The curses of Wimbledon

Though it is hard to feel much sympathy for young, fit, idolised multi-millionaires, or even just the young and fit, the modern tennis player may justifiably conclude that they cannot win.

On Monday, anticipating Wimbledon, there was much debate about whether the sport has blanded out, and is now led by colourless automatons. A day later, the lament is different. OMG, they’re swearing.

And yes, on the opening day, they were swearing – four players were pulled up and may be facing disciplinary proceedings for potty-mouthed eruptions.

Brit Liam Broady and the Australian Marinko Matosevic were both chastised by the umpire for swearing. The young, highly acclaimed Australian Nick Kyrgios was also cautioned for a tantrum and calling someone – perhaps the umpire, himself – “dirty scum”. Also a ticking off for five-times champion Serena Williams.

Broady, who retrieved a two-set deficit to prevail, was heard repeatedly saying “fucking shit, fucking shit” to himself. Why the fuss, was his response: “Guys who are in the top three in the world don’t get it on centre court.” Which isn’t quite true. But royalty does have its privileges.


Endurance tests
So what is happening? The answer is nothing that hasn’t happened before. Tennis is a pressure cooker. Certainly it was, on Monday, when temperatures made just watching the matches an endurance test. Players get hot and bothered when things aren’t going their way. Players get hot and bothered when things are going their way but not in the exact way that they would like them to. They are perfectionists. That’s why they do it for a living rather than thrashing away each weekend like the rest of us at the local courts.

To dilute disappointment, to keep the show on the road, to elevate a good performance towards the great, they vent.

And it is all down to them. They don’t have teammates to cajole or sympathise. A coach sitting in the stands cannot help, except in the Davis Cup where on the spot coaching is permitted. This week, Novak Djokovic had to face down accusations that he is a cheat because occasionally his coach Boris Becker might arch an eyebrow in a mutually understood way, but there is a limit to which the raise of an eyebrow – or even a fast blink – can alleviate frustration. If it is possible to be lonely in an arena filled with thousands of people, the tennis player would be the one to feel it.

And so, to dilute disappointment, to keep the show on the road, to elevate a good performance towards the great, they vent. At themselves, at their coaches, at their rackets, at wooden boxes – as David Nalbandian did at Queen’s last year when he kicked a wooden surround, hurt a line judge and was disqualified. Sometimes they swear.

Because the amplification of sound at our sporting events is better than ever, sometimes we hear it. It is a constant fight with desolation. Little is more poignant than the defeated player, left to collect his things and trudge away as the winner absorbs the adoration of the crowd. The line between joy and despair is much thinner than the baseline.

Bordering on contractual regularity
What is interesting is who does and who doesn’t swear or throw tantrums. The revered Romanian Ilie Nastase misbehaved with something bordering on contractual regularity and was fêted for it. John McEnroe erupted all the time. The outbursts fuelled his game. I once saw him erupt and then serve three aces in succession.

By contrast when a young ponytailed Roger Federer did the same, his performance regressed. The champion Federer was a man who kept those emotions in check. A young Rafael Nadal was ordered to do much the same by his coach-mentor, his uncle Tony. For them, venting was identified as a disadvantage.

Would this be a story at the other grand slams? I doubt it. There is always a tension surrounding these events. To what extent are they great sporting spectacles? How much a social occasion? I believe that in Britain we accentuate the social element. Many of our clubs are social gatherings – rotary clubs with nets and rackets. Our class system manifests here, as it does in most areas of national life. In the United States, in Australia, in France, the sport-social balance seems different.

World number three Andy Murray swears a bit. Always has. I remember asking a very well-to-do woman from the home counties, sipping her chilled white on the grassy Murray Mound – then Henman Hill – how she viewed the passing of the Henman era. Could Murray fill the gap? “Oh no,” she said, curling a lip. “I don’t like that young man and the way he behaves.”

And yet because (or in spite) of the swearing, Murray keeps on winning. Broady with his potty mouth did the Brits proud too.

If it offends so terribly, maybe we should turn the microphones down and just enjoy what they do. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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