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Tennis

An Interview With The Biggest Tennis Sicko I’ve Encountered At The U.S. Open

1:15 PM EDT on August 31, 2023

A crowd shot of Court 17 at the U.S. Open.
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

FLUSHING, N.Y. — Court 17 had already seen more than enough action for the night. Tommy Paul, the No. 14 seed, had just assembled a comeback against Roman Safiullin under a fine cotton-candy sunset. Stuffed to its 2,800 seated capacity, Court 17 gets raucous, and, due to its adjacency to a public park, occasionally dank. The Americans had reflexively latched onto Paul, a New Jersey native. After his 3-6, 2-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 win, he offered a hug and sweaty shirt to his loudest supporter: a kid who couldn't have been much older than 10, leading successful chants of "Here we go, Tommy" and "Let's go New Yorrrk!" But that child was not Wednesday's biggest sicko at the U.S. Open.

Court 17's final match of the day featured Jelena Ostapenko, my cantankerous muse, who never saw a tennis ball she didn't want to blast within an inch of the sidelines. The entire crowd was cheering for her because she's a known entity and a former French Open champ, despite her mixed results in the years since. But I noticed one man in the crowd with contrarian intent. He was there to cheer on Elina Avanesyan, a 20-year-old clay specialist who had won only one tour-level match on hard court heading into this contest. This guy fed her startlingly loud motivation and guidance between points. Avanesyan, a low-powered player who scrapped her way through long rallies, lost the match, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, but perhaps she would've lost sooner if not for this gentleman's conspicuous exhortations.

There had to be some explanation for the outsized passion from the guy atop the portable butt-cushion that marks the most hardcore Open attendees. My friends had theories. Was he a Craigslist plant, purchased by Avanesyan's camp to pique the famously pique-able Ostapenko? I'd seen people in the stands futzing around on the sports gambling apps that have rapidly infiltrated every layer of sports interest—was he just a guy with a lot of money on the line? Or an ardent Armenian ethnonationalist? I had to know the answer.

After the match, as trash swirled around the empty stadium, I spoke for half an hour with a bearded man in a blue U.S. Open cap who looked to be in his 30s and introduced himself with his first name, Joseph. He offered a window into the intensity, perversity, and empathy of deep sports fandom. His journey began when he saw Avanesyan play her first match at the 2023 French Open—she made the fourth round—and he spoke as if he'd seen all 15 of her matches since, which is an arduous feat, due to the obscurity of some of those tournaments. He had traveled from Massachusetts to watch her specifically at the U.S. Open. I felt confident that he was the biggest Elina Avanesyan fan in this country. Given the zeal of this interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, he might have been recruiting me as his deputy.

How did you get so into Elina Avanesyan?

French Open, first-round, her opponent was [No. 12 seed] Belinda Bencic. On a whim, I watched that whole match from beginning to end. And I was in. Right there, I could see it immediately. This girl is a fighter. She gets down—she does not go away. She gets every ball. Nobody digs out these balls like she does. It is amazing. There was a shot she made in the game where Ostapenko was serving for the match. It was UN-BELIEVABLE. [Ed. note: The shot was indeed unbelievable.] She flicked it up above Ostapenko, and it landed in the back corner. Who else gets to that and makes that shot? That's me in general. I love counterpunchers. I love players who give you the initiative, in order to take it away when you think you've got them. I responded to it right away. Nobody plays like this: the moon balls, the change of pace, the change of direction. There are holes in her game—the serve is a point-starter, and the forehand can be rushed, it's a bit of an intricate technique, the grip is pretty extreme. But the way she overcomes that stuff, and her composure—I never see her complain to her box.

Third-round French Open [against Clara Tauson], it was very much shades of this. The way she's playing a similar power player and forcing them to come up with great shot after great shot. Credit to Jelena—she really did it when she was struggling. The crazy match against Daria Kasatkina in Berlin, Avanesyan just delivers. She gets down the first set, she's just fighting. It's refreshing.

What else do you like about her?

It's fascinating, the way they built her game. She's unconventional, she doesn't fit the obvious mold of the way the the WTA is going [toward power baseline play]. I always think—and Daniil Medvedev is a great example—that there's always room to find opportunities in doing something different. When everybody's doing it one way, if something else works for you, go that way and try to find opportunities with it. I love seeing that from her.

Who else do you think is doing that on the WTA?

