One of the four has been compared to Luke Skywalker and recently “warmed up” for his match with Rafael Nadal with a meal consisting of an entire pizza and a platter of ham. Another of them only gave up smoking recently, but insisted that many players ranked above him at the time “Can’t play tennis.” The third got into a shoving match with tour veteran Mardy Fish at, of all things, an exhibition, and the fourth member of this quartet has a tattoo of Grumpy (of the Seven Dwarfs) on his hip.
And if these guys keep playing the way they have been this year, it could be a very interesting and undoubtedly amusing clay-court segment ending at Roland Garros.
The men mentioned above are, in order of appearance, Benoit Paire, Ernests Gulbis, Grigor Dimitrov, and Fabio Fognini. Each of them seems poised to make a breakthrough, although their peers and rivals might just put that down to the media once again crying, “Wolf!” For you could have whittled a lot of toothpicks out of raw limber waiting for Gulbis to fulfill his potential, and the “Baby Federer” nickname bestowed on Dimitrov hangs as much like an albatross as an endorsement.
Still. These are four of the most entertaining players on the planet, and they represent a renaissance of the class of player commonly referred to as the “head case.” Eccentric, charismatic knuckleheads have been well-represented in tennis over the years, some of them have even won Grand Slam events and/or hit No. 1 in the rakings (Ilie Nastase, anyone?).
But a funny thing happened in the wake of the era dominated by the likes of Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe. The game took a sharp conservative turn with the emergence of Pete Sampras and then Roger Federer in successive generations. Sampras suddenly made it cool to be cool-headed and professional once again. Federer and even Rafael Nadal advanced that tradition, to the extent that even Jimmy Connors’ endless carping about the rules and regulations taking the “personality” out of the game began to strike a chord in many observers.
Has tennis become too sedate? Too corporate? A little. . . boring? Not if these four attractive nut jobs have anything to say about it, so let’s take a quick look at their pasts and prospects, in order of age starting with the youngest — and perhaps most promising: