No matter how much they want their game to speak for itself, how they interact with fans and media can give crucial insights into a tennis player’s—or any sportsman’s—psyche. Since post-match press conferences at major tournaments are mandatory for tennis players (they are fined according to their ranking if they fail to do so), lessons on forehands and backhands aren’t the only coaching these players need. In the quest to be the best in the world, public relations becomes yet another weapon in a player’s arsenal.
The two press conferences held shortly after the women’s singles final at Wimbledon on Saturday were as different as chalk and cheese. While the newly crowned Wimbledon champion from the Czech Republic, Petra Kvitova, gave guarded, mostly one-line responses to an English-speaking audience, runner-up Maria Sharapova, though obviously disappointed with her loss, was sharp while fielding questions.
Asked whether she would be watching the men’s final the next day and who she would support, Kvitova said: “I don’t know if I will watch it. I don’t have a favourite there.” She added the obvious, that it would be “an open match, 50/50”.
All smiles: This year’s Wimbledon champions Petra Kvitova (left) and Novak Djokovic. Photographs by Neil Tingle/AP
Jon Wertheim, a New-York based senior sports writer with Sports Illustrated, said irritably: “She could have easily picked a player for tomorrow’s (men’s) final. How hard is it to just pick a player? Was (Rafael) Nadal really going to be offended if she had picked (Novak) Djokovic? Does he really care?”
When it comes to picking sides, Kvitova is not the only one who chooses to be guarded. World No. 4 Andy Murray was asked to pick a final winner right after he lost his semi-final to Nadal. “I don’t know. Depends who plays better on the day. But they’re both playing great tennis. Rafa’s (Nadal) got probably a bit more experience than Novak, so that will help him. But, yeah, it depends who plays better,” he said.
Isn’t that a general precondition for winning any game?
But it isn’t as much Kvitova’s fault as it may seem. Two reasons why some players seem to give just one line or inadequate answers is lack of experience at press conferences and discomfort in speaking English, the predominant language. As Wertheim said, since Kvitova had just won her first Grand Slam, she hadn’t yet faced many press conferences. He estimates that she must have given some 8-10 through 2010, while someone like Roger Federer of Switzerland gave almost as many at this year’s Wimbledon itself.
Sharapova is usually more expressive when she talks to the media. She was asked whether she sensed any goodwill after returning from an injury “and completing the whole fairy tale”. Sharapova shot back—without a moment’s hesitation—that she didn’t regard her comeback as a fairy tale. “Even if I would have won it, it is still a lot of hard work. It’s not that these results come out of thin air.”
Language plays a crucial role. “Though Kvitova’s answers were short, English is not her first language. I’d like to read the transcripts of Kvitova’s interviews in her native Czech language. Who knows, maybe she has given more profound and longer answers there,” said William Weinbaum, enterprise unit producer, NY Studio Production, ESPN Production, Inc. He was seated in the ESPN studio at the broadcasters’ building of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, watching live TV feeds of ESPN’s interview of Kvitova in a nearby studio. At most conferences, said Weinbaum, players first answer questions in English, followed by their own language.
Kvitova, he said, was shy and kept her answers short. “It’s not so much about the culture as it is about a player’s personality,” he said, recalling former No. 1 Marat Safin from Russia as being one of the most entertaining. “His answers were often funny and there used to be a back-and-forth with journalists,” he said. Weinbaum was quick to remind that though English was not Safin’s first language, he was still comfortable with the media.
Some players have in the past also burnt their fingers, he added, so they prefer to remain silent on some issues.
Andy Roddick’s conferences are always well-attended and funny. After his first-round win, he was asked whether he felt like the “bad guy at one point” after beating (Britain’s) Tim Henman some years ago. Roddick shot back: “Actually, I never played Henman here. But I’m still the bad guy. Point taken, but...,” before saying he felt great to be on the courts and acknowledged the fan support even though he was “fake-beating Tim Henman”.
Djokovic, too, provides comic relief. During his first conference before the Championships began, women’s world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki gatecrashed his interview pretending to be a reporter and asked him how he planned to change the one-match losing streak (his defeat at the French Open broke a 42-match winning sequence). Djokovic replied—a section of the British media would later term the little banter as subtle flirting—that he would take inspiration from “some women players who have been so consistent with their wins, for example like Caroline Wozniacki” because she had been winning “so much”. “She’s become a role model for all of us ATP players,” Djokovic said.
It wasn’t the first time Wozniacki had pulled a fast one. Faced with accusations that her post-match conferences were boring, she played a prank on journalists at the Australian Open this year, saying she had been bitten by a baby kangaroo. When the word spread, she apologized.
Sometimes brutally honest assessments can also draw in the crowds. After the final, Nadal admitted in as many words that Djokovic had invaded his mind. “This year, I only lost matches to him. When I was healthy, I only lost against him. That’s the truth. The Queen’s (Aegon Championships; played a week before Wimbledon) was different because of the different conditions. When I was 100% to play, I lost against him five times. The rest of the year, I won almost every match. So I’m doing the things well, probably not against him. That’s what I have to change.”