Australian Open 2014: When Will The Hate End?
Disclosure/preamble No. 1: Doots will have an Australian Open wrap-up. She’ll be sure to celebrate Stanislas Wawrinka’s win, so I’ll let her focus on that piece. I have it in me to celebrate Stan’s win as well, but in much the same way that a newspaper would have two writers cover different angles of a story, I’ll deal with one story so Doots can have the other, more pleasant task.
Disclosure/preamble No. 2: You know me as a tennis fan who writes about the sport. I have not expected to cover the sport, but there might finally be a chance that I’ll do so as a stay-at-home blogger before too long. Therefore, it’s good for me if I write something that isn’t meant solely for an audience of Federer fans.
On with the show…
Here I was, prepared to offer a far-ranging wrap-up of the 2014 Australian Open and write something bundled in a tidy thematic pouch. I had all the major points of emphasis lined up. No matter who won Sunday’s men’s final between Rafael Nadal and Stanislas Wawrinka, the template was there. Keeping in mind that the greatest achievement of Nadal’s career (just one person’s opinion, of course) was forged in Melbourne in 2009, I was expecting another crowning moment to occur in this match. However, if Nadal lost to Wawrinka, I still could have produced an essay with all of my larger planned themes intact.
Then, however, an injury reared its ugly head… or lower back, as the case may be.
Predictably, all hell broke loose on Twitter, where I have regularly watched tennis matches over the past five years (since 2009 Wimbledon).
Twitter is a contentious place, no matter the subject, but if there’s one thing Tennis Twitter really can’t handle well, it’s an injury to a top player and the complications such a situation elicits. Put this kind of scenario in a major final, and you have a powder keg that’s 10,000 times more freighted with the power to blow up a big building. It’s just the way it is.
Let’s say this, too: Plenty of fans in all camps were and are and continue to be good sports about this. Yet, there remain ample numbers of Federer/Swiss and Nadal fans (with Djokovic fans standing aside for this round) whose long-boiling tensions and enmities were once again unfurled on social media. Multiple Nadal fans were led to remark how the events of the match exposed many tweeps–some to the point of unfollowing, others to the point of permanently changing how they will be viewed in the future.
Yes, it’s true that big moments reveal much about human beings, so I very much understand what Rafa fans are going through today. Yet, are some moments big enough that players should be:
B) chained in the proverbial doghouse forever;
C) always viewed with skepticism instead of being given the benefit of the doubt?
It’s a pretty fat scarlet letter to assign to a player (and, in some cases, a rival fan base). Some offenses are worth it–consider how fans of James Blake or American tennis fans in general must have thought about Fernando Gonzalez after the 2008 Olympic men’s singles semifinals, in which Gonzo clearly didn’t own up to touching the ball with his racquet in a context (the Olympics) where sportsmanship acquires an extra degree of importance. If American fans wanted to harbor a grudge toward Gonzo, I couldn’t blame them… not because I’m an American, mind you, but because the Olympics are supposed to promote sportsmanship in ways that regular tour events don’t.
(Having made that statement, I realize that people will disagree with such a distinction, and they’re well within their rights to do so. More on this very subject in a bit…)
However, in the long run of tennis seasons, tennis careers, and tennis lives, must every player receive a long-term prison sentence from rival fans because of isolated incidents or (if not isolated incidents) isolated subsections of overall conduct?
Realize this about tennis players and modern athletes in general: Their conduct is scrutinized and measured in many ways or realms:
Athletes’ actions are examined during competitions, of course, but then also in response to injuries… and in press conferences… and off the playing field, both as private citizens (as spouses in some cases, as philanthropists in others) and as members of a peer group (in the locker room with other athletes). Athletes are evaluated based on larger contributions to the sport and their willingness to help the sport grow. There are so many realms in which this larger notion of “athlete conduct/sportsmanship” is exhibited, so if a player fails in one aspect of this larger bundle of responsibilities, does that override his/her successes as a sportsman in three or four other categories?
Rafael Nadal has taken questionable medical timeouts (MTOs) in the past. Of this there is no real dispute. (Nadal fans, take note that I’m using the more neutral term “questionable,” as opposed to more loaded or incendiary terms such as “deplorable” or “unacceptable.”) Yet, there was no question that early in the second set of this match against Wawrinka, Nadal encountered substantial pain, enough to severely restrict his freedom of movement. Nadal, it should be pointed out, recently missed seven whole months due to injury. Yes, the extent of his physical distress has been exaggerated in various individual match-play moments over many years, but he’s a real and vulnerable human being whose body has in fact paid a substantial price for all those five-set victories and major-tournament comebacks.
