a crucial break point that Raonic would surrender with a double-fault. "I couldn't help but wonder why he applauded his opponent's shot at such a key moment," Tebbutt wrote on his "Love Means Nothing" blog. "It didn't seem like a time to be giving your opponent credit."
Strange, indeed, but Raonic is a different kind of cat. In the sport of tennis, I'll take different every time.
Consider, though, the jolt of good-humored energy that Stephens brought to the tournament. Tennis has given her a pretty good life, reflected in her supreme confidence, brilliant smile and a maturity beyond her years. Through it all, she is navigating through a crucial stage of her life without a father. Her biological dad, former NFL running back John Stephens, died in a car crash at a time (September 2009) when they were just beginning to rekindle a fractured relationship. And her stepfather, the man who inspired her to start playing tennis at the age of nine, had died of cancer two years before.
"Sloane had to grow up really, really quickly and she did a remarkable job," her mother, Sybil Smith, an All-American swimmer at Boston University who later earned a Master's degree from Harvard's School of Education, told
Serena Williams, one of Sloane's role models growing up, sounds downright envious of the 19-year-old's composure. "She's just so calm," Serena said during this year's Miami event. "I was a little wild and crazy at that age. Yeah, I wish I had her poise. She's a really, really sweet girl with a great game. She has so much potential."