Attitude, demeanor of tennis stars changing for the better

Wednesday March 26th, 2014

Serena Williams and other top tennis stars are making more of an effort to sign autographs and fulfill "extra" duties.
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

MIAMI -- An hour after Serena Williams pressed up against the net of the Sony Open's stadium court, shaking the hand of yet another vanquished opponent, she pressed up against a chain-link fence. Long ago, fans here found the prime spot for approaching the tennis players as they left the facility. The masses pack in near the fence alongside the transportation area and ask for autographs, photos and often just an acknowledgment. It was after 10 p.m. on Tuesday when Williams came over to comply, just as Roger Federer had a few hours earlier and Novak Djokovic had a few hours before that.

It was a decade ago that Federer (the defending Wimbledon champion at the time) and Rafael Nadal (then a pudgy 17-year-old) played each other in this event. No one knew it at the time, of course, but it would mark the first installment in their rivalry. It was 15 years ago that the Williams sisters became an official global phenomenon when they met in the Miami final. It was 20 years that there was a less celebrated moment in the sport: Martin Amis, the excellent British writer, offered a blistering essay on pro tennis players.

I highly encourage you to read this -- pay for it, if you must -- but the conceit was simple: When we talk about the "personalities" in tennis, it's a euphemism for "a-holes." Ilie Nastase was a personality. So were Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.

By Amis' definition, contemporary tennis is strikingly free of "personalities." The stars stop to sign autographs and discharge their extra-tennis duties and obligations. The rare tantrums are almost always exercises in self-flagellation. This passes for a feud. The top stars agree to participate in exercises like this.

We all like certain athletes more than others. It's the license of being a fan. But it's hard to imagine summoning deep dislike for a contemporary tennis player. There's color and charisma and a mix of attitudes and dispositions. Put simply: There are no a-holes in the bunch.

We pause to concede that, yes, respecting your colleagues, posing for selfies with the people who pay for tickets and visiting children's hospitals on your off-day don't make you fit for sainthood. But sometimes the acts of kindness go beyond the trivial. If you've seen, say, baseball players ignore autograph seekers at batting practice, or dealt with Tiger Woods and his camp, you know it's not necessarily like this in other sports.

When did tennis go from the Land of the Entitled, the province of the vulgar and the dishonest -- "Pits of the world!" "You are an abortion!" "Half a man" and "Lying and fabricating" -- to its current state? It's hard not to notice that this surge in civility corresponds with the Federer-Nadal era. The two showed that it's possible to win (relentlessly) and be part of a rivalry without the tough exterior or the robotic detachment. And this trickled down. When the men at the top are courteous and gracious and sufficiently goofy to pose for selfies like this, what excuse does the guy ranked No. 17 have for behaving like a jackass?

Another theory: As the sport itself has become brutally physical, it's pushed up the ages of the players. One of the happy consequences: Players in their prime are full-fledged adults. At 32, Serena may have the same ranking she held 10 years ago, but her comportment is quite different. On Tuesday, Li Na, another 32-year-old, arranged an appointment to meet with a journalist. She showed up punctually and alone, and spoke with candor and humor. Teen stars don't act like this. They like being interviewed about as much as Gregg Popovich does in between periods of an NBA game. They would have come ringed by agents, handlers and other operatives, cutting off any dialogue that departed from the script.

We'll see how long this era last. An individual sport -- without teammates to offend and coaches to enrage -- all but begs for lapses in decorum. But, for now anyway, it's hard to imagine another competitive industry -- much less another sport -- with such a collectively decent workforce. Enjoy this time, a golden era for the absence of personalities.

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