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Journalismism

Tennis Doesn’t Have To Taste This Bad

Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

I like tennis, am happy that it enjoys a massive international viewership, and hope that it continues to have one in the future. But I feel for the American casual, whose fleeting encounters with this sport I must assume inspire only dread and revulsion. I promise you you are only getting the worst parts. Every time tennis bubbles up into popular consciousness, it’s for the most accursed possible reason. It’s because two seven-foot-tall dudes are bombing serves clean past each other for 11 hours straight at Wimbledon and nobody can stop rubbernecking. It’s because of a surreal umpire conflict and a stadium full of confused fans booing through what should be the brightest day of a young woman’s career. It’s because Tennys Sandgren has the name similar to the sport that he plays (can you believe it) and is from Tennessee (wow) and (will you look at that) is kind of into Pizzagate. It’s because Novak Djokovic’s long-standing exotic medical beliefs finally came into the light, because he expressed skepticism about taking a COVID-19 vaccine and accidentally organized a superspreader event. And now it’s because Naomi Osaka has pulled out of press and ultimately the French Open. In order we’ve got: the aesthetic nadir of tennis, omnidirectional tragedy, obscure buffoonery, high-impact idiocy, and a personal crisis unfolding in public before a chorus of the loudest and least curious people alive.

I promise you tennis is good, and there is redemption to be found out there. All you need is one spicy deciding-set tiebreak to be convinced of this sport for life. Recent reminders of why I watch include Aryna Sabalenka beating the pulp out of the tennis ball and Jannik Sinner taking a dishonorable bathroom break. Everywhere I look I see personal charm, physical wonders, and psychological warfare. For reasons I cannot fully comprehend, it is mostly the ugly stuff that breaks through to the mainstream. And what can be counted on, without fail, is the response, from master-of-none columnists, avant-garde take artists, self-aggrandizing hand-wringers, and anyone else interested in dispensing an unsolicited and under-informed opinion: They backflip out of their helicopters, parachute down into a sport they have never much bothered to watch, and assess the situation with eyes closed. Once the boots are on the ground, you can be sure they’ll be ranting about their personal hobby-horses. At the logical extreme, you find Piers Morgan calling Osaka a “spoiled brat” and then shielding himself from criticism by reminding everyone that he once convinced Serena Williams to pose for a photo with him. Great stuff.

This is the part I do understand: If you don’t really care about a sport except for when the news cycle says you should, you’re more than content to treat the tennis court as a canvas for the psycho-social fixations du jour. Ignore the movement of the fuzzy yellow ball and go forth and pontificate on whatever issue struck you this week as the fulcrum on which Western civilization teeters.

For context, you’d be better off just talking to a random friend who has closely followed Naomi Osaka. An introverted young person, who just three years ago was giving a speech she described, mid-speech, as the “worst acceptance speech of all time.” Now she’s won four Slams and become the best-paid female athlete in the world in relatively short period of time. Distant are the days of talking about Overwatch characters in a sparse presser; now she’s a luxury brand ambassador with sponsors lapping at her palm. But one of the sport’s messiest-ever nights kicked off “long bouts of depression“; interacting with the media, even as she did so with steadily increasing tact and polish, ratcheted up her anxiety. So this year she headed into the toughest and least fruitful part of her tennis calendar—the clay major—and made a decision to optimize her on-court performance. And though she may have communicated that decision in a screengrab fashion that makes me wonder what an agent gets paid for, and whether there might be less painful ways to achieve the same ends, she did all this, I suspect, without expecting to be taken as a proxy for so many strange culture wars. She won her first-round match, skipped press as she said she would, and was threatened by a gang of out-of-touch Grand Slams, speaking as one. Since all of this had the opposite effect of creating a good mental state for competition, an overwhelmed Osaka removed herself from the tournament for her own well-being. She’s an uncommonly thoughtful 23-year-old, in a public-facing career that offers no easy outs for times of private crisis, and not every decision may make perfect sense or fit neatly into a coherent worldview. That’s a story that could be told. But that would require attunement to recent history on- and off-court, and biographical rather than symbolic interest in a person. And of course there must be well-defined Winners and Losers, and Good and Bad. Naomi Osaka is either a self-empowered boss sticking it to those sleazy reporters, or a diva lounging on a cloud tossing down pocket change at the fines. There’s no room for local detail, and certainly no room for ambiguity.

All these situations, which are incredibly rich in local detail, get denuded and flattened. And the gap between how they are viewed inside and outside of enthusiast bubbles can be particularly telling. The tennis fan, who understands Serena Williams as both a history-altering conqueror of the whitest and stiffest spaces in sports and an indomitable-bordering-on-asocial competitor (and loves her for that latter quality) can see that 2018 U.S. Open in full texture. There’s plenty to chew on, if you are actually interested in doing the chewing. Of course, outside the bubble you get either vile editorial cartoon-grade racist caricature, or people claiming that Serena Williams has to have acted unambiguously in the right, everyone else’s moral status being reverse-engineered from there. That discourse was enough to make me wish people paid less attention to tennis; the Osaka news cycle is another beast altogether, with the press conference itself becoming an object of close study. There are journalists self-flagellating about their pointlessness and there are journalists defending post-game pressers as the bastion of liberal democracy. Having sat in a handful of them, while having a job that does not really rely on them, I feel OK offering an impartial assessment: it’s an imperfect but useful medium of communication, populated by once-a-year paratroopers asking the boilerplate questions, plenty of knowledgeable and industrious reporters trying to flesh out a good story with a focused quote, and, like, one florid Italian guy who has never felt shame. Whether the answers are illuminating has as much to do with the athlete’s mood in the moment as the line of questioning the reporter has chosen. But given how regularly and virally they are clipped and propagated, it does appear that fans find their contents interesting. Any access point into the inner life of a player can be interesting.

They produce the basic stuff of sports fandom. Getting immersed in a sport is difficult; I’m always impressed by my colleagues who manage to do it many times over. It’s different from getting really into an author or director. There isn’t a canon you can just take out from the library, or a reliable body of secondary literature you can just binge-read to really grasp all the interstitial gunk that doesn’t fit into the tight grafs of wire stories. Some types of understanding are gleaned over time, over all those glazed-over hours sitting on the sofa or trawling dimly-lit message boards, and impossible to replace with a Wikipedia blitz two hours before you hurl your column into the void. It accretes over the years—the norms and routines and, sure, “unwritten rules,” but also the minor characters and quirks and superstitions and gaffes and quotables and everything else that makes a sport alive. Call it the sediment of fandom. Pretty much all my favorite sports writing is slathered in it. It requires not laminated credentials but patience and attention. If you respect your readers at all—I take as a given that many do not—you’ll offer them those two graces. While it would be foolish to expect much more from our absolute worst-faith bloviators, there are still reasonable people out there who could be trying a little harder, or just staying quiet. Because if you only see a game through its most hideous anomalies, how could you expect to have anything worthwhile to say about it?