If tennis's big four are boring, what's the solution?

Ernests Gulbis might not have lasted very long at this year’s Roland Garros but his declaration to L’Equipe that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are ‘boring’ ignited a debate that looks set to rumble on all summer.

In the aftermath, Murray and Federer both admitted that they try to avoid controversy if they can, because the resulting brouhaha can prove to be a distraction. Media revels in conflict. Frankly, speaking as an ex-journalist, it makes the job a lot easier if there is a good row going on. You can simply cover the initial outburst and then spend the days that follow chasing up reactions and counter-claims - which is exactly what happened with the Gulbis story.

It’s hard to conceive just how all-consuming the business of trying to win tennis matches is until you spend time around athletes in competition and, personally, it took me leaving the press room to really appreciate it. While working with athletes, we’ve seen first hand how much a negative story or a controversy surrounding a player can weigh on a player’s mind and distract them, their coach and those around them. Not only does it cause anxiety in the camp and the sort of hassle which can effect performance, but it makes the player wary of doing interviews for fear of making things worse. A gun-shy player is, in turn, far more likely to give ‘boring’ answers and long-term that helps no-one.

The solution is for players to find a way of being themselves without being censored in a way which robs them of any charisma or sense of edgy competitiveness. Getting the right advice helps and that should be a good deal more detailed and nuanced than the oft-repeated: “Don’t say anything which might get you into trouble.” It should include guidance on getting your point across without being disrespectful to opponents or making yourself look bitter or like a moaner. And yes, players do have accept that if they express an opinion then some people will disagree with it. That means those advising them need to help them maintain a sense of perspective about what people write, say, think and tweet about them.

Federer put his finger on one of the biggest issues at play here, namely an overly formal and exhaustive cycle of press conferences, which leads to a saturation of quotes from the same small group of players. Press conference exchanges, involving large groups of journalists addressing a player usually sat behind an imposing desk and in the glare of TV lights, do not allow for much creative questioning or quirky answers.

"I understand it, our interviews are not always the most exciting. But that's not just our fault, that's the machine. After each match, we have to give press conferences,” Federer told Swiss reporters at Roland Garros. "But also you cannot say anything you do not like about something to someone without being totally criticised by many people. Therefore, everyone is very careful."

Of course some press conferences are necessary but tennis needs to explore other types of media interaction which allow players’ personalities to come across more. Murray in particular has suffered from the majority of his media, particularly early in his career, being conducted in the press conference format. He has grown more comfortable with them over the years but it is still clear from Murray’s body language and general demeanor that he does not particularly enjoy press conferences. With the TV camera focused on him alone, the Murray the public sees often appears grumpy and awkward. This is a shame given that, in small group interviews, Murray can be funny, eloquent, humble and engaging.

The ATP, which runs the men’s Tour, has recently been experimenting with the kind of mixed zones common at the Olympics. This could present a way forward, at least in the early rounds of tournaments, with press conferences brought in as additional access from, say, the quarter-finals onwards. Since players enter a mixed zone immediately post-match, it would free up players’ time and mean that media would not have to wait half an hour or longer to speak to a player.
With fewer press conferences to do, players could then be asked to do more individual or small group interviews which would encourage creative questions and allow players to express themselves more freely and help us all learn a little bit more about them.

No comments:

Post a Comment