Hard Times for the Hard Cases

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 /by
Fabio Fognini likes to stir the pot during his matches—an attitude frowned upon by most everyone else in tennis. (AP Photo)
Fabio Fognini likes to stir the pot during his matches—an attitude frowned upon by most everyone else in tennis. (AP Photo)

For a few decades, Jimmy Connors made a living going around declaring how pitiful it was that the evil lords of tennis had taken all the “personality” out of the game. Some took notice of his complaint; some even agreed. But the story died a quiet death, basically because nobody cared. Or, more likely, everyone much prefers it the way things are now.

It’s a bad time to be an anti-hero in tennis.

It isn’t that long since those halcyon days of the “tennis boom,” when Ilie Nastase would flip off chair umpires and, after making an uncharacteristically ugly error, mince around on the court. Connors was showing how much “personality” he had by displaying his rich command of the obscene gesture before the eyes of 20,000 or more spectators, many of them mortified.

How about the time Goran Ivanisevic, he of the famous “two Gorans,” expressed a desire to shoot a whole group of people with a machine gun? Nobody in the room even paused to raise an eyebrow mid-sentence. That was back when reporters didn’t use tape recorders, or get printed press-conference transcripts.

And, of course, John McEnroe was attaining international notoriety for the quality of his Vesuvian outbursts; no innocent, court-side geranium was exempt from a potential beheading at any moment.

Now? Fabio Fognini, arguably the most riveting in the ever-shrinking pool of players who are unabashed about expressing their frustrations, is seen largely as a pariah. No poet with a press pass is inclined to write a few paragraphs about the true meaning of the cavalier disrespect with which he treats the racquet that he often swings so wonderfully. Nobody coaxes emotional, sympathy-inducing confessions out of Fognini in one-on-one interviews.

The fact that Fognini was fined $27,500 for his behavior during a first-round match that he eventually won at Wimbledon is duly noted as a statistical detail that may or may not be interesting. When an Italian journalist asked Fognini if he felt he were the subject of special scrutiny, Fognini sounded almost repentant as he replied, “I am kept track of the way Ernests Gulbis is because we’re two hotheads.” He added, “They have rules here, different from other (tournaments), that need to be followed.”

Time was, a guy like Fognini might have reacted to the disciplinary measure by suggesting that all those old guys with out-of-control nose hairs in their club ties could take their fine and stuff it.

Not anymore. Times have changed. Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, coming on the heels of McEnroe and Connors, trumped the hot-headedness of that rebel, Andre Agassi. We embarked upon a new era of civility and rekindled sportsmanship. Critically, Roger Federer and then Rafael Nadal embraced the new/old ethos. Only the odd malcontent dares decry them as “corporate.”

I can’t help but feel that a few guys out there—Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, most notably—had real rebel potential. But they decided to go the other way. It’s just easier, for one thing. For another, if what you really want to do is win big tournaments, it’s the way to go. It seems almost an amazing feat that those distracted, much-despised—as well as loved—rebels of yore actually won big tournaments. But that’s also what gave them what legitimacy they have.

The modest and dwindling rebel class currently consists of Fognini, Gulbis, Bernard Tomic, Radek Stepanek, and Benoit Paire. None of them is likely to overturn the establishment’s or fan base’s preference for what Connors would undoubtedly, and with some justification, deride as conformity.

Stepanek, whose in-your-face gamesmanship once was nonpareil (at least in today’s tame environment), is 35 years old and ranked No. 34. Rebellion is mainly a young man’s game. He’s more wily veteran than hothead nowadays.

Gulbis, now that he’s tasted success by way of a No. 13 ranking, is the delinquent turning altar boy—even if reporters still bum-rush his press conferences, hoping he says something inflammatory. He tries to oblige them but, let’s face it, talk is cheap. The gold standard for bad boys remains on-court behavior.

Benoit Paire? Down to No. 96, the 25-year old Frenchman has won two matches in a row just once this year. That won’t cut it; outside the Top 50, hothead is spelled “j-e-r-k.” It may not seem fair, but that’s how it is.

Tomic may have the most potential (have you heard that before?). He was down to No. 124 before he won in Bogota last week, which lifted him up to No. 70. He’s just 21, 6’5”, and saddled with a violent, domineering father. He still has the most upside, in the rebel respect.

When you consider No. 20 Fognini’s reaction to Wimbledon’s disciplinary action, you sense that his top spot among the rebels can be taken—for better or worse.

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