Here’s the rub with Rafa, which extends to the modern group of ATP tennis players in general: One would like to think that Rafa’s conduct on the matter of MTOs can be placed somewhere in between the two polarities of “What a disgusting cheater he is!” and “He’s never wrong!” Surely, Nadal’s behavior regarding MTOs can be fit into a reasonable middle ground in which he’s not always right, but is often genuinely hurting, enough to command respect for what he puts his body through.
The bigger point: The conduct of most modern-day ATP tennis players can be put in that basket above. No member of the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic/Murray quartet that has made men’s tennis so popular these days is always right, but neither is any member of that group guilty of a particularly appalling sin, and what’s more is this: THEY ALL RESPECT EACH OTHER!
Now, is Federer-Murray a relationship one would characterize as “warm”? No, it’s not. Yet, it’s hardly what one would call frosty as well. These players really do admire what each has achieved, what each has added to the sport all four men really love and care about.
Are there moments when one player or another is sparse with praise for another in the wake of a major-tournament match? Sure. (Federer has been the guilty party here on multiple occasions.) Yet, one can just as clearly realize that such “offenses,” if they even can be called that, are so minor as to be microscopic, because Federer (like the other players in this group) has certainly poured out many respectful and complimentary words for his peers in response to many other questions after many other matches over an extended period of time. Nadal fans who have a problem with Fed’s public utterances are free to feel that way… just as long as they are aware that any questionable statements exist in relationship to a much larger body of favorable and professional statements over many years.
Moreover, to circle back to the larger point raised above, press conference statements are just one aspect of athlete conduct. Federer’s off-court gestures to (and his work with) Nadal should certainly wash away, for the reasonable Nadal fan, any belief that Fed looks down on Rafa and does not hold him or other peers with great respect.
In much the same way, Nadal’s willingness to finish this Australian Open final and give Wawrinka the “last-point walk-off celebration” that Justine Henin denied Amelie Mauresmo in the 2006 Australian Open women’s final stands as a powerful gesture of sportsmanship and class, one that should wipe away lingering Swiss (or Federer fan-rooted) resentments of Nadal as a public figure and sportsman. Nadal even said, point-blank, in his post-match presser that Wawrinka “is a great guy. He’s a good friend of mine.” Yet, after I tweeted out that statement from Rafa, at least one Federer fan told me that, no, Rafa doesn’t actually get along well with Stan, he’s just saying that.
Are we really going to view a player so dimly that even when s/he does and says so many of the right things, we’re still not going to forgive him/her for the things s/he does wrong? (This applies to a player such as Victoria Azarenka on the WTA Tour, probably the most polarizing figure around. Serena and Sharapova also occupy the public spotlight in ways most other WTA players don’t.)
I keep banging the drum for fan reconciliation in the larger tennis community. I know this is a quixotic pursuit. Plenty of people in all corners of this discussion won’t change their minds — I know this. Yet, it’s always worth using an emotional, raw, unsettling, tear-stained evening such as this one in Melbourne to try to reach people in ways that might not have resonated before… but which could perhaps break through in this new moment.
Can Federer/Swiss fans see how many large-hearted things Rafael Nadal did and said on Sunday, especially in relationship to Stanislas Wawrinka? Sure, Nadal probably hoped that painkillers would kick in and that he might be able to turn the corner, but as things turned out, Rafa’s body never regained anything approaching full functionality and movement. Yet, he finished the match and didn’t deprive Stan of his moment.
Now, does Rafa carry a greater responsibility to the sport of tennis, given his position? That’s a fair question with an underlying point attached to it. The answer is yes. However, the weight of a major final certainly added to the turmoil Nadal felt, and it also complicated his decision. If this had been a second-round match, Nadal probably would have retired without much thought or controversy. It was only because this was a final that this became the test of sportsmanship it in fact was.
Maybe you, the reader, won’t give Nadal a full boat of credit for the decision. However, he passed this test, and on that point there’s no debate. Moreover, it wasn’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill test, and while a certain “Boy Who Cried Wolf / Chicken Little” form of schadenfreude will certainly persist among a vast subsection of Federer fans, the better course – this thing called THE HIGH ROAD – is to view Nadal much more warmly and empathetically than in the past. I can’t MAKE any of the skeptics do so, but I can point to it and offer it as the superior response to this emotional situation.
