Changeover Chat: Misunderstood Tennis Players


This week, we talk about which ATP and WTA players are the most misunderstood in this episode of the Changeover Chat, a quick back-and-forth exchange between the writing staff at The Changeover.

Lindsay: Hardcore tennis fans follow the sport through so many outlets – social media, streams, interviews, television, blogs, YouTube – that we often get to see a lot of different sides to the personalities of the top—and not-so-top—players. But often players get trapped by the media and even fans into a certain archetype or characterization that might fit nicely into headlines or easy narratives, but doesn’t do justice to the realities of that player.

On that note, who do you guys think are the most misunderstood players? Let’s start with the ATP.

Juan José: Nicolás Almagro might top that list for me. People think that he’s a) prone to rage and b) prone to choke. But he seems to me like a guy who is way more than just what we see on a tennis court. I mean, if you looked at his Twitter feed, it would seem like he’s the most positive individual in the world. I mean, he ends a ton of his tweets with “peace & love!”

Lindsay: I’ve always had a hard time placing Nico because of the personalities of the rest of the Spaniards. Where do you think he fits in – or does he?

Juan José: I’m not sure he does.

Amy: He doesn’t seem to, with the exception of his interactions with Ferrero, because those two are tight.

Juan José: I do think that all the Spaniards get along with each other, but I’m not sure there’s one prominent Spaniard that’s super close with Almagro  (outside of Ferrero, as Amy notes). I also think that the media has been quick to label him as an erratic over-achiever, and in the case of the English-speaking media, he’s a clay-court specialist who also is an erratic under-achiever. The analysis of his game/personality pretty much stops there.

Lindsay: It just seems they’re all such big personalities except for Ferrer, but being in the top 5 for a while has made him a larger figure. I think it’s easy for Nico to fade into the background because he’s more comfortable there. People search for a narrative when he’s in the spotlight for whatever reason, so they go with whatever’s easiest: choker, temper, head case. Whatever’s most convenient. He doesn’t play tournaments in America outside of the Masters and the US Open, and he’s about the seventh-most popular tennis player from his country in those tournaments, so he falls to the background. If he was from a different country, I’ll bet we’d know him better.

Amy: With his solid results lately, he’s gotten a little more attention in the recent months, which is nice, but you’re right that the media doesn’t even seem to scratch the surface of his character. I think it’s at least partly because of the language barrier, if we’re talking about non-Spanish media.

Lindsay: What do you think his true character is? What are we missing?

Amy: I have no clue.

Juan José: I think Almagro is a nice guy, an intelligent person with lots of interests outside of tennis (as we know, he designed his own house). I don’t think he has the highest opinion of his talents, and that’s what’s been holding him back more than anything.

Lindsay: An ATP player who I often talk about in this vein is Sam Querrey, who I know I’ve written about a lot lately, so I won’t be wordy. (I actually titled my feature on him “Mister Misunderstood“) Querrey is laid back and people think that means he doesn’t work hard or doesn’t care, but it’s pretty impossible to be ranked where he is (for the second time, after a long injury layoff nonetheless) without caring and working your butt off. People just show that in different ways. Sam Querrey is very, very professional. He got a bunch of people to invest in his career early on, and always chats up sponsors and remembers people’s names.

Amy: For my most misunderstood ATP player, I’ll have to go with Tomas Berdych. (Perfect, since we were talking about Almagro.) Just following his Facebook page, I got to see a nicer side of Berdych. He’s pretty quirky, silly, and dorky. He’s kind of stiff, or maybe just hyper-focused on court and in his interviews. His fun personality doesn’t really come across in other venues.

Lindsay: Agreed. I wrote about that when I covered the Winston-Salem tournament because I was genuinely shocked by how polite and nice he was in pressers. He was shy and straightforward, but not entitled like he often comes off in the media. He talked a lot about liking Winston-Salem because it was a small town, and he felt he more comfortable in smaller places, which I thought was interesting. And I’ll never forget how minutes after botching a championship point on a horrific volley he gave a really classy runner-up speech to a huge and hostile crowd.

Amy: I think he can sometimes lash out because he’s somewhat sensitive (i.e. the Almagro incident).

Lindsay: Yes, that’s the perfect word for it.

