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Court of Personality: Echoes of McEnroe, Connors and Nastase in a suddenly emotional ATP tour
Players are increasingly willing to vent their emotions—a development welcomed by those who believe tennis suffers because of its emphasis on old-school sportsmanship and restraint.
Published Jun 23, 2021
The ATP’s top-ranked player smashes racquets with as much gusto as he destroys cherished records. A trio of young, charismatic, sharply defined players—Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev—seem poised to ascend to the top of the game. They and other emerging players (Alexander Bublik and Nick Kyrgios, to name just two) are unreluctant to show how they feel, on and off the court.
Once again, men’s tennis is brimming with “personality,” a quality that’s as hard to define as it coveted. Expressive behavior and openness are in vogue, following the magisterial calm imposed on the sport during the height of the Federer-Nadal era. Emotional displays are in, stiff upper lips, out.
Tennis is lit.
I asked Novak Djokovic about this trend in his pre-match Zoom press conference before the Italian Open. “In terms of the younger generations there is more emotional transparency, so to say,” he replied. “I personally am fond of that. I like when there is charisma. . .when you can see a human side of the tennis players.”
The all-too-human side is on display as well. Lately, the courts have been home to a surprising number of vocal, sometimes angry players. Djokovic himself kicked off the trend at the Australian Open with a formidable demonstration of racquet smashing during his quarterfinal clash with Zverev. (He won the tournament.)
During the Miami Open, tennis-political activist Vasek Pospisil directed an expletive-laced tirade at Andrea Gaudenzi, the leader of the ATP tour. Damir Dzhumur, once a Top 25 pro, was defaulted from a match in a qualifying tournament in mid-March, reportedly for threatening an official with bodily harm. Popular French star Benoit Paire, bemoaning Covid precautions that kept fans at home in April, callously compared the Monte-Carlo Country Club to “a cemetery” and told reporters he doesn’t care if he wins or loses, adding: “The only pleasure I have is when I'm home without my mask and I don't care about the Covid.”
WATCH: Vasek Pospisil blasts ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi during a meltdown in Miami.
Only four players have been defaulted during tour-level matches in the past decade. But two of them—Novak Djokovic and Fabio Fognini—suffered that fate in recent months.
Those incidents are not representative of the entire men’s game. But along with many heartening particulars, they underscore the increased willingness of players to vent their emotions—a development welcomed by those who believe that tennis suffers from a “coolness” deficit because of its traditional emphasis on old-school sportsmanship and restraint.
Patrick Mouratoglou, the coach of Serena Williams, has often expressed his fear that tennis pros have evolved into undemonstrative, “robotic” careerists, encouraged—or obliged, in the case of the ATP’s stringent rules governing behavior—to suppress their emotions on court, avoid controversy, and reveal as little of their true selves as possible. It’s all been part of the business plan, but that may be changing.
“Maybe we have a period where we have more personality on the court, more characters, players that want to show more emotion,” David Goffin said in Rome. “But also it could be because now the level (of play) is so high, the tension, sometimes the frustration. Sometimes you have to release the pressure inside, and it could be (breaking) the racquet, it could be something bad that you can say, or something else.”
That “tension” isn’t generated solely by the highly competitive nature of the tour, or even the anxiety triggered by the significant reduction in prize money due to the pandemic. The stress is at least partly a by-product of the pandemic itself.
“Maybe the bubbles are getting to us a bit,” Zverev said, just days before he won the Madrid Masters. He noted that many of the NBA players had said they were “not very happy” being in a bubble for three months during the conclusion to their 2019-20 season, adding, “In tennis, we’ve been in and out of bubbles for nine months now, without really any ending in sight. Maybe that’s getting to us.”
You should be allowed to smash a racquet on court and not have to worry about getting a $20,000 fine the next day. Anyway, people want to see that. Taylor Fritz
On the administrative side of the game, officials are thought by some to be more tolerant of players stepping out of line—although you wouldn’t know it from the way Paire’s bellyaching about Covid protocols resulted in French officials dropping him from consideration as a member of their Olympic team.
“I think there’s a quiet, ‘look the other way’ kind of thing going on because of the mental strain of Covid,” tennis analyst Pam Shriver told me. “The pandemic has affected everybody in every business. There’s more empathy out there now, people have become a little more forgiving in all areas of life.”
It would be wrong to lay all the blame—or credit—for the spike in expressive actions at the feet of the virus or the bubble-creators. The pushback against excessive regulation and restrained behavior has been building slowly at many levels of the game. Djokovic matured at just the right time to play a role in advancing that cause.
In mid-2018, the Serbian star broke out of a puzzling slump and took control at the top of the game. An expressive player of undiluted and often unrestrained passion, Djokovic has always been willing to take risks, absorb criticism and move on. His influence on the younger generation has been significant.
At the 2019 US Open, rising Russian star Daniil Medvedev taunted the Louis Armstrong Stadium crowd during his third-round win over Feliciano Lopez. Medvedev rubbed salt in the wound during his post-match on-court interview, gloating that he drew “energy” from the crowd’s hostility. “Thank you,” he said.
By early 2020, Kyrgios, still just 24, had been embroiled in more ugly controversies and spats than any player since Ilie Nastase. But despite trolling Djokovic and others, Kyrgios hasn’t gotten comparable traction in the public eye because he hasn’t known the success of Nastase—or any of the others in the Bad Boy Hall of Shame.
“(John) McEnroe, (Jimmy) Connors, Nastase, they weren’t fascinating just because they threw tantrums,” Shriver said. “It was a combination of their ranking and their personalities.”
During last year’s lockdown, Djokovic’s ill-fated Adria Tour collapsed due to a flagrant disregard of Covid protocols—a disaster that shed a harsh light on some players, including Djokovic, Zverev, Borna Coric and Grigor Dimitrov (all but Zverev wound up testing positive for Covid).
When the ATP resumed with its double-in-the-bubble in New York, Djokovic was the heavy favorite, but during his fourth-round match he smashed a ball in anger after losing a point. The ball inadvertently struck a line judge in the throat. Djokovic was promptly defaulted.
“I think that [incident] was related to everything he was trying to pull off, and having too much on his plate,” said Shriver, referring to the Adria Tour fiasco as well as Djokovic’s engagement in tennis labor politics. “There were scars evident, he was stretched thin. When you’re like that it's easy to make a bad impulse decision.”
Djokovic apologized and assumed full responsibility for his reckless act. Over the years, he now says, he has recognized and come to terms with his fits of temper and racquet abuse.
“When I play, I experience a lot of different varieties of emotions inside of me,” he said in Rome. “They vary, and change very quickly. It’s a very dynamic game. You’re by yourself on the court, so you experience a lot of weight on your shoulders. You can burst and explode, and that has happened to me and I’m not proud of that.”
Djokovic said that his self-control fluctuates, but believes that he had been hard on himself for many years. He’s accepted the way he is while “working on it.”
Other, lesser-known players have more mundane concerns than the impact angry outbursts have on their public image or legacy. Taylor Fritz, currently 36th in the world rankings, told me at the end of 2019, “You should be allowed to smash a racquet on court and not have to worry about getting a $20,000 fine the next day. Anyway, people want to see that.”
They have seen plenty of it, along with other histrionics, in recent times.
“[Showing] Emotions is good for the game, why not?” Zverev said in Madrid. The sixth-ranked 24-year old certainly walks the walk. After he was upset by Goffin in the third round of Monte Carlo Masters a few weeks earlier, he acknowledged the winner—and then promptly smashed his own racquet into the red clay.