THE WEIGHT [BURDEN] OF EXPECTATIONS

I have been watching a lot of tennis lately. A lot of it has been women’s tennis but now and again via twitter I might find a live stream and peek in at a men’s match. Recently, the media has been going crazy over Milos Raonic, a tall, lanky player that hails from Canada and who recently won his first ATP tournament, the SAP Open, beating defending champion Fernando Verdasco in the final. This was Raonic’s first ATP final. This week he is in his second ATP final in Memphis where he will be playing former No.1 and NO. 1 seed at this event Andy Roddick, who today made short work of Juan Martin del Potro.

In reading the media narrative and listening to commentators you would think that Milos Raonic is the second coming of Pete Sampras. Why Pete Sampras? Pete Sampras was the last player to win both the SAP Open and Memphis in the same year. This was done in 1996. Milos has a big serve just like Sampras and apparently he plays just as well as Sampras did. I beg to differ.

However, this post is not about Milos. It is rather about the Weight of Expectations thrust upon young players after they have had a particularly good tournament. The persons who are behind the careers of young professional tennis players need to start handling the media in a much more professional way to dim the weight of expectations being thrust upon players. Think I am being over-cautious. I set out below for your reading pleasure players who have become burdened by the Weight of Expectations:-

• In 2009, at the last major of the year, the US Open, the tennis world was introduced to Melanie Oudin. Standing 5 ft. 5 in. tall and wearing Adidas “Believe” shoes, Melanie Oudin would take out a veritable who’s who of Russians on her way to the quarter-finals of the US Open. She was interviewed by every media house. Her parents had to change the hotel where she was staying and her twin sister and boyfriend were both brought in from Georgia to see the Golden Girl of American tennis. It got so bad that at one point John McEnroe after Oudin was eventually ousted by Caroline Wozniacki, stated that the last American had been ousted. This was while Serena Williams, the defending champion was still in the tournament. Suffice it to say that since that US 2009 run, poor Melanie Oudin has hardly been able to get out of the first round of tournaments in which she is entered. Her belief which was an integral part of her game seemed to have disappeared. While she has played her part admirably in Fed Cup competition, her results have been disappointing and there is no longer talk of Oudin being the next great American player. These days Oudin hopes that she can make it out of the first round of tournaments, and perhaps even into the top 50. She is no longer being clothed by Adidas, rather she is now sporting the Wilson brand. One of the worst things that happened to Oudin during her short career was a sponsor offer of donating US$1M in the event that Oudin got to some later round of the US Open. Unfortunately, that only created additional pressure on Oudin and she was ousted in the second round of the 2010 US Open. After repeatedly losing in early round of tournaments, Oudin spoke about the pressure she felt in trying to live up to the media expectations after her run at the US Open.

• Ana Ivanovic – In 2007 Ana Ivanovic got to the final of the French Open where she lost to Justine Henin. It was not a pretty match and Henin basically handled Ana in that match. In 2008, Ivanovic made the final of the French Open once again where she faced Dinara Safina. She was able to win that match and became a Grand Slam champion and the No. 1 player in the world. After winning she was asked by reporters how did it feel to become the No. 1 player in the world. Ivanovic said that she did not know because her team had kept that information away from her during her semi and final appearances at the French. Going into Wimbledon, Ivanovic was the No. 1 seed. She lost in the early rounds after sustaining an injury to her finger. She has not been the same player since. In 2010 after battling through various injuries and needing wild cards to enter tournaments, Ivanovic seemed to have found some form. However, early on in this season she sustained an abdominal injury and lost in the first round of the Australian Open, an event where she indicated that she would have liked to reach the second week. In her next tournament she was bounced in the first round. After losing in tournament after tournament Ivanovic said that the pressure she felt in living up to the No. 1 ranking as well as being a Grand Slam champion had affected her mentally and physically.

• Jelena Jankovic. After getting the No.1 ranking at the end of the 2008 tennis season and playing in her one and only Grand Slam final, Jelena Jankovic went on a muscle building spree. At the start of the 2009 season she came on court all bulky. She lost to Marion Bartoli in the fourth round and she has not been the same player since. Her loss to the current World No. Wozniacki at Dubai Championships this year marked the first time that she had lost to Wozniacki. Confidence seems to be a thing of the past for Jankovic these days, but there is hope.

• Andy Murray carries the weight of expectation of a nation on his shoulders. After his loss to Roger Federer at the 2010 Australian Open, Murray broke down in tears and apologized for not being able to do it for his country. Tennis fans were always of the view that Murray did not really care too much about British tennis hopes but his breakdown on the podium showed us that he had the weight of expectations of a whole nation on his shoulders. He made the final of the Australian Open again this year and lost in the final. This time in straight sets to Novak Djokovic.