Amy: I hate Facebook, but I love that Berdych has created such a great forum to communicate with his fans. I don’t think you’d see that side of him without it.

Juan José: I agree with you guys. It just seems like very few media outlets go beyond press conferences when trying to get to know a player, particularly if said player doesn’t speak very good English.

Amy: That’s true. The other side of it is that some players can be very difficult with access. It’s hard to get to know certain players, even if you’re covering them for a living. Their media obligations are treated as such.

Juan José: Yes, there are a lot of guys/gals who don’t get it that it’s probably a good thing to use the media to portray a different side of them.

Lindsay: A lot of players could be much higher profile or more well-liked if they knew how to deal with the media, but it’s hard to blame them for that. It’s not easy, and it definitely doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

Amy: Oh, absolutely. I also don’t blame players for wanting to focus on tennis primarily. Dealing with the media is stressful and time-consuming.

Juan José: There’s also the issue of time, as in, tennis pros don’t really have that much time to allocate to these things, but also of place: the pros only stay on a given city for a little over a week – at most. Unless media outlets are willing to fork up a lot of travel money, it might prove tricky to even arrange for these things to happen.

Lindsay: And the only time media is around them is before or after matches, and pressers are often match-specific, and not the best time to open up. Media members are often rushed as well, since in the early rounds pressers take place while other matches are still playing. I mean, when I cover tournaments I’d love to do sit-down 30 minute interviews with every player in the tournament and get to know their life story, but there just isn’t time for that – on their end, or on mine!

I guess it’s just nice when players embrace things like social media to show you a different side of them. Would we ever have known that Stan Wawrinka has such a great sense of humor if it wasn’t for Twitter? How often does he open up like that to English press?

Juan José: It’s funny how I don’t think that Djokovic’s or Nadal’s Twitter feeds add a whole lot to what we already know about them, but it’s really cool to see guys like Wawrinka and Almagro show us a different side to them just by tweeting out stuff. But then again, Twitter can also be problematic when used incorrectly, as Querrey and Isner learned.

Amy: Well, look at Sergiy Stakhovsky. I think he’s damaged his reputation significantly with his immature tweets about the WTA, at least with some hardcore tennis fans. I mean, nobody wants to hear your stupid tweets about how you think you could double bagel Serena Williams.

Juan José: Stakhovsky doesn’t seem to get that he’s not exactly endearing himself to a significant portion of the tennis audience with his tweets against equal pay.

Amy: He’s almost like an Internet troll. He seems to revel in the negative responses he gets.

Lindsay: He’s one who’s certainly become less anonymous since joining Twitter, but not really in a good way. Although, a part of me does appreciate that he’s willing to open up, even if I don’t like a lot of the stuff he says. Can’t have it both ways.

What do you guys think about the way Del Potro is portrayed? He’s always been a bit of a mystery to me.

Amy: I think it’s totally his fault. I’ve never seen a player with less regard for the media’s perception of him, and that’s saying a lot.

Juan José: It was only a few months ago that he finally hired somebody to handle his media stuff: the excellent Jorge Viale, founder of Fue Buena. Before that, there wasn’t much of a strategy, and sometimes that ended up working against him – just remember the Davis Cup fiasco last year.

Amy: I don’t think I’ve ever read a revealing piece or interview with Del Potro, because he just doesn’t do them. One time, he wrote a letter to a radio show. That’s about it. It was a letter denying rumors that he was dealing with depression during his injury layoff.

Juan José: The most “revealing” things I heard from him were the in-plane video interviews Martín Vasallo Argüello did with him a long, long time ago. You can see how young he is. He talks about all sorts of things, including how he likes soccer way more than tennis. Del Potro sort of casually got into the sport that has now given him so much. As in, he started playing because someone gave him a racquet and some balls to play with until it was time for soccer practice.

Amy: That’s so appropriate.

Lindsay: That’s so Argentinian.

Amy: I wish I understood those videos. My high school Spanish classes aren’t much help.

Lindsay: I’d love to sit down with him and just see if he’d open up. I was in press with him once, my first tourney as media, in Memphis. He was just on the comeback trail, and he was as nice as could be in press, very thoughtful and quiet and slow and deliberate exactly like you’d think. He’s a little like Isner in press, and on the court. He’ll give you long, in-depth answers, just no eye contact. It would certainly be great to do a feature on him one day and see if he will open up in a one-on-one setting.

