Reading the Readers: Feb. 19
It's a bit of a slow moment in the tennis world, so I'll go to the mailbag today. If you have a question or comment for this column, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sloane Stephens, Laura Robson, and Genie Bouchard: When will journos stop hyping those players from their own countries and write about someone like Simona Halep? As you can see, she can win whole tournaments.—Andreja
I haven’t counted the words, but you’re probably right; Stephens, Robson, and Bouchard have each had more written and said about them than Halep. Robson has been a fixture of the British sporting pages since she was a Wimbledon junior champion at 14. Stephens has been hailed by the U.S. media as the successor, student, and rival of Serena Williams. And Bouchard became famous for inspiring a Genie’s Army of young male fans from Melbourne, and coming down with a case of Bieber fever.
In a perfect, internationalist, non-sexist world, Halep would also have garnered this kind of attention (maybe she has in Romania, but not in the English-language press). As you say, she has won seven more tournaments than Sloane and has a solid record against Top 10 opponents. But while you and I follow a global game, most people who read the sports pages of newspapers or watch cable sports channels—most people in general—don’t. When it comes to tennis, readers are interested in how their country’s players are doing, which means that journalists from those papers don’t have a choice about who they report on. At a Grand Slam, the Czech writers cover Berdych and Kvitova, the U.S. writers cover Serena and Co., the Brits cover Murray and Robson, the Danish cover Wozniacki, the Aussies cover Tomic and Stosur, the French cover the French. In Australia each year, I sit next to a Belgian reporter who follows Ruben Bemelmans’ every move. Kei Nishikori has an entire Japanese TV channel, Wowow, in tow at the majors. The English-language press, of course, is the most widely read. Tennis fans everywhere have heard a lot about 20-year-old Laura Robson of England, but not so much about Elina Svitolina, a 19-year-old from the Ukraine, despite the fact that Svitolina is ranked 11 spots higher at the moment.
That said, the media has never won or lost a match for any player. And when you reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam at 19, as Stephens and Bouchard did, press attention can’t be dismissed as baseless “hype.” They’ve shown the potential to succeed at the highest level, and even if they don’t do it again right away, that potential makes them worth following and chronicling. (To a point, of course; Melanie Oudin was a Grand Slam quarterfinalist at 17, but we’re not watching her every move anymore.) I’ve always been surprised by how much anger John Isner has inspired because of the perception that he's overhyped by the U.S. media. It’s true that he's been a disappointment at the Slams, but Isner is still in the Top 15 and is a threat to beat anyone in two-of-three-set matches. And like Stephens, he's also received his share of criticism in the media after his failures.
The more important difference between players from various countries isn't media attention, it's the resources they have at their disposal—coaching, travel money, wild cards. There will probably always be more Brits and Americans in the press room than Romanians, but if Halep keeps winning, the words will follow. And if Sloane doesn’t, the attention will, eventually, go away. Maybe that would be a good thing for her.
I’m wondering, if you think grunting in tennis is bad, does the yelling in curling bother you, too?—Stephanie
Interesting point. For the last two weeks, I’ve looked forward to 5:00 P.M. here, because that’s when curling has been broadcast. I usually sit at a desk away from the TV and wander over and watch when I need a work break. But I have to keep the sound low, because, like you said, curling is a surprisingly ear-splitting sport.
The difference between curling calls and tennis grunts, of course, is that, the curlers are communicating—it can be hard to tell sometimes, but those cries are apparently words. Like a quarterback in football telling his teammates where to go at the line of scrimmage, curlers have to tell each other when to sweep. That’s why no one complains when a doubles player in tennis calls out, “Leave it!” to his or her partner as a ball is going by.
Grunting doesn’t communicate anything, other than your own intensity. And making an extended noise as you swing doesn’t make your shots any better—it’s a habit more than anything else. But it’s true, if you ignore the purpose behind the noises in tennis and curling, they’re both loud and potentially grating. And do curlers have to yell? Could they walk together behind the stone and talk normally to each other?
It's too late to wonder now. Loud, extended yelling is part of curling. For better or worse, loud, extended grunting is becoming part of tennis. I’m learning to live with it.