Tennis: The lonely world of the loser

Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova hits a return against Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova during their women's singles fourth round match of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on Jan 22, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE - The main interview room at the Australian Open is a cosy, amphitheatre-style room with 57 seats. When Novak Djokovic lost, every one was taken. At the back, in a sort of balcony, even more stood and scribbled and clicked. Today for Svetlana Kuznetsova there are only two reporters. Losing is lonely.

Djokovic's defeat was an upset which always guarantees a crowd of inquisitive journalists. So does a big match. Or Marat Safin in the old days who could entertain after the most dreary encounter. Asked here in 2001 if he had ever tried to change how expressive he was, part of his reply was as follows: "I am doing well. I mean, you saw it last year. Even breaking 50 rackets, I mean I was No. 1 in the world, at least for two weeks. That means something, no?"

Controversy of course fills pages and seats. There are 650 print and radio journalists and photographers here and 850 broadcast folk. Most are intrigued by Nick Kyrgios and will come and take a look. Tough questions will be asked but so far there has been no wrestling on the floor as once occurred at Wimbledon during a John McEnroe press conference.

Sometimes birthday cakes show up at pressers but sarcasm is more common. This year Serena Williams took such umbrage at a question that she asked the reporter for an apology. Years ago, much to his own consternation, a charming Swede used a four-letter word by mistake and then smoothly blamed it on his coach.

On this Sunday afternoon, defeat is an empty feeling and uncrowded room for Kuznetsova. She has now lost 274 times in her career - and won on 548 occasions - so she knows how the ritual works. Still, without overstating it, there is something brave about young athletes: Where else in life is failure examined, and recorded, 20 minutes after it has occurred?

Twelve microphones pick up questions and four help amplify the player's answers. Five cameras watch like steel sentinels. Two sound engineers fiddle and two stenographers type. Audio tape of interviews are sent to radio people and also to the broadcast compound. Most of the exchanges are routine, but buried in all the answers is often a story. A small one, a sweet one. Of personal history, of hard work finally come to something, of triumphs that mean little to the world but everything to a player.

The elegantly named Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, for instance, is in her 37th singles Grand Slam main draw. She's always in the draw, a tall girl with impeccable genes. Her grandmother played basketball for the USSR, her father was a high-level canoeist, her mother a swimmer. Presumably they talk a lot about sport, and about a lot of sports.

She has been to the quarter-finals of every other Slam and now, having beaten Kuznetsova, finally achieved that status here. We focus so much on the elite end of sport, the trophies and finals and superstars, that we forget how difficult it is to be just one of eight players left in a Slam. Pavlyuchenkova left us in no doubt about how she feels: in her first three answers she used the phrase "super excited" three times.

Ten journalists listened to Pavlyuchenkova talk about how she was just a little girl, smaller than a racket, when the Williams sisters were playing in finals of Grand Slams. It brought a smile. But so did Kuznetsova. Even when tired and beaten and asked only four questions, she can tell a funny story.

Asked that if at 31 her body and mind is still able to push, Kuznetsova replied: "Yes, yes, why not? They say women physically are the best after 28. (Or so ) I heard. I am trying to convince myself, anyway". Her final English question at her 57th Grand Slam was answered. It was time to go home.

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