LONDON—John McEnroe had just lost to Brad Gilbert in the ATP eason-ending championships at Madison Square Garden in 1985. Gilbert was to go on and write a book called Winning Ugly. McEnroe would have approved of the title, but he did not really approve of Gilbert.
So as we waited for McEnroe to arrive to his post-match press conference, we expected fireworks. Sharpening our pencils—the digital age had not yet arrived—we thought up some provocative questions. The atmosphere was electric as the slightly disheveled New Yorker walked in.
But before anyone could ask a question, McEnroe slumped in his chair and said, “If I ever play tennis like that again, I will have not have right to call myself a professional tennis player.”
Where were we to go from there? The bad boy of tennis had spiked our guns. Super Brat was never anything but honest.
Johanna Konta, the British No. 1 who made bigger headlines for her reaction to probing questioning in her Tuesday press conference than in actually losing her quarterfinal match to Barbora Strycova, is also honest. She is also the polar opposite in style and personality to John McEnroe.
Which is why the ordeal of the press conference is such a strange feature of life on the pro tennis circuit, full of anxiety, honesty, evasion, humor and just plain awkwardness. “Why did you miss that forehand volley?” It is the sort of inane but, on some occasions necessary, question that set Konta off, revealing the kind of hurt and indignation that so many players feel when cornered by the world’s media.
Suddenly, this very controlled and generally pleasant player said what so many players have surely been feeling over the years. “You are being quite disrespectful,” she said in that British accent that has left her Australian birth far behind. “You are patronizing me.”
Her questioner protested but the point had been made. Where is the line to be drawn when one is asking someone why they made a mistake they desperately did not want to make? Is the rule that forces every player at every official tournament on the ATP and WTA tour, along with the Grand Slams, to go to press conference, win or lose—or be fined $1,000 if they don’t—actually fair?
In the wake of Konta’s reaction, the question is being asked on social media, and it is clear some people think these press conferences are grossly unfair. So, the follow up question has to be: How much should the public have a right to know about a player’s ability to treat triumph and disaster? Writer Rudyard Kipling suggested you should treat them just the same, but he had never lost a match point on Centre Court.
Which begs another question: How would a multi-millionaire CEO of a big corporation react if he or she had to walk out of a meeting, having just blown a deal worth a king’s ransom, and explain their brain freeze at a crucial moment? I would love to see the spluttering indignation that would follow.
In that case, he or she would be a mature, experienced executive well versed in the pressure of the negotiating room. So it is extraordinary in many respects, that we ask teenagers and young twenty-somethings, often speaking in their second language, to handle the frequently probing and “disrespectful” questions that follow a defeat.
How an athlete reacts varies enormously and reveals so much. Everyone saw how 15-year-old Coco Gauff deported herself in the heat of the battle on court at Wimbledon this year. The way she answered questions in press conference was no less impressive. They were relatively gentle questions, of course, but the way she spoke and the intelligence she brought to her answers only confirmed the general impression that she is an exceptional young woman.
From our privileged positions, we watch these young athletes grow up in the most demanding of circumstances and often forget how difficult it must be. Andy Murray learned early. Back then, his very dry Scottish sense of humor did not translate too well south of the border, and got into trouble for suggesting he wanted England to lose a soccer match. Very quickly the lid was put on the humor, and it took Sir Andy years before we were allowed to see his true personality.
That was the media’s fault for trying to build a sensation out of a silly quip, but the public must accept its responsibility, too, for latching on to tabloid trivia. For years I had people trying to tell me that Murray didn’t like the English—which is, of course, rubbish.
I am afraid it may prove to be the same with Konta. “Tetchy” and “prickly” are now words being attached to her personality. She is neither. Although guarded and somewhat structured in the way she explains her wins and losses, she is almost always gracious and patient with the media. For one brief moment, she finally got fed up and said so. Don’t let that define your idea of her.
Obviously some players find press conferences easier than others. Venus Williams, a very bright and charming lady, clearly hates the whole process and rarely says anything worthwhile. Her sister Serena is settling down a bit now, but for years you never knew which Serena you would get—the flamboyant, laughing, joking, all dancing show business superstar, or the monosyllabic, sarcastic grump.
While acknowledging that Novak Djokovic is brilliant answering the most difficult questions with a facility for the English language that is quite amazing, one has to turn to Roger Federer as the pinnacle of how to deal with the media. At the root of his endless patience and disarming charm lies the very basic fact that he quite enjoys pressers.
“I do,” he has admitted with a smile. “I know you guys have a job to do and I find it quite fun. Actually, I think some of you are quite funny.”
This from a man who will spend at least an hour after every match, no matter how exhausting it has been, doing his press conference as well as endless TV interviews in Swiss German, French and English.
Although Federer is exceptional with the media, we need to recognize that the vast majority of players display a great of patience and civility in tolerating the ordeal of the press conference. It can be fun, but often it isn’t. Please don’t judge a player on a one-line quote.