This is a fool’s errand, perhaps. A futile exercise on the order of catching a fistful of smoke or looking for a reason to cloud the brightness of Carlos Alcaraz’s future. But let’s try something different this week and make an appeal, if not for peace in The Republic of Tennis, then for bringing the conversation in from the margins and the discourse from the sewer. Let’s try this and see how it goes…then we can resume debating who belongs in the Hall of Fame or whether the Laver Cup benefits from women and whether tennis balls are yellow or green.
So, on the Sunday morning of the Laver Cup, I woke up to a text from a former player who is squarely in the Djokovic camp. He wrote:I see them [sic] making ND work for his $1M.”
What did he mean? That Nadal and Federer had played doubles together on Friday. They, quite rightly, got a lot of fanfare. They were the subject of this unforgettable image.
But here was Djokovic, working for his appearance fee, winning matches with top-shelf tennis. (Digression: for a guy who hadn’t played a match since Wimbledon, this was a supernaturally high level; a level he sustained last week in Tel Aviv.) Anyway, Federer and Nadal were, clearly, the Laver Cup headliners. But each played only once during the competition and did not contribute a point to Team Europe’s total. Djokovic, meanwhile, was in the process of playing his third match in 24 hours and—before running out of the finite resource that is energy—was singlehandedly putting Team Europe in position for another victory. Impliedly, there was something symbolic here.
So I agree with my friend’s sentiment and assessment. Admittedly unartfully—violating the Occam’s Razor of social media that dictates: play it straight; too often, attempts at humor backfire—I tweeted a mock conversation. It was meant as a compliment to Djokovic, who knew the rules of engagement and was still willing to sign up and go to work.
But it didn’t go over well with the Twitter populi. It was a bloodbath. I was an idiot and an assclown and a hater and a bully. And the media sucks. And the West sucks. Then, wait, the backlash to backlash. Djokovic didn’t even deserve to be at the Laver Cup and why glorify someone so unworthy, taking attention away from Federer? And what about his vaccination status? And what about playing in Israel? And what about his emails?…
That Twitter is sometimes so toxic as to merit EPA superfund cleanup status….that is something less than a newsflash. That athletes have zealous fan bases is also old news. It’s been clear for years that Djokovic in particular incites the extremists on both sides, overzealous offenders and defenders.
But what was striking to me: while watching the Laver Cup, it was clear how little animus ultimately exists among the top players. This isn’t American politics. This isn’t MSNBC versus Fox and the Murdochs. This isn’t the Brexiteers versus the Remainers. Or even SEC football.
The viciousness of social media? It doesn’t at all reflect the situation on the ground, the relationship among the players these tribes purport to represent. In fact, it dishonors it. Among the actual Big Three, there is (clearly, beautifully) this recognition, stated and tacit, that each appreciates the existence of the others, the power of rivalry and the unprecedented history. This played out in real time at The O2.
And yet on phones and keyboards, it was as ugly as ever. The usual absurd trolling, seasoned by bots or by accounts with double-digit followers that have somehow entered the chat. The inevitable clown and fecal matter emojis—the embroidery of cowards. Attacks on the media, worthy of any autocrat. Specious arguments. Ethnic slurs. Unfounded doping allegations.
Social media is borderline essential for such a global and far-flung sport. And tennis Twitter can be a warm and witty community. It can also be a hellscape. Hieronymous Bosch’s canvas in pixels with GIFs. I was talking to a Hall of Famer last week who says she won’t even mention one member of the Big Three because his fan base is so vicious in defending their guy. One of the titanesses of the sport is reluctant to mention a titan player….because of the viciousness of his fans? Who wins here?
To be clear: calling for a full can’t-we-all-get-along? trick is not only naïve but, I’d argue, inappropriate. Sports are, by definition, competitive. There are scoreboards and drawsheets. Many of us are sick of the GOAT debate and find it reductive and boring. But it’s completely expected and natural—and journalistic malpractice to ignore it entirely. Unlike in music, art and literature, sports are predicated on competition and records and the binary of wins and losses. Fans are now supposed to opt out of the debate about the “greatest”?
And the rocket fuel of sports? Those athletes and teams are representative. We see ourselves in Serena Williams or Arsenal or the Indiana Pacers. Tell someone you dislike their team and it’s, often, a personal slight.
But here’s a plea for civility and proportion and for bringing this passion in from the margins. Stand at the net, the service line, or the baseline. But come in from the parking lot. You like your guy more than the other two? Great. Pick your lane. What is a royal disposition to some; is preening arrogance to others. What is a devotion to ritual to some; is an annoying delaying tactic to others. What is seeking and pathbreaking to some; is irresponsibility to others. That’s subjectivity. That’s fandom. Want to argue civilly? Great. Want to call out the media for treatment you deem unfair or unprofessional? Great, though please come with receipts and specificity, not “the media sucks”. Want to criticize the ATP or a tournament for what you perceive as preferential treatment? Absolutely make your case.
Torturing the lane metaphor, we urge a swapping of paint. But not collisions. Fan jibes, not fan wars. Like your guy, without making the others—or their fan—your mortal enemy. State your beef with the media, without calls for “you should be fired” and “you’re lucky player X doesn’t sue you for defamation.” That the ATP or an event of a sponsor (over)promotes Player Y does not make it corrupt and godless.
Image: what if tennis fans took all this passion and personalization and righteous anger and applied it to getting rid of autocrats. Or fighting climate change. Or condemning drivers who mosey in the passing lane. Or demanding tennis players earn more prize money and labor protections. Or, less confrontationally, funnel all that passion into celebrating how fortunate we are to exist in this tennis era.
So often in life—throughout history?—we’d be so much better off if we could just lop off the ten percent on the margins, who contaminate the pool for everyone. But it’s so especially misplaced here. There are villains in sports; even a few in tennis. But there are no villains among the Big Three. Not even close. Don’t take anyone else’s word for it. Just ask—and watch—Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
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