The Rally: Ball Talk

by: Steve Tignor | April 08, 2011

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Rafa Nadal Iker Casillas World Cup 2010 The Rally returns today, with a special guest, James Martin, former editor of Tennis Magazine. Last year, in a stunning turnabout, James left to become's soccer editor. Check out his blog here.


STEVE TIGNOR: James, it's been about a year since you left Tennis to work as ESPN's soccer editor. I know you had become a huge soccer fan in the last few years; do you love it as much now that you work in it?

Somehow I still like tennis as much as I ever have, and still love to write about it, though it's not the same as a fan. Watching it is is no longer relaxing or just something for enjoyment; it's work, too. Good work.


JAMES MARTIN: Time does fly. Can't believe it's almost a year already. Yup, soccer sucked me in a number of years ago and amazingly, I still do love it as much, if not more so, than I did when I first started watching. I hear you—it is work when you're writing off a game, or covering it in some manner. You've always got to remember what your target audience wants, what the big story is and making sure you're always on top of the big news story no matter the time, day or night. That can be exhausting. As can the seemingly never-ending fixture list. Like tennis, soccer  basically never stops.

But when you're really on vacation, do you still go out of your way to watch tennis? I was in Disney last week, and was scoping out bars to watch a couple of the matches for the enjoyment of it. Of course, I'll have plenty of time to write about it when I'm in divorce court, as the wife was none too pleased.

I've also noticed that, unlike tennis, soccer fans never debate whether the season is "too long." They seem to want more, not less. Which I've found quite interesting. People just can't get enough of it. Is it simply because you're rooting for a shirt/badge, instead of a player?


STEVE TIGNOR: We've had this conversation before, but what is it about soccer that there can seem, to me at least, to be a "game of the century," or something close, every single week? I don't know one league or tournament from the next, but a few weeks ago I know there was something massive involving Barcelona. Then, two days ago, I walk into a restaurant in my neighborhood in the middle of the afternoon, and there are 25 people in there with their eyes glued to a soccer game (by the way, there's nothing worse than walking into a bar and seeing a pitch on TV; downright un-American). I read later that it was part of another big tournament. So what was the last one?

I think there's definitely a "rooting for the uniform" thing that keeps people coming back. Team-sport fans really are part of the team, the team part of their lives. It's hard to think of tennis that way—I would watch virtually any pro tennis match, but that's certainly not true of baseball, where I only watch my favorites, the Phillies. I've always thought that the NFL could start a spring season and fans would be happy to come (the players, not so much). 

From the outside, soccer's organizers also do a great job of structuring its seasons and leagues so that there are tons of meaningful games. How does it compare to tennis? Even a fan like myself would like the tennis season to be shorter; I'd appreciate it and savor it more after the time off.


JAMES MARTIN: Nothing warms my heart more than walking into a pub (note: not "bar," it's "pub") to see that beautiful green pitch staring back at me. I was in London recently, and a bunch of us were all congregated around a crackling fire, drinking beer and watching the games for the day. (And yes, they were all massive games.) That is the big difference between being a soccer supporter and a tennis fan. Following tennis always seemed to be a bit of a loner activity—you go, you sit and watch the match, maybe hang out with a friend or two and go home. Very tidy. But with soccer, there's more of a sense of community and camaraderie—often among complete strangers—that I really never experienced in tennis. It's refreshing. But makes sense, too, since in one sport you're pulling for a team, and in another it's all about the individual.

Plus, there's so much more in soccer that draws your attention. You get to watch leagues from each country (most go with the English Premier League and Spain's La Liga, as well as MLS here). Then you go up to regional club competitions—the one you referred to below involving Barcelona was the Champions League. I encourage you to take off your Stars and Stripes glasses, because the Champions League is the rest of the world's NFL, the final in May its super bowl. Then in May, you get international competitions pitting country against country. Last summer was this little thing called the World Cup, and this summer we've got the Copa America (South America, pitting Brazil vs. Argentina), Gold Cup for North America and the Women's World Cup. So you can root for club and country.