I'd have to think about it. Someone like [Karolina] Muchova, who's on a whole other level, she does it totally differently. Way more aggression. But it was a great test for Avanesyan at the French Open. Muchova is really the blueprint for how to beat Avanesyan: Take her time away, come to the net, make her pay for a deep court position. These are limitations for her. She needs to be able to play aggressively against players like that, to hold the baseline, to not have to rely so much on her defense. But I think she can get there. Her backhand is beautiful. I don't see why there's not a lot of upside, with her work ethic and intensity. And this is her breakthrough. She got a win over Alizé Cornet, an incredibly wily veteran, in a crowd where, I swear to you, I was the only person rooting for her.

I saw you thanking another guy here who happened to be rooting for Avanesyan. So her fans have doubled, from one to two.

You don't know how much it meant to have another person cheering for her. It's really tough to be one person. Tennis has an underdog problem, especially in lower-profile matches. Everybody who comes here was here to support Ostapenko. She's a name that they know. These people don't know Avanesyan. I understand that. But it's so tough for a player like that to have no support, no energy. It's tough to be the only person trying to bring that.

Would you have done it if you hadn't been familiar with her game beforehand?

Oh no, I came here to see her. I made a point. I was gonna see every match. I'm here through Saturday. I was gonna see her if she kept winning.

Was she your number-one priority at this U.S. Open?

A hundred percent. I'm up in Massachusetts. But her, and my other under-the-radar favorite, who had to withdraw with illness, Emil Ruusuvuori.

What is it like being the only person against a mass of people rooting for the other player?

It's tough. It's uncomfortable. Part of it is you want to make sure that they hear yes, that they are appreciated. Sometimes maybe you cheer too much as a result. You don't want to be a distraction, but at the same time, you want to help. It's really difficult. It helps not being the only one, where you feel the burden is totally on you. As I've been here this week, I thought [I've] really ascended to the next level of being like a tennis sicko when you're sitting there thinking incredibly strategically about like, When is the right time to cheer? When can I get a chant going?

Last night, I was at the Sofia Kenin match. And I got two "Let's go Kenin" chants going. At the end, I told her when she was serving for it, I'm sitting right behind her, "Come on, Sofia, go for your shots, go for your shots." And she really did. She was getting tight. And she went for it. And after the match, three separate times, she said in her own court interview, You guys carried me through. And I take that as a win. It's like, I know, I didn't do anything, but at the same time, you can give them energy.

How do you pick your spots? Do you do it more when they're on your side of the court?

I try to definitely do it when they're on my side. When they're over on the opposite side, it's more just like Come on, Come on. When it's over here, it's more like Come on, keep going for your shots. Come on, you know, she knows you're getting to every ball, you know, keep fighting. That's when I'll give her a little bit more.

I can tell you're big into tennis tactics. How tactical are you willing to go with feedback to the player?

Her coaching team can do that. There's just not time. Analysis is a big thing for me.

But I could tell you got a little tactical. You told her to "move up."

Yeah, there was a point where she was behind the baseline, but I didn't—yeah. It's not necessary. I trust them. It's more about energy in general. That's what you can contribute as a fan: energy, and you can make them know they're appreciated. Everything Laura Siegemund said about how much she goes out there to give for the fans, that's why she's still playing, and she didn't feel like she got anything back—less than nothing back, because they treated her like a bad person. Which is a powerful line. I don't want a player to feel that way. I always gravitate towards supporting the person who's not [supported].

Have you been in that position—in life, in sports—as the underdog? What draws you to these kinds of players?

Maybe it's just a basic sense of fairness. They deserve better. They've given it all out there. And I think tennis has an issue with this. So much of the knowledge of the general fan, it's just about the tiny, tiny, tiny top of the pyramid. I understand, it's really hard. One of the things I love about tennis is that you can go as deep as you want to. You want to just be at the tip, you want to just be watching the finals?

I was that when I was younger. I thought the earlier matches, especially in the men's with the Big Three, were such a pointless formality. But you go deeper, and you see how great these other players are, and how hard they work, and how they make these great matches. I've always felt I always wanted more than anything—and this is why I became a Daniil Medvedev fan—someone to stand up to the Big Three. The 2019 U.S. Open, that was a revelation. This guy has it. I do not understand the way he's so disliked by so many people for being a genuine person. That's what I love about Twitter, that people who aren't necessarily appreciated by the broader tennis public for whatever reason, they are appreciated. On Twitter, there's a great community of Medvedev fans.

So what made you a sicko? Was there a particular player or tournament that radicalized you?

After the 2021 U.S. Open, yeah, when Medvedev won his major, that is when I became like, a week-in week-out [sicko]. Before that, for my whole life, I never watched a tournament other than the majors.

What do you watch it on? I know how hard it is for normal people to watch tennis. You're talking about the Budapest Grand Prix here.

