This is maybe a silly thing. A futile exercise on the order of catching a handful of smoke or looking for a reason to cloud Carlos Alcaraz’s future. But let’s try something different this week and appeal if not for Peace in The Republic of Tennis, then for bringing in talk from the fringes and discourse from the sewers. Let’s try it and see how it goes…then we can continue debating who belongs in the Hall of Fame, or whether the Laver Cup benefits women, and whether tennis balls are yellow or green.
So on Sunday morning of Laver Cup I woke up with a text message from a former player who is right at Djokovic camp. He wrote: “I see you [sic] Making ND work for his $1 million.”
What did he mean? That Nadal and Federer played doubles together on Friday. They have rightly attracted a lot of attention. They were the subject of This unforgettable picture.
But here was Djokovic, To work for his performance fee he wins matches in top-class tennis. (Digression: for a man who hasn’t played a match since Wimbledon, this was a preternaturally high level; a level he maintained in Tel Aviv last week.) Anyhow, Federer and Nadal were clearly the headliners at the Laver Cup. But each played only once during the competition and contributed no point to Team Europe’s overall score. Djokovic, meanwhile, was about to play his third match in 24 hours and – before running out of energy – single-handedly set Team Europe up for another win. There was something symbolic here, implicit.
So I agreed with my friend’s opinion and assessment. Admittedly clumsy — a breach of social media’s Ockham Razor, which dictates: play it directly; all too often attempts at humor fail—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 get to work.
But it didn’t go down well with the Twitter populace. It was a bloodbath. I was an idiot and an ass clown and a hater and a bully. And the media sucks. And the west sucks. Then wait, game to game. Djokovic doesn’t even deserve to be in the Laver Cup and why glorify someone so undignified and divert attention away from Federer? And what about his vaccination status? And what about gambling in Israel? And what about his email? …
That Twitter is sometimes so toxic it deserves EPA Superfund Cleanup status… that’s a little less than a short story. That athletes have eager fan bases is also old news. It has been clear for years that Djokovic in particular incites the extremists on both sides, overzealous perpetrators and defenders.
But what I noticed: When watching the Laver Cup, it was clear how little After all, Animus is one of the top players. This is not American policy. This isn’t MSNBC vs. Fox and the Murdochs. This isn’t the Brexiteers versus the Remainers. Or even SEC football.
The evil of social media? It doesn’t reflect the situation on the ground at all, the relationship between the players who claim to represent these tribes. In fact, it dishonors him. Among the actual Big Three there is (clearly, beautifully) this recognition, declaring and implicit, that each values the other’s existence, the power of rivalry, and the unparalleled history. This was playing out in real time at The O2.
And yet it was as ugly as ever on phones and keyboards. The usual absurd trolling, spiced up by bots or by accounts with double-digit followers somehow sneaking into the chat. The inevitable clown and feces emojis – the embroidery of cowards. Attacks on the media worthy of any autocrat. apparent arguments. ethnic slurs. Unfounded doping allegations.
Social media is borderline for a sport so global and far-flung. And tennis twitter can be a warm and funny community. It can also be a hellscape. Hieronymous Bosch’s canvas in pixels with GIFs. I spoke to a Hall of Famer last week who says she won’t even mention a member of the Big 3 because his fandom is so viciously defending their guy. One of the sport’s titans hesitates to mention a titan player…because of the meanness of his fans? Who wins here?
To put it bluntly: the demand for a full can’t we all get along? Ceasefire is not only naïve, but inappropriate in my opinion. Sport is by definition competitive. There are scoreboards and drawing sheets. Many of us are fed up with the GOAT debate and find it reductive and boring. But it’s entirely expected and natural — and journalistic misconduct to ignore it entirely. Unlike music, art and literature, sport is about competition and records and the dichotomy of victory and defeat. Fans should now get out of the debate about the “biggest”?
And the sport’s rocket fuel? That athletes and teams are representative. See you in Serena Williams or Arsenal or the Indiana Pacers. Telling someone you don’t like their team, and it’s often a personal insult.
But here’s a plea for civility and proportion, and bringing that passion in from the edges. 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? Big. Choose your lane. What is a royal alignment to some; flaunts arrogance towards others. For some, what is a devotion to a ritual? is an annoying delaying tactic for others. Which for some is searching and groundbreaking; is irresponsibility towards others. That’s subjectivity. That’s fan base. Do you want to argue civilly? Big. Would you like to call out the media about treatment you feel is unfair or unprofessional? Great, but please come with receipts and specificity, not “the media sucks”. Would you like to criticize the ATP or a tournament for what you feel is preferential treatment? Definitely make your case.
We torment the alley metaphor and urge for a color change. But no collisions. Fans jibe, not fan wars. Like your guy, without making the others—or their fan—your mortal enemy. Show the media what you’re doing without demanding, “You should be fired” and “You’re lucky Player X isn’t suing you for defamation.” The fact that the ATP or a sponsor’s event (over) promotes player Y does not make him corrupt and godless.
Imagine: what if tennis fans took all that passion and personalization and righteous anger and applied it to get rid of autocrats? Or against climate change. Or condemning drivers who sniff around in the fast lane. Or demanding tennis players deserve more prize money and occupational safety. Or, less confrontationally, channel all that passion into celebrating how fortunate we are to exist in this era of tennis.
So often in life – in history? — we’d be so much better off if we could just cut off the 10 percent edge that litters the pool for everyone. But it’s so particularly out of place 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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