I completely agree that tennis could learn a thing or two about soccer’s marketing. It is a bit silly that there are so many "massive games," "title-tilts," "relegation battles," "must-wins," "derby days"—it goes on and on. But tennis seems to struggle to promote anything outside of the Grand Slams. Being at ESPN, I get to see how the all-important "casual fan” reacts to the sport, and tennis definitely has its challenges outside of the four majors. From the casual fans' perspective, I think the game—especially the women's—is in a bit of a low right now.

Of course, part of soccer's appeal is rooted in some ugliness—tribal and religious hatred, local turf wars, racism. The game has done its best to stamp that out, but it's still there and it still stokes the flames. That's what I miss about tennis. It's chill and polite.

Then again, after watching a few soccer matches, with the noise, fans going nuts, and OK, the flairs being lit off in the stands (that part does scare me), I turn on tennis and .... crickets. I've always liked the game's relative quiet, but lately I've found the lack of audio stimulation to be a bit of a downer. Silence, it's deafening you know.


STEVE TIGNOR: Soccer does seem to be life for most of the world—all the beauty and the ugliness packed into a pitch. If you think about what soccer and tennis actually are, of course, they both sound incredibly primitive: in one, you kick a ball down a field; in the other, you hit a ball over a net.

Well, maybe this is a good time for Novak Djokovic. He and his very vocal Serbian fans bring a bit of the soccer stadium to the tennis arena. It's amazing how just a few can sound like so many. If you watched the Australian Open on TV, you might have thought half the building was cheering for him. It was about 20 people.

What do you think of Djokovic's surge, from your perspective? I like the guy and always try to see him play, though if he does continue like this I think his presence at the top will take some getting used to, after these years with Rafa and Rog. Will fans get to know and like members of his entourage, the way we have Uncle Toni and Mirka? Djokovic's parents are characters, but I'm not sure of his and his group's appeal to traditionalist tennis fans. Think he can take over No. 1?


JAMES MARTIN: I've been happy to see the Djoker's rise. He was this close to becoming a career head case who would occasionally win a big tournament but otherwise defeat himself with a lack of focus and, let's face it, bizarre behavior. I do miss some of his breakdowns—the heavy breathing as if he’s trapped in a room with no oxygen was always a favorite of mine—but to see him finally clicking, and having fun, is great to watch. And the fact that he fixed his serve is impressive, especially given how badly his mechanics were messed up on that stroke.

You're right about him and his entourage. They bring a little craziness wherever they go, and when Todd Martin tried to snuff that stuff out of Djoker, it was a problem. Like Wayne Rooney, the Manchester United soccer player, Djokovic is an emotional player, but he needs this passion to fuel his game. Thankfully he's also showing the professionalism of working hard at the same time. It's a great combination. Whereas with Rooney, his passion too often turns sinister, like when he yelled the F word into camera this past weekend or threw an elbow for no reason a few weeks ago. Not acceptable, but if you try to change him, to get him to not behave with a certain recklessness, he wouldn't be the same player. Same, on a certain level, for Djokovic.

Though, come to think of it, the better comparison for Rooney would be Connors—both guys turned sport into war. Have you seen Rooney play? Do you see the parallels between him and Connors? I know you've been delving deep into that era of late.

So, anyway, back on topic: I think Djokovic will become No. 1—and, regardless of what the rankings say, he truly is the best player in the world this year so far. I've heard some people say that he doesn't have a shot on the clay, which I think is ridiculous. The French will be a hurdle, and will test all of Djokovic's mental strength (we could see a return to his panic attacks) but I'm liking his chances.

The men's game is in good hands. The women's game, not so much. That's the one place where, as a fan, I just don't get excited or go out of my way to watch it like I do the men's matches. I'm not going to carve out two hours to be bored by Woz and Petrova, or whomever. Sorry to offend all the women's fans out there, but if you compare today's game to previous eras, it's pitiful.

What do you think of the state of women's tennis right now? Do you think at one of its lower, if not lowest point in the past 20 years? I'd say yes.