How about the ladies? Who’s the most misunderstood player on the WTA Tour?

Amy: I’ll go with the obvious choice of Victoria Azarenka for most misunderstood. I feel like she has a “foot-in-mouth” thing going on. She’s clueless as to what comes off as bad to say or do. For some reason, she always seems to say something boneheaded. I don’t think she means anything by it. I mostly think she’s in her own world, thinking about tennis.

Lindsay: She’s a bit Berdych-like in that way.

Juan José: Pretty much. I think that will get better as she spends more time with Benito Pérez Barbadillo.

Amy: She’s also still young. I hope it’s something that improves with maturity.

Lindsay: Vika is clearly still very much growing up. I don’t think there’s been anything to her life but tennis — no type of normal upbringing — so she’s developing her social skills a bit later. And clearly, she’s taking some chances and making some mistakes and marching to her own drum and trying to figure out who she is.

Juan José: I think Serena was misunderstood for a long, long time. Not so anymore.

Lindsay: I actually think a lot of the top girls are misunderstood, which is interesting because I don’t really think it’s (as) true with the top guys. But Sharapova and Serena have both been portrayed in tiny boxes that don’t represent them.

Sharapova gets the “ice queen ” reputation, and while she certainly does know how to throw shade, I think she’s much more of just a loner nerd. People say that she’s not super nice and that she’s standoffish, but I don’t think it’s coming from a bad place. I think she’d be like that if she was lower-ranked too. She’s just not an outgoing person by nature.

Serena has resurrected her reputation for people who follow tennis closely, because she’s shown a softer and more open side the past few years. She’ll never overcome some critics who say she doesn’t care about tennis and who will harp on the US Open outbursts forever, but most people realize there’s so much more to her than that.

Amy: I think Serena’s most recent comeback has helped her public image quite a bit. You have to be crazy to watch what she’s done and assert that she doesn’t care about the sport.

Juan José: Agreed, but it wasn’t that long ago that people like Chris Evert were publishing open letters directed at her asking for Serena to fully commit to tennis. People always made fun of her off-court exploits, too. In a sense, she went through the Agassi experience.

Lindsay: Agreed, she has varied interests that have at times interfered with the 24/7/365 life of a tennis player. But, you know, she’s 31 and No. 1 in the world, so whatever she’s done has worked.

There are so many WTA players in the top 20 right now that I feel like I don’t know nearly enough about, and that makes me sad. Players like Kerber, Kvitova, and Errani. I hope that now that they’ve been around for a while that they’ll be more comfortable and open up to the media. Of course, I’m the type of person that wants to know everyone’s life story. (Some people call that “nosy.”)

Juan José: Do you guys think that the attitude shared by many tennis pros about the press stems from the endless grind of having to do press conferences after every match? I mean, no other sport subjects you to the media experience quite like tennis. And as we know, it’s not like the press asks the greatest questions ever.

Amy: Tennis is rough. It’s an individual sport, and players have to travel almost non-stop, whereas for team sports, you have a home base. And in team sports, every player doesn’t have to talk after every game/match. So I do think the demands can be quite high for the top players. I can see where it would feel like a burden.

Lindsay: And in team sports you get to know the media better – more beat reporters and national people assigned to the team. In tennis, there’s no journalist who can go to every tournament. The smaller tournaments are a lot of over-worked local media who don’t know much about tennis at all, and the Slams and Masters have a lot of the same people but it’s a hectic free-for-all. Tough.

Amy: Good point. True tennis beat writers that go to every event aren’t a thing. They can’t be.

Lindsay: The closest we have is national media for every country – the Harmans, the Cronins, etc. But for the most part, their focus is so small because that’s what the demand is in their markets. And even they don’t go to everything. It’s impossible.

It really is where bloggers and independent sites have a great opportunity to go to these tournaments and get interviews – pitch to bigger outlets, and write for their own sites, and just continue to find different angles and get to know the players better. Because there’s certainly an open door there, it’s just a matter of getting in.

