Here’s the Beef, Part II

Thursday, October 10, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

On Tuesday, I delved into the journalism of disgruntlement by revealing three of my serious complaints about the pro game today: Injury timeouts, the lack of a standard stats sheet, and the embarrassment that is the WTA’s televised on-court coaching policy—an “experiment” (their word) that has gone on way, way too long.

Today, I want to have some fun with the same idea. So let’s get going right away:

1. The “first name” syndrome: Why do so many tennis fans and even journalists insist on calling players by their first names, as if they were actually acquaintances? This is a telling habit that underscores the role personality plays in the game, and also the degree of prejudice that is part and parcel of fandom.

After all, we don’t really know tennis stars, yet we decide how we feel about them, whether they’re “good” or “bad” people. We strive to feel close to our chosen heroes, and therefore call them by their first names (does a Nadal hater ever call him “Rafa?” No, it’s always Nadal). And we’re not just talking about the “Serenas” and “Rogers” and “Rafas,” either. I mean, isn’t it weird to hear someone who never met Chris Evert refer her as “Chrissie?”

Okay, I get it. We identify with our favorites. We want to feel close to them. We want to weigh in on their love lives and celebrate just how “hot” they are. It’s kind of sweet. But there’s a dark side, too. And that’s the irrational loathing some of the most diehard fans harbor for the rivals of their heroes. There’s something wrong when love for “Rafa” automatically engenders hatred for “Djokovic” (notice that the haters don’t like to use first names). 

Of course, there are some practical reasons for using first names only in tennis. Have you ever heard anyone attempt to yell, “Come on, Pavlyuchenkova?” 

2. The Three-Count Chant: I don’t much care if it’s the grating “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. . .Oi, Oi, Oi,” the overly aggressive “U-S-A. . .U-S-A . . .U-S-A,” or the singsong “Olé, Olé, Olé. . . Delpo, Delpo (or substitute any other name that works).” There’s something depressing about these cheers.

There are subtle differences between these rallying cries, but they’re all overly ritualized, predictable, and as irritating as having to listen to the sound of some guy rattling pocket change, or drumming on a tabletop. The outbreak of an enthusiastic chant—“Let’s go, No-Vak”—is more appealing simply because it’s spontaneous and it either swells or immediately dies out. That “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” seems scripted in way that’s marginally military, and the “Olé, Olé, Olé” song is literally meaningless.

In different ways all three of those chants seem mindless and robotic, and each of them is partisan. What tennis needs is a good theme song, something that celebrates just being there, as fans of the game. Kind of like the thing soccer fans have with that Rod Stewart hit, "Sailing."

3. Useful commentary: The late, great Ted Tinling once described a talking head who shall remain nameless as delivering “commentary for the blind.” What he meant was that the commentator was essentially narrating the match, telling viewers what just happened even though they too were watching.

This still happens all too frequently, especially on streaming websites. It’s difficult to avoid some narration, but there’s a world of difference between unnecessarily exclaiming, “That forehand was out!” and waiting for a beat or two and observing: “That’s the fifth forehand error so-and-so has made in this long game.”

The main thing is that commentary ought to consist of either analysis or observations meant to enlighten or amuse the viewer (and to me, the ability to amuse is pure gold). When a player hits an ace, I’d rather hear some guy or lady say “Ouch!” than “There’s the ace.”

4. The “knowledgeable crowd” fallacy: You hear it all the time. A commentator will say something like, “The players really like it here at Wimbledon (or Roland Garros), because it’s a very knowledgeable tennis crowd.” They rarely say this at the U.S. Open because, you know, the New York crowd is supposed to be collectively stupid, incapable of grasping the subtleties of the game, all about being seen rather than seeing.

Well, that’s a bunch of hooey. While I have my own beefs with my fellow New Yorkers (we’re a painfully self-mythologizing, not to mention smug, bunch), the fact is that tennis crowds at all the great venues are very similar in make-up. There’s always a significant number of “students of the game” and dedicated, knowledgeable fans. But the majority of the crowd everywhere is less than fanatical or expert, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Do most of the people who attend the theater now and then qualify as passionate fans of drama, willing to compare the works of Beckett and Pinter?

5. The Pre-Match Interview: Television producers are always looking for a way to improve the product, to make it more interesting and dramatic. But the pre-match interview, which takes place in the tunnel leading to stadium court (at least at the U.S. Open), is one enormous waste of time.

What’s a Victoria Azarenka or Roger Federer supposed to say, just moments before walking out there to meet his or her fate? Just because you can interview someone at a particular moment doesn’t mean you should, but the proof in the pudding is that not a single player—and there are some interesting characters out there—has ever said anything even remotely interesting in these pre-match interviews. That ought to tell you something.

The other day I wondered if we weren’t heading toward the day when we’ll see a “bathroom cam” covering those end-of-set breaks requested by one player or another. Let’s not end up there; let’s start carving back some of these gimmicks that just plain don’t work.

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