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.