A few minutes ago, I started to write a comment in response to some of the observations made about this blog in the Hewitt post below and elsewhere. The subject gets into the kind of writing I’m doing now, as opposed to when I was writing profiles and long features for TENNIS, or books like The Courts of Babylon: Tales of Greed and Glory in the Harsh New World of Professional Tennis.
I don’t want this post to be an exercise in navel-gazing, but here is my reply to those who wonder about the degree of my compassion for and empathy with the players, and to those who suspect that I’m trying to sensationalize the blog in order to attract readers.
OK: One of the reasons I decided to become a blogger is because this format, like an op-ed column, leaves me free from having to provide balanced, in-context, whole treatments of a subject or issue. Two tools make me more comfortable about posting highly subjective, targeted commentaries: the “comments” function (it’s essentially a “talk-back” feature, allowing anybody to have more or less equal time with me. Think about how great—and radical—that really is!), and my ability to provide hyperlinks and thus avoid having to do a lot of writing to establish context and convey information the reader needs going into a given post.
But the biggest difference now that I’m a blogger is that I no longer want to be, nor feel I need to be, primarily a conduit for the thoughts and feelings of the players. And I am no longer ethically bound to even try to present both sides of a story (or person), although anyone who thinks I'm just taking shots at people for the sheer fun of it doesn’t know me—nor 25 years of my work—very well.
Oh, sure, part of TennisWorld's mandate is to be wicked and politically incorrect. Part of the mandate is to bring the celebrity players down a peg or two, or hold their feet to the fire the way few people do. In a way, this is a 180-degree turn for me, and I wouldn't feel complete if I never made it.
As a magazine writer (less so as a book author) I felt obliged to represent the players' points-of-view, for two reasons:
First, it’s what the readers of TENNIS wanted. Oh, they liked some stories more than others because of the way they were written, or because of the interpretive content, but they wanted a profile about Monica Seles to be about what Seles thinks and feels, not what I think and feel about Seles’ viewpoint.
Second, the players granted me interviews (it isn’t compulsory, especially for long profiles) that made the magazine stories possible. They were decent enough to sit for me, and to listen to—and answer—my questions. That made me feel I owed them a debt.
I also had to always think about how what I wrote would affect my future access to, or relationship with, the players. I never pretended to like someone I didn’t cotton to, but I also tried to give subjects the benefit of the doubt and temper what overt or implicit criticisms I had with the players' own words of self-defense. Needless to say, those words often rang hollow. But I felt obliged for various reasons to publish them.
After doing that with reasonable diligence for the better part of two decades, I decided that I needed to try something different and new. I also had an urge to let it rip, saying just what I think and feel—after having been in the tennis trenches for two decades.
I also had come to the point where I felt reasonably certain that, even if my opinions weren’t “right” or representative of some objective “truth,” I could advance them feeling like I had earned the right by coming to know the territory as well as anyone outside the immediate player-coach galaxy.
The thing I most dislike is hypocrisy, which is why I never wanted to be expressing critical feelings about a player one day and then sweet-talking her, or her agent the next week, trying to lock down an interview. I’m pretty much free from that now, and because of the highly organized, official press interview regimen, I’m still able to get most of the information I need or want.
Some longtime readers of mine undoubtedly would rather have the old approach, the fanziine approach. But I'm betting that more of you want something a little more realistic and stimulating. I guess the hit numbers will tell the tale, and TW will either flourish or go belly up. It's certainly the biggest risk I've ever taken as a journalist.
One thing I've learned from this entire experience is that it's liberating not to feel like you have to convey a subject's thoughts just because that person granted you an interview. In fact, I've come to think that whole interview process is least useful when it's most needed—to get at some critical truths about a player or his or her actions. Has any doper ever come clean in an interview?
It’s different now. I feel free. For some people, this blog is a welcome respite from the usual (and often bogus) "objectivity" and bet-hedging you get in the mainstream media. For others, it may be infuriatingly subjective. I hope it's amusing, and brings a smile to everyone's face now and then.
At the end of the day, this is supposed to be fun, too. Tennis players are not determining what kind of world your children will grow up in. They are handsomely paid flesh puppets, acting out noble to pathetic roles on the giant screen of big-time sports and celebrity. There are a lot more significant things to get bent out of shape about than my assertion that Lindsay Davenport's behavior in the Australian Open final was unprofessional.
I never said I know the "truth" about anything; I just render opinions—credible ones, I hope—about the game and the people who play it. I get a good night’s sleep, and have no trouble looking in the mirror when I wake. That's good enough for me. In anything I do.