The Privilege of Being Ernests

by: Steve Tignor | May 29, 2013

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With four hours and a dozen matches to make up from yesterday, it was wall-to-wall tennis on Wednesday at Roland Garros, from one corner of the grounds to the other, from morning to dying light. The day began with one young U.S. woman, Jamie Hampton, pulling off an upset over the No. 25 seed, Lucie Safarova; it ended with an even younger U.S. woman, Madison Keys, losing in near darkness. Hampton, who has lost her share of close matches, walked off with an overjoyed smile plastered across her face. Keys, who had her chances today, walked off in tears. Those two reactions—relief and despair—were repeated dozens of times over the course of the afternoon. That’s what a day is like on the grounds at a Grand Slam, where there are no emotional in-betweens. 

That’s why we watch, right? Here are a few notes on the fourth day of this year’s French Open. See my Racquet Reaction on its centerpiece match, between Gael Monfils and Ernests Gulbis, here.

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Ernests Gets in the Ring

Speaking of Gulbis, he also made some noise, not too surprisingly, away from the court. In an interview published in the French sports magazine L’Equipe, he called the Big 4 a collective snore. (The interview was conducted in English and translated into French; I'm going by the subsequent translations back into English.)

“Tennis today totally lacks characters,” Gulbis said. “I respect Roger, Rafa, Novak, and Murray, but, for me, all four of them are boring players. Their interviews are boring.”

The Latvian says he wants tennis to be more like boxing. “When [boxers] face each other down at the weigh-in,” he said, “they bring what the fans want: war, blood, emotion.”

Gulbis thinks that the top tennis players have given the sport a veneer of phony camaraderie. “It’s Federer who started this fashion,” he says. “He has a superb image of the perfect Swiss gentleman. I respect Federer, but I don’t like it that young players try to imitate him....I don’t want to hear in an interview a guy who I will not name, but who I know well that he thinks all his opponents are a--holes, putting on an act.”

It should be pointed out right away that boxers' pre-match bluster is the definition of "putting on an act." Still, the question has been around in tennis for at least 30 years: Should this genteel game be fiercer, meaner, more confrontational, more like its 1970s bad boy days? As a fan and reporter, I want every player to be as honest as possible. I want to know what they really think; I want to know who I’m writing about and who I’m rooting for. In this sense, I like Gulbis’ honesty—the guy is a journalist’s dream. I wish more players gave as many incendiary, and hilarious, quotes as he does. I wish more guys would start an interview, as he started one with me in the players’ lounge in Toronto a few years ago, by saying, with a conspiratorial grin, “Let’s walk down here. I don’t want these guys [his fellow pros] to hear me talking s--- about them.” And I agree with Gulbis that tennis could use more players who are willing to talk a little smack.

But no sport, other than pro wrestling, can be all about its personalities. The players get paid to win, not give good quotes, and each of them must find his or her own balance between being a competitor and a public figure. With incendiary quotes comes attention, and that can lead to distraction. At a certain point, Pete Sampras, who was admittedly not a quote machine, decided that it didn’t do him any good to be in the papers for something that he had said. It just led to more hassles, more things to think about, and more questions to answer, none of which helped him win tennis matches. Gulbis conceded in his press conference today that something similar had happened to him after his loss to Rafael Nadal two weeks ago in Rome.

He was asked in Paris if he thought he “should have won” against Monfils today. 

“I lost,” Gulbis said today. “I don’t know. What can I think? I already said I should have won against Nadal and I got some bad press. [Monfils] played good, what can I say?”

At Wimbledon in 2009, Gulbis found himself in even hotter water when he talked some trash about Andy Murray before their second-round match. He accused Murray of having faked an injury to break his rhythm at a previous tournament. Murray heard what Gulbis said, and went out of his way to scorch him in three quick sets.

Take the case of the man at the top of the Big 4, Novak Djokovic. When he arrived on tour, the Serb tended not to mince words, especially when it came to his own ambitions. At the 2008 U.S. Open, he criticized Andy Roddick in a post-match interview after beating him, and was booed for it. A few days later, Djokovic walked out for his semifinal against Federer with a sheepish look on his face, and was sent home in straight sets.

Since he’s become No. 1, Djokovic has been more politic in his statements. He still comes across as genuine, at least to me, but it’s not hard to predict what he’s going to say. Of course, he also hears the same questions day after day, and he does far more interviews than Gulbis does. I’d love to hear Djokovic tell us everything that’s going on in his head, but what good would that do him?

There’s also a sense, and maybe this did start with Federer, that the top guys should be ambassadors for the game, that they should put a classy face on the sport and work to help the tour. Djokovic has continued that tradition. Gulbis would obviously go in a different direction if he were No. 1, not that he's going to have to worry about that anytime soon.

We can make too much of a player’s background and upbringing when we analyze what they say and do, but it’s worth noting again that Gulbis comes from money. It's possible that, over the years, this has made him believe that he could say whatever he thought and do whatever he wanted, without having to worry about repercussions. It may have given him the freedom to have the personality he has. Tennis can use a Gulbis or two in its ranks, but not everyone can talk like him.

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Shots Fired

In on-court news, we had a chance today to see an early battle in what could be a much longer WTA war. Monica Puig of Puerto Rico, age 19, with a ranking of No. 85, took on Madison Keys of the U.S., age 18, with a ranking of No. 58. Puig won 6-4, 7-6 (2). What, aside from the result, did we learn about these two, and which of them might have the better career?

Within the strict stylistic confines of the modern game, Puig and Keys are recognizably different types. Keys is 5’10”, with a big first serve, a high-kicking second serve, and explosive ground strokes. She hits big and lives with the errors, and has a relatively easygoing personality. Puig is 5’7”. She’s more consistent, and she takes the game between her teeth. Based on today’s play, she’s also the more resourceful competitor.

Puig fell behind twice in the second set, yet scratched her way back both times. She hit the right serves at the right times, and stuck a rare volley when she needed to in the tiebreaker. Keys, on the other hand, went for broke—on returns, on forehands, on backhands, from well behind the baseline. Yet each woman went against their type at times: Puig knocked off winners from deep in the court, and Keys fought well in the second set.

Based on all of that, you might hazard a guess that Puig will have more immediate success, while Keys, if and when she gets her game fully together, will pass her the long run. That's how it has worked out for another recent pair of young hopefuls, Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka. Vika, the bigger, less consistent hitter, took a little longer to develop, but she’s well out in front now. 

That’s the future. For the moment, Puig moves on to play Carla Suarez Navarro, while Keys will wipe away the tears and get ready for what might be a better place for her: English grass. Maybe despair will turn to joy there.

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