STEVE TIGNOR: I have seen Rooney play, though not a whole lot. I like his style; there's a street quality to it, yes? That hard-charging aspect is Connors-like, though it must be more common in soccer than it is in tennis. My favorite two soccer players were Michael Owen and the first Ronaldo. I root for the Germans in the World Cup. I like seeing the old clip of the 1966 Cup, with Queen Elizabeth handing the trophy to what's his name, Bobby Moore? I like Brazil's and Cameroon's uniforms. I like the way a Premier League match (game?) looks when it's foggy. And . . .  that's about it with me and soccer.

Women's tennis: I've learned to stop worrying and take what I can get from week to week. I would say the WTA is in a lull—no Serena, no Justine, Kim only committed to majors, Wozniacki a relatively bland personality—except that we've been saying that for a while. So I find things I like and talk about them. Radwanska's game, Azarenka's run last week, Wozniacki's smarts, Sharapova's fight, Zvonareva's improvement, Kim's excellence when she's clicking. Sometimes, I agree, the women's tour can seem to have little rhyme or reason from one week to the next. Has watching purely as a fan changed how you see the sport, or certain players? Is there anyone you especially like to watch?


JAMES MARTIN: Ah, Steve, so much more to love about soccer, so little time for me to show you. Though I concur on Brazil's uniform—best in the game. Do you like the foggy look so you actually don't have to watch the sport? Suspicious. And the Germans? They're my pick to win the Euros next summer, so I think you'll have plenty to root for come June 2012. I'll be there, in Poland and Ukraine.
Rooney and Connors: There's a doubles team for the ages.

I hear you on women's tennis—it's been this way for a while, but to me, the longer it remains in this lull, the more of a story is becomes. In a perverse sort of way. They need someone like a Milos Raonic to burst onto the scene. Obviously, the WTA can't create stars; it must play the hand its dealt. But I can't help but think that the tour's policy for the last 15 years or so, of cultivating the image of the DIVA and promoting these few players has come back to bite the tour in the proverbial arse. They have thrived, and now are dying, around their cult of personality policy.

But on to more encouraging things, like Raonic. I've enjoyed watching this kid, and can't wait to see what he can do on the grass at Wimbledon. I don't expect too much from him this year but soon enough, he could be a major force at the All England Club (and elsewhere).

Now that I'm a fan, I can't really say it's changed my view of the sport or its players. When I was with Tennis and, I approached the sport as a fan. Yes, we all have jobs to do, like you said earlier, but we love what we're watching. That hasn't changed. (Though since leaving, my game has taken a complete nosedive—cosmic forces punishing me perhaps for turning away from tennis to pursue soccer?) Of course, some matches fall through the cracks, as I can't watch them and all the footie, too, but I try to make sure to catch Nadal still. He remains my favorite. Don't really give a toss about Federer these days, but still love watching Tsonga, Sod (likable for his unlikable-ness) and, God help me, David Ferrer, the bulldog who reminds me of all the players who I hate competing against at my club.

On a side note, I really could do without Jon Lovitz on those Tennis Channel spots. Painful.

I'd ask you who are your favorite soccer players, but you already gave me an incredibly short list. If you had to pay to watch a tennis match—yes, I've had to suffer that indignity since leaving the comfy confines of Tennis—who would you shell out for? Top three. Mine: Nadal, Djokovic, and Tsonga.


STEVE TIGNOR: Good one, put me on the spot: Who would I pay to see right now? It can’t be any of the top men or women; I’ve seen them for too long. Among the youth, I would pay to see Dolgopolov, Dmitrov, and, hoping that she wasn’t going to have one of her terrible off days, Petra Kvitova.

I would certainly pay to see events—Monte Carlo, for one, which starts next week. Will you watch? Someday I’ll get to that tournament, feel like a big-shot world traveler jetting to the Principality. It’s one sporting sign of spring for me, along with April baseball and the Masters this weekend. I guess I’m the quintessential “casual fan” when it comes to golf: Love to watch the majors, especially the Masters on Sunday, but would rather put a hole in my head than be caught spending one second of my time watching any lesser golf tournament—I have a feeling there are casual tennis fans out there who feel like that; it speaks to how important the prestige of an event is in tennis and golf. I think it overrides any personal appeal a certain player might have. I can count on one hand the number of people I've ever spoken to who have known what a "Masters Series" tournament is.

