SPORTING LIFE

With respectful rivalries, tennis doesn't need trash talk

PHOTO: REUTERS

IS TENNIS dull, its characters constipated, its friendships fake? Are those pious folk in shorts just too shy to snarl? "It was fun when guys were trash talking each other and yelling at each other," said the balding John McEnroe, a commentator often perceptive but here mainly provocative.

McEnroe, in the 1970s and 80s, was made of fine magic and cheap glue: any moment he'd come apart. Ivan Lendl, who had an interrogator's immovable face, was once so fed up with his antics that he was quoted in the New York Times as saying: "I was just about ready to hit him." Not with fists, only with forehands.

These guys wore white but were clad in hostility. When Jimmy Connors - so he recounted in his book - first saw McEnroe at Wimbedon, he offered him "no smile, no hello, no handshake... I'm nothing if not gracious".

McEnroe may light-heartedly encourage "trash talk" but it is civility which is much harder. Connors used to grab his crotch but these modern men reach out for respect.

This presumably was "fun" for McEnroe and certainly it was edgy, high-strung, raw, entertaining. It was also petulant, immature, disrespectful. Men hit lines and then crossed them. This was opera, luminous and yet loutish.

We can't go back there, we shouldn't, we don't need to. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray aren't boring just because they have rivalries and not feuds. If the old Swiss once told GQ that "we're almost too nice to each other sometimes" then it's his fault for setting a halo-ed example.

He's too normal for the abnormally gifted. Nadal is the paradoxically gentle warrior. Djokovic the honourable engineer. Murray, now seeing a psychiatrist to understand the mind, led The Guardian's Kevin Mitchell to ask: "Is Murray not the most interesting man in tennis?" Certainly he is the most intelligent.

McEnroe said "I don't know if, deep down, they get along as well as they say they do". He's probably right but they find no need to advertise their differences. And in the Fab Four's restraint is exposed a cultural divide. Americans at play seem more flamboyant, colourful, vocal, blunt. Agassi's dazzlingly confessional book, Open, could only have been an American story.

Europeans tread a slightly more subdued ground. The Fab Four are probably not "friends" but use the word only to convey they are not in fact enemies. No one surely thinks Federer and Djokovic are exchanging emoticons at 11pm. When Becker reportedly wrote that they "don't really like each other" only the odd eyebrow twitched.

Friendship presumes intimacy and sport doesn't allow for such luxury. One cannot be genial at lunch and unsparing three hours later on court. Athletes train to steal history from each other, to interrupt another's dream, and it leads to odd responses. Mats Wilander, world No. 1 in 1988, once told me he fired himself up by not liking his rivals. "I don't dislike you, but I can find something in you that I don't like to fuel me."

Of course some athletes are hard to dislike. McEnroe reined in his petulance in front of the serene Bjorn Borg and Becker's swagger shrank before the angelic Stefan Edberg. As the German once said of the Swede, "we were actually quite close ... It was never personal, just the tennis".

Perhaps it is the way with the Fab Four, too, satisfied by just making each other cry on court. If they do not provoke each other it is dignified; but if they cannot sometimes be themselves it is regrettable. In a passionate game, emotions can't constantly be handcuffed and Becker was right when he said "it's very difficult to verbalise your frustration nowadays because everyone hears it".

Murray should be allowed to express fury at his own error without a world tweeting disapproval and a fines committee springing to life. We don't want sinners but sport is not a home for saints.

Tennis can still be snippy and sulky, but the triumph of its best players is that failure and victory hasn't altered them dramatically. McEnroe may light-heartedly encourage "trash talk" but it is civility - as other sports know well - which is much harder. Connors used to grab his crotch but these men reach out for respect.

But nothing stays forever and next up could be Never-dull Nick. Australia's Kyrgios is 20, wears bling, owns a strut, and sparkles like a shining talent. He's a bro with a look-at-me haircut and a don't-mess-with-me serve, who tells a fan in Melbourne, "Get off the f****** phone".

Then just yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story titled: "It's getting harder to love Nick Kyrgios". In a McEnroe-world his style might fit comfortably; in a Fab Four-planet he stands out a little awkwardly. But he's young and there's hope, for just look at whom Kyrgios considers a "great role model on and off the court".

That boring Federer fellow.

rohitb@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2015, with the headline 'With respectful rivalries, tennis doesn't need trash talk'. Print Edition | Subscribe