During her whole career players like Amelie Mauresmo were always overcome by the weight of expectations in playing before their home crowd. She recently spoke about the pressure she felt when playing at Roland Garros. Aravane Rezai and Marion Bartoli have also spoken about the pressure and weight of expectations that they experience when playing before a home crowd and expecting to do well. Roger Federer has described in detail how tough it was for him to play in Basel, which is his home tournament.

At the present time we are seeing lots of media attention on young players on both the men’s and women’s tours. The media have been doing their best to bring these young talents to the attention of fans the world over. This is good as tennis needs new and fresh blood to enliven the interest of fans the world over. These young players represent different countries. Players like Tomic (Australia), Harrison (USA), Dmitrov (Bulgaria), Kvitova (Czech Republic) and Wozniacki (Denmark) are all being touted as future Grand Slam champions.

Apart from Wozniacki, none of these players have made it to a Grand Slam final. Wozniacki has a losing head to head against the elite women of tennis. Tomic, Harrison, and Dmitrov have never played players of the caliber of Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic. They have never faced players whose repertoire of shots have left even top 5 players staring in disbelief. Kvitova made it to the semis of Wimbledon last year and while she played Serena tough in the first set, she went away in the second set. Wozniacki had match points against Serena in a tournament a few years ago but was unable to translate that into a victory.

The media needs to allow these players to develop at their own pace. We seem to all be forgetting the weight and/or burden of expectations that was placed on poor Richard Gasquet. He was given the name “Baby Federer”. Today, Grigor Dmitrov has been blessed (or is it cursed) with that moniker. A few years ago deBakker, a young Dutch man, was being touted as the next big thing and can we forget the next Nadal, a young lefty from Brazil by the name of Thomaz Bellucci. He was expected to do exceptionally well on clay. He is currently ranked at No. 36 but has not been able to gain much momentum in either the Masters Series tournaments or at the majors.

I think the media should allow these young players to develop their games before we all start anointing them the next Federer, Sampras, Nadal, or even Serena. Each of these players developed their skill set over a period of time. Allow these players to do the same or we will end up with a bunch of shows or articles titled “Where are they now” or “Remember When …”

And So It Goes

So Pete Bodo, respected tennis writer and media practitioner writes an article on women’s tennis in which he describes Kim Clijsters and Caroline Wozniacki as “rosy cheeked women akin to milkmaids who seem like they can do some chores”. Apart from CNote on twitter not many journalists and/or media practitioners have found fault with Bodo’s headline and/or his article in general.

I am not surprised by this. Know why I am not surprised by this? When commentators continue to describe Li Na and others like her who are married women as girls, when the WTA continues to allow on-court coaching which shows accomplished professional women seeking advice from men who have never in their lives accomplished much in the way of tennis, when professional women, instead of marketing themselves as strong, intelligent women, allow themselves to be shown in media portrayals as sex kittens, then and only then will the media, made up largely of chauvinistic white men to begin with, start looking at them as professional women, and not as jolly milk maids.

For the last few months, commentators at Pete Bodo’s blog have been taking him to task for the throw away nature of his writing. Most are of the view that he has become bored or there is not much to write about in terms of tennis. However, a look at his recent articles on the men’s game shows someone who is at least still invested and interested in the sport.

Recent articles on 5 male contenders were well written, albeit a little more research could have gone into the article. Women’s tennis seems to take a backseat at Tennis World these days and this is quite surprising seeing as the women’s game is generating more viewers than the men’s game. The recently concluded Australian Open indicated that more people tuned into the women’s final than they did the men’s. This is a sad indictment on the men’s game as the final was between the 2 heir apparent to Federer and Nadal. The last time the women’s game out matched the men was in the early 2000s when Venus and Serena ruled the tennis world.

Most fans have become jaded by the Nadal/Federer juggernaut. They have become boring and fans of men’s tennis are now looking for the next big thing. Women’s tennis however is doing quite fine if the WTA could only get out of its own way and promote the Tour in the way it should be promoted. The WTA seems to have this idea that if they promote 1 or 2 players then fans will come. No, if you promote the whole Tour, then fans will come.

The WTA product is an excellent one. Fans may describe the style of play as ball bashing, but at least it is much better than the serve fests that are generated in the men’s game.

I wish that media practitioners would look at the women’s game as a professional body rather than a whole host of “girls” running around in little skirts hitting a ball and generating some kind of penis rise from men in the stands and the press room.

Treat the WTA ladies on as equal a footing as you do the men. After all I have not heard anyone describe any of the men on the ATP Tour as men who seem like they would be good studs or some such.