OPINION: Bring On The Tennis Bad Boys

Roger Federer at the BNP Paribas 2012 Open. (Mike McCune/flickr)
Roger Federer at the BNP Paribas 2012 Open. (Mike McCune/flickr)

By Saba Aziz
BU News Service

If the Laureus World Sports Awards or the ESPY’s were to nominate the most well-behaved sportsmen in the world, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if none of the NFL players made that list. That honor, however, can mostly certainly go to a present day tennis player. They’re just way too nice.

I love watching tennis, I always have. And as much as I have enjoyed following the Nadal-Federer rivalry evolve over the years, the near-perfect season of Novak Djokovic in 2011 and the breakthrough of the Scot — Andy Murray — tennis has been missing something of late. Personalities.

For parents looking for perfect sporting role models for their kids, the ATP tour has plenty of them. Just look at the guys at the top of the game right now.

  • Exhibit A: Switzerland’s Roger Federer, 33, married, father of four and a family man. Federer’s use of a profanity, while debating a call with the chair umpire at the 2009 U.S. Open final, was the tennis world’s Ray Rice incident. His on-court outbursts are so rare that there’s a headline anytime he argues with the umpire.
  • Exhibit B: Spain’s Rafael Nadal, 28. You listen to his post-match press conference and, win or lose, he’ll almost always have a good word to say about his opponent. When changing ends in a match, he deliberately waits for the other guy to cross over before he does. It might be superstition, but it sure is polite.
  • Exhibit C: Andy Murray, 27, whose biggest offense is self-berating and injuring himself on court. And then, there’s the funny man from Serbia, Novak Djokovic, nicknamed “Djoker” for his harmless impersonations of other tennis players. Aside from the occasional competitive remark here or there, seems like one big happy family to me.

Yes, these guys are great ambassadors of the game, they carry themselves well and they have raised the tennis bar too while they’re at it. But is it always fun to watch? I’m afraid not. I wasn’t around to see the histrionics of John McEnroe, the original bad boy of tennis. But those never-ending rants with umpires over line calls at Wimbledon, colorful trash talk and shouts of “You cannot be serious!” resonate because we see nothing of the sort in modern day tennis. Love it or hate it, you know you want to watch it.

More recently, there was the eccentric Russian, Marat Safin, talented as ever but always ready to blow a fuse and give his rackets a good whack. The quick witted American Andy Roddick was notorious for his back and forth banter with the press and prolonged on-court rants with the chair umpires.As much as they were criticized for their behavior, these guys were entertaining to watch, they brought a lot of personality on court and the fans loved them. Seeing them self-destruct and whine made them come across as – well – human.

The same cannot be said for the present players though. While I’m not advocating for ‘WWE SmackDown’ on a tennis court but the current crop has taken the notion of tennis being a gentlemen’s game a bit too far. It doesn’t make for very good television. To put numbers on that argument, Nadal’s 2013 U.S Open final win over Djokovic, which was broadcast on CBS, drew an overnight rating of 2.8, compared to 10.1 for a regular season NFL game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins on ESPN that same night.

Who’s to blame?

The stringent Code of Conduct in professional tennis can be partly held responsible for sucking the life out of the game. Roddick seems to agree. “It’s the only thing I know where you can break your own stuff and get penalized for it,” he said at the 2011 U.S. Open. “There’s a reason that Monday Night Raw gets better ratings than we do.”

To further illustrate his point, Roddick continued: “Let’s put it this way, McEnroe is still getting endorsements and he’s 87 years old, so… I mean, what does that tell you?” Valid point.

So it is refreshing to see Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis speak his mind in press conferences or Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis smash four rackets in 60 seconds. Tennis needs the International Tennis Federation to cut it some slack. Tennis needs entertainers and personalities. Tennis needs players to go absolutely bananas from time to time.

Saba Aziz is a BU graduate student studying sports journalism. She's also a tennis player. (Photo courtesy Saba Aziz)
Saba Aziz is a BU graduate student studying sports journalism. She’s also a tennis player. (Photo courtesy Saba Aziz)

Tennis purists, myself included, will probably continue watching for the sheer quality of the game but an easing of the overly-puritan behavior code can certainly help pull up TV viewership and ratings, which the game badly needs. This can also help increase the casual fan base for the sport.

While it’ll be too much to expect Mr. Nice Guy Federer to badmouth Nadal, tennis could do with the occasional player feuds and on-court antics. So, for the greater good of the game, bring on the bad boys!

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