Getting by on Goodwill

By Karen

What is goodwill?  How does one earn it?  How does one spend it?  Who determines who has built up goodwill and who hasn’t?  These questions came to me after reading Jon Wertheim’s Mailbag this weekend.  A reader asked a question regarding Novak Djokovic’s behaviour during his Rome semifinal match against Kei Nishikori during a disputed line call.  During a debate with chair umpire, Carlos Bernardes, Djokovic used his hand to push away Bernardes’ hand.  Djokovic’s explanation (and frankly he wasn’t asked about this in his press conference) was that Bernardes was using his finger to disrupt the ball mark and he, Djokovic, was not having it.  Many tennis fans watching the match voiced their disapproval over Djokovic’s behavior, because touching an official by players is strictly forbidden.

Mr. Wertheim’s response was that Djokovic had built up enough goodwill on Tour over the years that his transgression should definitely go unpunished.  Mr. Wertheim then suggests had it been someone like Nick Kyrgios, who apparently has no goodwill built up, he would deserve to be punished for touching an umpire.  Aside from the obvious problem of metering out punishment so arbitrarily, I ask, how does one build up goodwill and who keeps a running tally?

While I mostly write about the women’s tour, I often juxtapose or contrast their treatment with the men’s tour.  A few years ago many tennis fans will recall that Victoria Azarenka, then the No. 1 ranked player in the world, had a bit of an issue closing out a match against Sloane Stephens. Vika took a medical timeout as she struggled to breathe.  Many accused Vika of using the medical timeout (MTO) to calm herself and take away the momentum that Stephens had gained during the match.  Stephens had saved a few match points to get back on serve in the second set and many of the pundits, particularly Americans, had determined that Stephens, if not for Vika’s MTO, might have gone on to win that set. My view was that Stephens had managed to hold serve just once in the match and it was unclear whether she would have been able to hold serve to take the second set and possible the match.

Since that fateful match, many in tennis media raked Vika over the coals, including tennis fans, as they often behave like sheep. The criticisms of Vika weren’t new. Up until that match, Vika had often received bad press for her grunting, her injury woes and her retirements from matches. It’s just that now, their critical view of Vika seemed wholly justified. I guess Vika hadn’t amassed a lot of goodwill to protect her from being vilified by the press. However, the view of Vika from both fans and media appears to have shifted over the past year. I’m unsure how she has managed to acquire goodwill; it might have something to do with being seen as a ‘real’ rival to Serena Williams due to their compelling and tightly contested matches of late, or maybe her absence from the tour with injuries made people miss her. Whatever the reason, Vika is now a media darling and is seen as “mellow” and appealing. This goodwill thing is great!

I can’t help but note that a similar outcry was lobbied at Serena Williams after her 2009 US Open outburst. Who can forget how many times her outburst was replayed over and over again and how many tennis commentators were of the view that she should never play tennis again. Do you suppose that Serena Williams hadn’t built up enough goodwill to get a pass during the 2009 US Open?

Contrast the outrage from Serena’s 2009 outburst and Vika’s supposed cheating MTO with the rather subdued responses from both fans and tennis media to Maria Sharapova’s failed doping test. Has she amassed so much goodwill that her infringement of doping rules leaves the media reluctant to speculate about her recent ITF hearing being conducted in an undisclosed location or about the medical condition that required the use of a banned substance? It must be all that candy that Djokovic and Sharpaova hand out at press conferences that help their cause.

Every player should be afforded the same treatment, regardless of this perceived goodwill. If I can’t figure out how players amass goodwill, then it shouldn’t be used to determine how players are penalized or rewarded. The media should not play favourites. This is not a popularity contest. The players are on tour to perform their jobs. If they are not doing their jobs properly then the media should call them out.  If they are doing their jobs properly, they should be commended.  Journalists, or those pretending to be journalists, should not, under any circumstances, withhold criticisms for fear of losing access to a player or because they have goodwill.

Players need the media as much as the media needs them.  How else would players sell stuff or justify large endorsement deals worth millions of dollars?  The media provides exposure.  It should be clear that if a player behaves badly, he or she should expect that a journalist who writes for the New York Times or the blogger who has their own blog can feel free to say “John/Jane you have behaved badly. That is not very sporting of you”.  The media’s critique shouldn’t prevent them from being able to then pick up the phone and call the same player’s agent and request a one on one interview.  That is how the world of responsible work operates. If tennis wants my respect, it needs to do better.

Do you think that players who have built up “goodwill” deserve a pass?  Give us your thoughts in the comments.


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