2 Responses

  1. Mithi
    Mithi February 20, 2013 at 9:11 pm |

    Thanks for the write up guys. It was lovely to see some of my favorites form 3/4th of the list LOL (no. not really seeing as that would be Vika, Berdy and Nico and these three are enough to keep someone occupied everyday. Not to mention the regular dissing. For example, this one about Berdy.

    I always thought that personality doesn’t matter once players get on court. But my first encounter with the opposite came with Pete. A regular commentary was that he had no personality and was a stick in the mud. Being reserved used to be a reason for criticism. Especially when his biggest rival then, Andre Agassi, was an explosive person. Players themselves had to become the reason to draw people to the sport.

    But now, the reverse seems equally bad. with the media exposure players get these days, everyone is in the limelight and every word analyzed. It feels like ATP has been neutralized recently with every player forcing themselves to fit into a mould. WTA doesn’t do that so much so we get all the rivalries, personalities and excitment over inter-player relationships.

    Forget these guys. What about Jerzy and Bernie? They are not like Fed/Rafa/Nole/Andy were at their age but crave the success. How do we react to them? Everyone wants to get on Bernie’s or Jerzy’s case because they seems over-confident. When Kim herself reacted to Rosol’s personality so negatively after his R2 win over Rafa, I was taken aback by how much we have considered confidence to have an “acceptable range”. When BBC gave a misleading title to Andy’s comments about winning RG, there was a lot of laughter on twitter. why, even MY first reaction was to scoff. The first word we reach for is arrogant.

    I could totally use some JMacs and Jimbos on tour again. compared to the WTA, the ATP is starting to look bland (The very same accusation that many threw at Pete).

  2. Ana
    Ana February 21, 2013 at 7:45 pm |

    Hey, guys (I hate the word “gals”—it reminds me of something Doris Day would say. Why don’t we have a better, more inclusive word in English?!).

    I wanted to add my two cents to this discussion: specifically, expanding on Lindsey’s comment that any given national tennis media’s “focus is so small because that’s what the demand is in their markets” and JJ’s observation that “It just seems like very few media outlets go beyond press conferences when trying to get to know a player, particularly if said player doesn’t speak very good English.” As you guys know, I’m in an awkward, in-between position in more than one way: first, I’m Serbian-American, so I have somewhat split loyalties (Davis Cup, anyone?). Second, I come at tennis as a weird hybrid of fan, academic, & kind-of blogger (does two posts in a year count? probably not). Despite having media credentials at various tournaments over the past 18 months, I’m obviously not a journalist (though I have produced some “straight” journalism for one of Belgrade’s main newspapers—mostly interview-based features, as opposed to match reports).

    1 cent: So much of tennis coverage has to do with economics—not only with fan-based market demands and the ever-changing contours of journalism in the US or other Slam nations (cue the recent Bleacher Report discussions) but also with the economic relations between center & margin, between first world and developing world. Speaking from the Serbian perspective, virtually no Serbian sports media go to any events outside the borders of the former Yugoslavia for one simple reason: their employers can’t afford it. Other than the non-AO Slams, I suspect there’s never any Serbian print media at WTA or ATP events. While there are Serbian media-affiliated people at tournaments, few of them are full-time employees of a Serbian publication (or even contracted freelancers, the way Robson is for USA Today). The situation at the WTF in London was typical: camera & production crews, as well as commentators, for the two tv stations with rights, some local Yugo-diaspora guy who may or may not be a writer (a feature in any reasonably big city), one Serbian blogger (likely on her own dime), and me (credentialed through the Tennis Space). In Paris and Cincy, it was tv folks and me; in IW, there was one US-based blogger for a Serbian outlet and me. With monthly salaries in Serbia averaging $500, a trip anywhere—say, Boise—is a tough sell, even for a blogger theoretically willing to pay his/her own way.

