Don’t worry I am not going to go all nostalgic here, even after attending the first day of the U.S. Tennis Open this past Monday for the 37th time in 38 years (or something like that). Aside from making me feel old, I spent a great day with my good friend with whom I have been playing tennis for more than 38 years.
The U.S. Open is professional tennis’ most successful event. In the United States tennis is declining in popularity as is attendance at non-U.S. Open events. While it is expensive to attend any pro tennis event, I think the biggest reason is lack of personalities in the game today. Serena Williams is arguably the best woman player to ever play the game. Yet her appeal goes beyond her prowess as she is so compelling to watch because she exudes so much personality on the court. Today there are few if any other players male or female who exhibit that kind of personality. It hasn’t always been that way.
My friend Don and I were watching a match between Spanish player Tommy Robredo and M. Matosevic – a player we have never heard of before (this is unusual particularly for Don who seems to know every player). I checked later and Marinko Matosevic who somehow plays for Australia and has never won a first round match at a grand slam in 11 tries. But this guy had it – personality. When he rallied to win the second set (he ultimately lost in four sets) he was gesturing to the crowd as he won key points to break Robredo’s serve and the crowd loved it. Think about it – a player that I guarantee 95% of the crowd at court 17 had never heard of was entertaining and made a mundane first round match something to watch.
A little personality goes a long way. Don and I attended the crazy match in 1976 where former #1 Ilie Nastase of Romania finally beat German Hans-Jurgen Pohmann in three sets but not before not only refusing to shake Pohmann’s hand (due to Nastase’s belief that Pohmann was faking an injury and stalling) but spitting at Pohmann at the net. While Nastase (like Jimmy Connors and later John McEnroe) frequently went ballistic and too far – you always wanted to watch. Nastase had the Nickname “Nasty” for good reason. After the match, Nastase slammed balls into the stands and offered obscene gestures in all directions. It was the most memorable thing I’ve ever seen at a professional tennis match.
I am not suggesting making professional tennis a circus act. But today’s players almost universally are dull, boring and exhibit little personality. #1 men’s player Novak Djokavic is an exception and Rafael Nadal while unbelievably intense is more than stoic when on the court. And then there’s Roger Federer – wonderful to watch play but so smooth and so composed that you can fall asleep watching a Federer match against anyone other than a top player.
For fans of tennis, tennis is theater, sometimes great theater. It should be first about the tennis but the aspect of entertaining the paying crowd should not be ignored. Back in the 1990’s the American-born Jensen brothers Luke and Murphy (Luke is a commentator now) were not the best players on tour by a long shot. But they were highly entertaining and people would want to watch them play any opponent.
I understand that today’s pro tennis players play for so much more money than ever before and it’s a serious matter. But Tuesday night #2 seed Victoria Azarenka won her match 6-0 6-0 and Novak Djokavic lost five games in three sets. I am not going out on a limb to offer that the Tuesday evening session patrons were decidedly NOT entertained.
A little playing to the crowd by either Azarenka or Djokavic would have made a big difference in perhaps creating a more memorable evening. It’s called marketing your sport.
Yes or no on more personality in professional tennis?