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:
Andy Murray: Did you see him snarling with glee on the Chatrier court Monday? Here's a guy getting bombarded with criticism from all sides, and he actually seems to be enjoying it this time.
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.)
Victoria Azarenka: To hold the world's No. 1 ranking is to look and act the part. There's a responsibility that comes attached. Not that a regal bearing is necessary; as we learned from John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, fits of petulance are tolerated when mixed with authentic genius. But there's nothing particularly special about Azarenka's game. She just tends to win those tedious baseline wars a bit more often than the rest.
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 not becoming.
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.
Roger Federer: There's really nothing new with this great man, not in terms of demeanor, but his implacability is especially appreciated at a major. "What is very frightening is his attitude," David Goffin told reporters after the Belgian lost to his idol in the fourth round. "When he was down (upon losing the first set), I thought he's going to show something with his face, he's going to have a shake in his lips. Nothing. Poker face. Like in every other match. That's what I find impressive."
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.
Caroline Wozniacki: It seems a bit absurd that a tournament this important continues to reject the Hawk-Eye replay device, but say this about the antiquated system: It brings out the worst in beleaguered players. Wozniacki has been portrayed as the Little Miss Sunshine of the women's game, and that is quite often true, but when confronted with a clay-court injustice, she fell horribly out of character.
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.
Venus Williams: It all seems too hopeless now. Although Venus has made the Olympic team (she hasn't decided upon whether to play singles), she is clearly near the end of the line, unable to sustain her best performances and faced with the grim prospect of dealing with her autoimmune disease, Sjogren's syndrome, throughout the remainder of her playing days.
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.
Now that's a ray of sunshine. We'll see if it actually breaks through the clouds, but Venus' eternal optimism is remarkable to behold.
Dominika Cibulkova: So often in the women's game, we find matchups that seemed forever doomed. One player has another's number, and that's just the end of the story. Third-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska, routinely run off the court by Azarenka, is a prime example. Cibulkova had a long and grim history against Azarenka, including some outright chokes, and now things were getting tight under the intense spotlight of Roland Garros' fourth round. Not once -- at a time when Vika was moaning and groaning -- did Cibulkova lose belief. You could see it in her face, her body language, in her refusal to hit anything but a laser-beam rocket on every stroke. You tend to pull for players like that, and she gained a lot of fans with her joyous celebration and classy on-court interview.
Alex Bogomolov: All right, we understand those leg cramps are killing you. Looks like it's a tremendous effort to merely take a step. But now you're down a match point to Arnaud Clement, at 4-5 in the fifth, and you quit? That's a joke. It means something when your opponent can walk off the court with an authentic victory, particularly if he's playing in his home country. Just stand there and take it, for heaven's sake.
Milos Raonic: Aside from his punishing serves and the growing sense that he's on the verge of something big, Raonic takes real joy in the experience -- win or lose. He wore an appreciative smile when he met the victorious Federer at the net in Madrid, and again on Saturday after a hard-fought loss to Juan Monaco. He's not much for on-court emotion (after going through a temperamental stage in the juniors), but the 21-year-old Raonic seems immensely satisfied to be experiencing the realization of his dream.
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.
Sloane Stephens: When assessing Azarenka, it's fair to link her volatile nature to her "perfectionist streak," as Chris Clarey wrote in the New York Times, "and the sacrifices she made to become a champion, which included leaving her family behind in Minsk as a teenager." No question. Not every player has a carefree ride to the top, and life can be especially tough on those coming from Eastern Europe.
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 USA Today. "She understands that you have to constantly keep working harder to reach your goals, then work even harder to keep it going."
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."