Winning Points, Making Points

by: Peter Bodo | April 06, 2012

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by Bobby Chintapalli

CHARLESTON – The press conference room at the Family Circle Cup is where, in 2004, Martina Navratilova took issue with George W. Bush’s position on gay rights and then called him “the worst environmental president of the history.” And where, after winning the title in 2007 and as 40 mph winds shook all the fixtures, Jelena Jankovic stopped mid-sentence to ask if it was dangerous to continue. (It took little persuasion to convince her it was safe to keep talking.)

The room is nothing fancy. Occupying a quarter of the media center, which is essentially a big white tent right next to stadium court, it’s separated from the side with tables for media, tournament staff and tour officials by a black curtain. It has a small stage with a table and chair for players and holds about 35 chairs for everyone else. It’s where players do post-match press conferences and where they might, or might not, shed light on the things they do on court and the people they are off it.

Here are notes on a few of the quarterfinalists who made their way in and out of the room yesterday.

Vera Zvonareva (will play Lucie Safarova)

* Length of interview: 10 minutes
* Words in transcript: 1,369
* Media people in attendance: 6

At the pro level most tennis players are likely perfectionists, but in Vera Zvonareva’s case the unwillingness to accept anything but her best extends to press conferences too.

The things she does well on court – the focus, the point construction – show themselves in her responses. And the things she doesn’t do so well – her over-the-top, if sometimes under-the-towel, emotions – disappear. She’s calm and steady in interview rooms, even when asked, yet again, about melting down on court.

Zvonareva’s not a big smiler and forget guffawing, but she’ll give you a good answer or at least give it her best shot. Even when you don’t agree – like when she says, “If you’re not happy about yourself, sometimes you need to break the racquet and move on” – you suspect she believes it.

She’s analytical. Zvonareva, who doesn’t have a coach and isn’t in a hurry to find one, talked about the keys to a good coaching relationship. She cited professional skills, belief and compatible personalities. What makes the response Zvonarevan is that it was numbered. It takes a certain bent of mind to say “first,” “second,” “third.”

Her super-rational answers are at odds with her sometimes odd on-court behavior. In the tight last game of her 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 win against unseeded Stefanie Voegele in the third round today, the No. 4 seed seemed annoyed at people cheering her on, as if they were ruining some reverie. She pulled her visor so low – to keep the emotions in and the world out, it seemed – you wondered what she could see. Maybe it all comes from an inside overflowing with thoughts, and maybe that’s what makes her a good interviewee.

Who knows how to reconcile the conscientious answerer with the wicker kicker? Zvonareva’s an enigma. She looked near tears by the end of her match today, but not a full hour later said the most joyful thing I heard all day. Asked what makes tennis the world’s most successful women’s sport, a player who can look miserable on court flashed one of her few smiles – it was big and heartfelt – and started with this sentence, made more powerful for its simplicity: “I really love tennis.”

As with the broken racquets and exhaustive responses, she couldn’t hold it in.

Sabine Lisicki (will play Serena Williams)

* Length of interview: 7 minutes
* Words in transcript: 1,090
* Media people in attendance: 7

Lisicki has a fierce game but is light and airy in press. Yesterday she came in straight from her 7-5, 6-4 win over Yaroslava Shvedova. She wore her tennis kit, even her visor, and a towel across her shoulders.

Lisicki said she didn’t always like clay and made it a point to mention – and to lightheartedly mention that she mentioned – that the Olympics will be on grass (a surface on which she does well).

Her big laugh made its first appearance when asked about Serena Williams, her next opponent. Asked about their match at Stanford, where Lisicki lost 6-1, 6-2, she said, “It can only get better.” Then she laughed a good, long while.

Lisicki can’t always hold back the tears when a match has gone wrong, but her enthusiasm is hard to miss after wins. One person who notices is tournament transcriptionist Kelly McKee, who’s been working at this tournament for 17 straight years. (She started in 1996, when the tournament was on Hilton Head Island and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario won the singles and doubles titles.) “She just seems to get excited more than other players,” McKee said. “I just think she’s cute. She smiles a lot.”

Stay tuned for Lisicki’s reaction after her next match, where as she put it, “there will be two aggressive players out there.”

Serena Williams (will play Sabine Lisicki)

* Length of interview: 7 minutes
* Words in transcript: 1,035
* Media people in attendance: 20

Clad in a long-sleeve Nike top on a sweat-inducing Charleston afternoon, Serena Williams was hot and cold at the start of her match and also at the end.

The best server of her generation started her 6-2, 6-2 win over Marina Erackovic with a double fault only to win the game on an ace. Then in the last game she impressed the packed stadium court crowd with a service return winner off an 83 mph serve followed by one off a 98 mph serve to set up match point. She botched that first match point with a backhand just long, only to set up a second on a forehand winner with enough oomph that a fan yelled, “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Serena erased her second match point with a backhand return just wide. After starting the match with her own double fault, she eventually won it on her opponent’s double fault.

Whether things are up or down it’s typically Serena who determines how they’ll go – if Serena says she’s worried about her side of the court, it’s fact, not platitude. It’s no different in interviews and press conferences. When she laughs, the room laughs with her. When she’s bored or moody or elsewhere, she sucks the air right out of the room.

As usual her post-match press conference yesterday, the most packed one I saw in my day and a half here, was on her racquet.

When a writer started asking about the French Open, Serena didn’t let him get past the part about not reaching a final since she won it (in 2002, at the start of the Serena Slam). She interjected sternly with, “But I won it, so.” After the writer got in a few more words she added, “A win. That’s all that matters. It’s a lot more than a lot of people can say.”

If anyone in the room was thinking about the next question or anything else, they stopped and paid attention to right here, right now. This was Serena, or “The Serena” as Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova might say, and she was serious.

Until she wasn’t, because it was also Serena who had the room erupting in laughter one question later. As she made her way out of the stadium after her match, she stopped to sign autographs and give easy high-fives to a half dozen kids. When one asked for her wristband, Serena gave it to her. The kids were delighted and showed the sweaty souvenir to everyone they could before one of the moms took it away and put it in a Ziplock bag. Told about this and asked the craziest thing she’s been asked for after a match, Serena didn’t think long.

“Well, besides the obvious, yeah,” she said, cracking herself up and saying little else but making it clear she didn’t mean anything as pure as daisies and sunshine. “Thank you. I think we’ll end on that.”

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