PARIS—The press interview room at most of the tennis events I cover is ably manned by the most helpful and useful people on the site, ASAP stenographers Julie Rabe and Linda Christensen. They’re the ones who record and transcribe sometimes lengthy and often borderline intelligible interviews and press conferences. These two weeks alone here at Roland Garros, the ladies churned out close to 150 interviews, some of them including material translated into English from French or Spanish — and emailed the three and four page documents out to us as quickly as 15 minutes after the official interview ended.
Julie and Linda, my friends and our sport’s version of Thelma and Louise, rarely get to leave the interview room, except to eat or take a brief break. But they have a fair amount of contact with reporters and the players in a behind-the-curtain way. It’s always interesting to hear what they have to say.
For example, both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are considerate gentlemen. Federer will usually make a point to acknowledge them and exchange pleasantries, while Rafa — who’s admittedly a little more hot-blooded — greets them at each new tournament with kisses on both cheeks. Ana Ivanovic is a darling, they say. And Andy Murray is really curious about the how their stenotype machine works (an interest no doubt stimulated by his intimate knowledge of gaming consoles).
The sheer volume of words Julie and Linda record at a tournament is astonishing, and full of exchanges ranging from the incisive and profound to the absurd. At their best, these interviews are often moving conversations, and those are hard to re-create. So let me choose three or four moments that can’t be handled in the scope of a typical news report or feature, but were memorable for reasons having nothing to do with the draw or seedings.
This exchange took place following Federer’s five-set win over Gilles Simon in the fourth round:
Q: (from a well-dressed, middle-aged man) “You're looking very fresh. Actually, doesn't look like you played five sets.”
A: “Thank you. You look great, too. . .” Laughter interrupted Federer and the man interjected “thanks!” as Federer went on. “. . . great for watching a match of five sets. Did you take a shower?"
Q: (the guy just had to press his luck): “These boring interviews, we have to get you guys to loosen up a bit.”
A: “I'm happy you did,” Federer said dryly.
No star is too great to be spared the complicated or even off-the-wall question that may be relevant to a story the reporter is working on, but not to the events of the day. Sometimes the reporter is fishing for something very specific, although it’s often hard to imagine what that might be. Here’s an unedited surprise lobbed by a Russian reporter at Rafa following his win over Fabio Fognini.
Q. “I want to ask a technical question, if I may. People are trying to improve the game every time, every year, new technique, new things that are coming up. I think it's very important for the coaches to know from the best players what is really important and what is not. Like nowadays on forehand and on serve some coaches, lots of them, are obsessed with where their non-racquet hand/arm is finishing after the stroke. So with little kids they are very specific about that. Does it matter to you? Do you ever worry about where your non-racquet arm is after the stroke, after the ball is hit? Do you understand what I. . .
A: (Nadal smiled) “No. Sorry.” Everyone laughed, but the reporter blazed on.
Q: “Thank you. Fantastic. For example, Roddick, when he serves, okay, his left arm finishes. . .”
A: (Clearly, Nadal wanted to move on without being rude, so he interjected): “Okay. My answer is, I really didn't understand all the question, but I can imagine in which way you are talking. Sorry, but I think at the end you see a lot of fantastic players playing with different technique. . .so you have different options.
“ You cannot do crazy things, you know. If you're having a very bad technique, is very difficult to be in the top. . . My advice to the coaches is when you have a kid and the kid is doing well in one way, you don't have to change. If the kids are not doing well this way, change the technique or change the things. But always the same. If the things are going well, you don't need to change nothing. Just try to keep improving things.”
Q. “Thank you very much.”
A: “Thank you.” Rafa paused. “I tried, eh?” (Laughter.)
Occasionally and sometimes deservedly, a reporter is dressed down or subjected to a withering put-down. Sometimes, it’s not even a critical reaction, but it’s still somewhat embarrassing to be the butt of a joke — as I was in an interview with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
It happened after his win over Viktor Troicki set him up for a clash with Federer. As it turned out, I was the only reporter who had questions in English (questions in English are handled first, then the interview switches to whichever is the player’s native tongue). I fired away to start the presser.
Q: “To an outsider, it looks likes Gaël Monfils here gets a lot of the attention, and a lot of the drama. You keep getting the victories. Is this a satisfactory trade for you?”
A: “Yeah, for me it's good. I mean, it's always good to win in straight sets. I don't spend too much energy for this, anyway. I'm playing well, so all the lights are green, and, yeah, I will have a big match for the next round and hope I will play my best tennis.”
Q. (WTF? I thought. But I’ve learned over the years not to force an issue, and tacked hard): Roger and Gilles are still out there, but in the back of your mind it's probably impossible for you not to know that at some point you might have to meet the Roger obstacle. How do you feel about your game right now, matching with his?”
A: “You know, Roger is playing well for the moment, too. But, you know, I know I'm able to win, you know, against Roger, against Gilles, because it's not finished, and it can be Gilles. You know, for me it's easy now. Everything is positive. . . to play this quarterfinal.”
Tsonga then turned to his French countrymen and, in an aside, triggered an explosion laughter. He turned back to me, smiled, and explained, through a translator, that he told his countrymen that he didn’t understand my questions but more or less guessed at them and winged it.
I appreciated his good-natured honesty, and realized how many of these interviews more or less generate the usual clichés about giving 100 percent, being “concentrated,” not looking ahead in the draw, etc. etc.
Reporters take special pleasure in engaging a player in something like a dialogue; it makes them feel noticed, important. Sometimes, they adopt an inappropriately familiar tone with the players, thereby boosting — or hoping to boost — their own worth. Whatever the case, it’s always a little irritating to the professionals in the room when an amateur decides he or she is Rafa or Nole’s new best friend.
The following anecdote isn’t a particularly egregious example of the habit, but note how the Chinese reporter prefaces her fangirl comment/question. She makes a crack referring to the previous (and obviously most relevant) line of questioning about Djokovic’s upcoming match with Nadal — and on the presumption that Djokovic himself wished to be rescued from such questions.
Q. “I guarantee you it's not about Rafa. You talked the other day about your language skill, and you mentioned you might know two or three Chinese characters. A lot of our audience would like to know which three.”
A: “I don't know the names. (Laughter.) I learned how to draw my name or my nickname in Chinese, but I haven't done it for few months.”
Q: (The reporter persisted). “That's the one? (apparently, she referred to a single character that represented his name)”
A: “It faded away, the knowledge.”
Q: “That's actually just one,” she reiterated.
A: Yeah. I still need to learn 4,999 signs, but there is a long way. (Laughter.)
Q. “Good luck,” the cheeky lady said.
A: “Thank you. (Laughter.) Very nice. . .very nice.”
We then returned to asking Djokovic about his rivalry with Nadal, perhaps leaving 1.3 billion Chinese disappointed — and one Chinese reporter stuck without the story she wanted to get.