Speaking of spring and another favorite topic, this is also the time when I start shifting my music listening, from the jazzy to the rock-ish. I really know it’s spring when I put the Modern Lovers on my Ipod and switch from my winter Jonathan Richman song, the brutally lonely “Walk Up the Street,” about a guy with nothing else to do on a cold Friday night but take a walk up his street for no reason whatsover (yes, I hate to say, but I’ve been there), to the groovy “Ride on the Down the Highway,” about a guy going to meet his girlfriend.

Any new music for you? I’m trying this pop-punk band Yuck at the moment—good name, verdict is still out on the music. My big musical discovery this winter was YouTube. You can hear it all there, and for some reason it sounds better there to me than it does on my stereo or Ipod. Why, I have no idea. But there’s nothing like putting a jazz song on, putting the cover on full-screen—hopefully it's a classic Blue Note cover—setting the laptop next to you, and then clicking from song to song. A fine evening can be had right there.


JAMES MARTIN: Dolgopolov, that's a good pick. I've only seen him once so far, but I was impressed.

When you book your ticket to Monte Carlo, let me know. Would love to join you on that trip. I still remember reading Bodo's essay on the tournament and how he described the people around him. I especially remember him saying there were lots of arms dealers among the crowd, and there can be nothing better than rubbing elbows with that crowd.

Is there a tournament more associated with its climate/ I don't think I've ever seen a picture of that stadium without the Mediterranean sea in the background.

I'm with you on the golf front. Sunday Masters with a few beers is the way to go.

Re: music, I recently rediscovered Spin, the magazine. Did it on one of my trips to London. I'd stopped reading it, and while I was in the airport I figured I'd pick up a copy. Anything to take my mind off the fact that I'm about to face my impending doom 30,000 feet in the air. And now I'm hooked again. They just had a cover story on the Strokes, and there was a hilarious bit about how the group couldn't believe that it did F-all for five years, decide to return to music and get offered more money than they ever had been. There you go, boys and girls: The lesson for today is STOP TRYING, and then cash will fall into your lap.

The new album, by the way, is poor. Is This It? is basically the only good Strokes album for me.

Also picked up the new Social Distortion album. Yes, they're still around, well, at least Mike Ness is, and he personifies cool in my book. This is by far his most Rolling Stones, blues-y album yet. The extra polish will have loyal fans screaming at him, but for rock 'n roll, this album is tight. I've also come a little bit late to the party on Jenny and Johnny, the best indie pop album I've heard in ages. Infectiously catchy with lyrics that cut. My favorite line, sung over the most melodic, sweet voice of Jenny Lewis (of Rilo Kiley), is "I'll forgive you, if I outlive you," as her way of summing up a recent, soured relationship.

I also considered going to the Pogues in NYC but, you know, that would require me actually leaving my house. You might take meaningless walks, but you're one step ahead of me—literally. Not complaining, though. I still think the greatest pleasure in life is hunkered down in a dark room, listening to records and drinking beer (or scotch, as the mood fits). But now I must revisit that ritual with some You Tube listening. Do you sit in front of the computer when you listen, though? That would kind of kill the mood for me, as I like to be in my EZ Chair.

On another note, I've also recently gotten heavily into Ray Winstone fandom and just watched Nil By Mouth; if you haven't seen it, check it out.


STEVE: Thinking about this, and thinking back to your comment about soccer fans never calling the season "too long," is there some kind of guilt that goes with being a tennis fan? Because it's not mainstream enough that you actually see other tennis fans every day, I wonder if we tennis lovers somehow feel it's not right, that it's a little weird—we're actually ambivalent about how much of it we want to see, which is apparently never true in soccer. To soccer fans, it's the more the better, more leagues, more games, more tournaments; you guys feel like loving soccer is what everyone is meant to do. Must be nice.

All right, James, thanks for talking. Have a good weekend. I'm sure there's an un-missable soccer match on at some point. By the way, I sit with the computer to my left when I listen on YouTube, and read as the songs play. I will leave you with another classic Jonathan Richman song fit for spring.

See if you don't recognize this feeling:

When I get off the train and start walking, oh oh oh oh

That's when I feel the way that I was born to in my soul

Jonathan Richman - When I'm Walking


Have a good weekend

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