Nadal fans, you have probably been nodding your head and saying something to the effect of, “Damn straight, Rafa deserves a f—ing break from Federer/Swiss tennis fans after tonight, and all he did for Stan in this situation! About f—ing time!” You probably read the above paragraphs and inwardly agreed with most, if not all, of what you saw on your computer screen.
Now that I have your attention, though… how about we complete the circle of long-sought and much-desired Swiss-Spanish tennis fan reconciliation by saying that if you viewed Wawrinka negatively as a result of his response to Nadal’s MTO, you can forgive Stan.
If the weight of the moment fell hard on Nadal’s shoulders in this Sunday tear-jerker, that weight also rested on Wawrinka’s mind, and it did so for the first time. Nothing in life can fully prepare you for the reality and enormity of a first-ever major final, so if Wawrinka was inwardly a cauldron of emotions, it’s quite understandable that he would overreact and snap at chair umpire Carlos Ramos when Nadal took his MTO.
It certainly seems reasonable that Wawrinka asked Ramos for an explanation, and was dissatisfied that Ramos wouldn’t give him a direct answer. This doesn’t remove the reality that Wawrinka’s sustained anger was unbecoming and unduly harsh, relative to the situation. However, it’s not as though Wawrinka committed the gravest of sins. Similar to Nadal’s perspective, would this have been as much of an issue/controversy/tension point if this had been a third-round match? Possibly…… but not probably.
If Rafa says that Stan is a great guy and a friend, and if Nadal can value the high road in his post-match presser, Rafa’s fans can follow the same path as well.
A summary of the fan wars that consume tennis’s top male tennis players can be themed and framed thusly:
One tweep on Twitter remarked after the match, “The players, they LIKE each other. It’s the fans that have the problem.”
Federer fans have many reasons to point out how and why their favorite player is a sportsman of the highest order, one being that his peers continue to publicly express their respect and admiration for him. It’s not as though Roger has hidden sex tapes of these players and is forcing them to praise him… or that he has somehow mastered a private brainwashing technique that no other ATP player can figure out. Federer also has not withdrawn from a single ATP match and has lived up to every ounce of the old-school Australian tennis code he preaches about. He in many ways sets a high standard of conduct, much as Nadal took the high road – as he so regularly does – in not retiring on Sunday and (later) in being generous with his remarks to Wawrinka in his presser.
Federer and Nadal both take the high road on a great majority of occasions, and their respective fan bases both love them for the many ways in they do so.
Yet, somehow, the flames of rivalry and its tribalistic passions prevent fans from taking that very same high road. That’s one very succinct way of illustrating the need for rival tennis fans to forgive and reconcile.
One last brief point:
The other potent way to bring tennis fans together is to simply point out that if you wanted to look at a point in history when players didn’t much care for each other and were, quite bluntly, JERKS in how they behaved, the modern era simply doesn’t enter into the discussion.
Nastase. Connors. McEnroe. Lendl. Those are the examples.
Those guys loathed one or more of each other. Those guys behaved like four-year-olds at times. THOSE guys showed the world what juvenile behavior really could be. (Connors, given his behavior toward Chris Evert in recent years, still hasn’t grown up. Johnny Mac and Lendl have mellowed into whole persons in post-playing days.)
That’s really the sad part of modern-day ATP fan wars in tennis: The things that draw forth such angry criticism these days are things that, if compared to tennis’s true Cold War era, look like a garden tea party akin to what you’d see on Downton Abbey. If minor points of contention are elevated (or perhaps lowered) to the perceived realm of “vile and unacceptable behavior,” the realm of truly vile behavior (that which Nastase and McEnroe resorted to on the court in their careers) can’t be allowed to be seen for what it actually is.
Can we see this? Can we? Can we realize, Federer and Nadal fans (in particular, given the Nadal-Swiss tensions that resurfaced in the men’s final), that so much of what has been argued about over the past eight years or so amounts to — no, not nothing, but certainly very little in the grand scheme of things?
I know that all Fed and Rafa fans won’t reconcile just because I plead for it to happen.
If this essay does change one heart or mind, though, it’s worth it.
Now, go get some sleep at the end of the 2014 Australian Open. Maybe that in itself will allow these events – and the principals within them – to be assessed in a brighter and fairer light.