    Take Lindsey’s point about the market demands for a national writer like Neil Harman (i.e., his audience mainly wants to hear about Murray & Robson, et al) and multiply it by some factor in countries like Serbia where there isn’t a long tennis history or broad tennis culture. Most readers just don’t care about players who aren’t “ours” and don’t know enough about the sport to follow it as such: the game as a whole, not a few favorite &/or successful players. Especially with the demise of the Serbia Open (which is as much about economics as anything else), I really worry about what will happen there once this generation of players retires: what if there is no next Novak or Ana or Janko or Jelena (don’t forget Nenad. . . or Viktor)? Or what if it takes ten or more years for there to be a top-50, top-20, or top-10 player from Serbia (to say nothing of another #1)? Djoković actually addressed his hopes for cultivating the next generation in this interview, but since it’s in Serbian, few will understand it. Happily, there is a new Serbian blog trying to expand coverage and educate would-be fans,, which is a start. (I’ve suggested your site to its editors as a role model.)

    Though I can’t speak to them, I’d imagine the situation is more or less the same in any developing nation with tennis aspirations. National federations have limited resources, fans have little money to spend on the relative luxury of tickets (not to mention travel), and media are also in a tough spot, even if there’s demand for tennis material.

    2 cents: Regarding media “getting to know” players, I’m curious what you guys think about the Tennis Space’s “60 seconds with X” feature. My feeling is that it’s better than nothing and I’ve definitely had a good time with the Q&As I’ve done (Del Potro in Cincy and Janowicz in Paris). In terms of more in-depth features, a tough thing is figuring out which players to profile: that is, about whom do readers want to know new (or more) information? Often, that desire is unpredictable—something that springs up in a given week because of how a player is performing (and then you have to catch them before they lose, which can be tricky). If there’s too much media focus on a less-familiar player (ahem: Sloane Stephens), then it’s over-hype. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it definitely can’t be done in a press conference (unless few others are there and the ATP/WTA rep decides to stop checking his/her smartphone-cum-stopwatch and indulge you) and one-on-ones can be difficult to arrange. Further, the standard time allotted for such interviews is 10 minutes or less and there’s the complicated issue of them being “products” packaged and sold by both their own agents, in the case of the top players, and the ATP or WTA. (If you want to see me get mad quick, ask me about the interview I had with Troicki in Cincy with the ATP rep breathing down my neck the whole time, as if Viktor wasn’t enjoying the attention or had a tight schedule; for that matter, ask me about almost coming to blows with the same rep who thought I’d only requested 1 minute with DelPo because the feature was called “60 Seconds with…”!)

    Like you guys, I have lots of ideas for features I’d love to do. Not being journalists (or paid bloggers at a news outlet) brings a certain freedom with it: we get to decide what we find interesting and choose our own topics, as opposed to feeling obligated to cover a bit of everything, have an assignment handed to us, or be captives of sports-market demands. But, as I obviously don’t need to tell any of you, the financial downside of this position is huge. While it may be fine if the writing you’re doing is a hobby in retirement or on the side of full-time paid employment, it’s clearly not an economically-viable model, especially when tennis tournaments are played in a different city each week.

    Lastly, and at the risk of provoking Lindsey’s ire, I’ll offer Janko Tipsarević as my “misunderstood player.” At least two of you are familiar enough with my views to know I don’t condone (and would never defend) any of the problematic things Tipsy has said about the women’s game, pay equity, or gender & sexual identity. But two other things are also the case. First, I would love to have a lengthy one-on-one with him where we discuss any number of the controversial things he’s said and done (insert joke of choice here) which have led him to being the least popular player in the top 10 and someone whose motives and integrity are frequently questioned. Second, I think he’s in a unique position among top players: despite considerable success as a junior, he was considered a “journeyman” until late 2011. His rise into the top 10 was actually quite abrupt. Unlike a talented guy like Gasquet, who’s been lurking near the top for a while, or a young player who gradually makes his way into the top 20 and stays there, Janko went from 49 at the end of in 2010 to 9 at the end of 2011. A player once known mainly as a “character” (the tattoos! the Nietzsche!) and someone who could occasionally give top players a run for their money (Federer at the AO and Roddick at the USO come to mind), is now someone who must be taken seriously for his game. He’s also someone Twitter has both helped and hurt. When players have been around for a while, I think we forget that they go through growing pains, too, especially when there has been a significant change in their status. In saying this, I’m not suggesting that Tipsy has necessarily matured into a totally different person from the one who said ignorant, hurtful things about Mauresmo whenever it was (2008?). But I am saying that I think many of these players, even in their late twenties, are still learning new things and capable of learning and potentially becoming different people in their public lives as tennis professionals.

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