It's expensive. I subscribed to Sling TV to get access to Tennis Channel, and then I pay the yearly subscription for Tennis Channel Plus. I hate that they charge—when they were promoting that Djokovic-Alcaraz match at the French Open, they're like, "Only on Tennis Channel Plus!" Get Tennis Channel, you can watch it. And then people go on there, and it's like $110. It's terrible for the sport, but that's the situation to have access to it. If you're gonna watch year-round, it's not a bad deal. There are problems with their service. Fucking Sinclair, don't get me started. But you really don't have an option because Tennis TV doesn't have the women.

You evolve past the point when you're OK watching the main broadcast, as a tennis fan, when you want to watch the people you care about. And you also want to have a place where you can go where your knowledge as a tennis fan is respected, right? Not hearing the same tired narrative, rehashed over and over. This is ESPN in a nutshell, where they don't start talking about the actual tennis until the very end of the first set. They're just catching up with all the stories—How've you been? What's going on at the other matches? That's fine. I'm not a gatekeeper. I want everyone to be able to enjoy tennis. But I also want there to be a place where serious tennis fans can engage with the sport.

Do you think there's a commentator who does a good job of keeping the sport open to general interest fans, but also radicalizing people into sickos?

Jim Courier is extremely good at taking the match and boiling it down to key details and highlighting them. It can be a little heavy-handed at time. Anyone who tries to do that can be, but he's very good at telling a story and very personable. Lindsay Davenport is a great analytical commentator. So is Chanda Rubin. I also love Brad Gilbert, like tennis's Bill Walton. The nicknames are corny as hell, but he is a great mid-match analyst. James Blake is really good. There's lots of good people. Mostly, they're just not named McEnroe.

Have you heard Andrea Petkovic? She's really good.

Yeah, she's really good. Getting the players—I mean, how good is Chris Eubanks as a commentator? I guess he's almost as good a commentator as he is a player.

This is the thing that I really have come to feel about watching tennis and doing analysis. I cannot play the sport the way these people can. I'm terrible. I wouldn't be able to win a point. I wouldn't be able to get a serve back in unless they hit a softball. But when you're really focused in on a match, and you're in the zone, and you're analyzing it, it's not that dissimilar from what the players are doing. I feel a genuine connection to the players when I watch the match like that. And I feel like that's the closest I can get to to experiencing it the way they experience.

Yeah, it's still far removed. But there's the mental strain and all those things that they talk about on TV, like lapses in focus. I don't think people realize that what you're going through in a tennis match, when you're getting bored, when you're getting distracted, when you didn't notice, Wait, what shot did they hit there? Which direction was that serve? That's what the players go through, too. It's all about focus. It's all about running through the patterns. What am I looking for? What's important here? What are the key details to be picking up? It's a skill, and you hone it, and you get better at it. And it's rewarding.

How would we cultivate more sickos? How do you make it so you're not the only one backing up an underdog like this? What do you think tennis should do?

The biggest issue is access. It's the fact that the sport is so unavailable, the fact that so much of it is behind paywalls. So much of it is on channels that are not accessible. There are so many restrictions about what you can post on social media, posting clips. The idea of doing playback streams where I could do commentary over the match—those kinds of things where people can rebroadcast games with their own flavor, to their own community, those things are really important to bring other people who are going to discover it in another way, potentially on a platform like Twitter. That's how you reach the younger audience. I do not believe for a second that tennis is too old, too slow, too out-of-step for a younger audience. I mean, [Carlos] Alcaraz might be the greatest athlete in the world right now. All you have to do is see one crazy point where he sprints around, sliding all over the place. It's unbelievable.

But it's baked into tennis at such a base level: the focus on nationality. And I know that's baked into the sport from the federations all the way up. That's how these players receive funding. That's the system in place. I get it. But I think that prevents the kind of fandom that I appreciate, which is these connections on a personal level, where you see someone and you respond to their style of play, their personality, their attitude on the court, the things they say in press conferences, I feel like that gets lost when it's just about nationality, when it's just like about supporting the guy from your home.

I get that it's a good way to bring people in. There is a reason why they put the Americans on Court 17. But you do get a block there. If that's as far as you go, you don't go further. I don't think there's an easy way to address it. Tennis makes it more about nationality than it needs to be. It isn't the Olympics. These people aren't representing their country in that way. Yes, it can be used for propaganda. But responding so far the opposite? [Ed. note: he's referring to the way that Russian and Belarusian players were banned from Wimbledon 2022 and now compete without flags.] We don't need to get so far into that, the politics of that gets really complicated, I feel for everyone involved. It's super messy and difficult. But that emphasis on nationality would be my big thing to fix.

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