Many moons ago, an ancient Chinese proverb taught us a valuable lesson- a picture is worth a thousands words.
After viewing a specific image snapped at the Australian Open in January, one thousand words- at least- swirled around in my head. For anyone who might have missed it, this picture was taken at the conclusion of World No. 1 Rafael Nadal's semifinal battle with countryman and (then) World No. 15, Fernando Verdasco.
The press long speculated that the two didn't get on well, going so far as to suggest some verbal bitch slapping had taken place between them at Queen's Club a few years back. Nadal and Verdasco are not friends. Really? Take a gander at the photographic love-in below and let me know if you agree with the tabloids.
The Australian Open marked the first major tournament of a young 2009, and the internet had been bombarded with countless similar examples of tennis players flaunting public displays of affection. A slew of incriminating pictures made the rounds- American Mardy Fish stroking Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis' newly shorn locks as they met at the net, the latest overblown mauling by the indiscriminate Novak Djokovic, who gave Bosnian-born American Amer Delic quite a bear hug after their third-round meeting, and an extended, face-touching embrace between Roger Federer and Marat Safin after the Swiss sent the Russian packing in the round of 32.
Feeling overwhelmed by the crush of this seemingly endless ATP flesh trade, I decided to consult Tennis Talk's superstar scribe, Ms. Cheryl Murray, an expert on all things Federer/Nadal.
CM: For his part, Nadal- one of the most blatant, serial offenders- has a habit of placing his hand on an opponent's mid-section during the time normally allotted for a cursory handshake. When exactly did mock belly-rubbing become the norm? Did Federer spontaneously morph into a poor man's Buddha at some point? Who knows. Maybe the Mighty Morphin' Buddha Man inspired him, because Federer has also spent a disturbing amount of time with his hands on Nadal's abdomen. I mean, seriously now. This is how you end a brutal five hour match? By giving each other a rub down in front of thousands of people? There's just a point where gentlemanly behavior veers wildly into the bizarre. Call me crazy, but I don't think they need to feel each other up to be polite. And people wonder why tennis is considered a sissy sport.
If you have some time to kill, steal a look at some of the shots photographers snagged of Nadal and Frenchman Gilles Simon during their quarterfinal run-in at the Aussie Open. They appeared to be giggling about something, walking arm-in-arm toward the chair umpire.
Players competing in team sports may always hug at will, in celebration. The same cannot be said for their individual sports counterparts. For example, when Fernando Torres blasted the winning goal for Spain to seal their 2008 Euro Cup championship against Germany, his teammates went crazy. They screamed and yelled, carried on, and yes, they hugged. Their extreme emotional reactions, displayed in front of an international audience of millions, made perfect sense. Rafael Nadal on the other hand, needing to console a despondent Roger Federer at the Australian Open, did not. For the purposes of an individual sport, any garish swapping affection must be avoided, rather than encouraged.
We have become a society of huggers. We hug family and friends ad nauseum, we hug coworkers, acquaintances, strangers and everyone in between. We hug when we're happy, sad, intoxicated, partying, sexing, or for no reason at all.
I am not suggesting a return to the boring, yawnfest of robotic dominance when Sampras was at the pinnacle of his career, don't get me wrong. A few minor adjustments in conduct would make a world of difference- an immediate cease and desist from excessive hugging, smooching, canoodling or patting below the waist will do nicely, thank you.
In 2009, tennis has clearly fostered an atmosphere of faux-courtesy. Not a great idea for a company yet to crawl out of its seven-figure, financial K-hole. This type of sugary on-court pablum usually appeals to a narrow, gender-specific demographic of women. The average female, rarely able to fashion herself into proper fan (unless trained to comprehend the dynamic between professional sports as both entertainment and business), becomes nothing more than affable window dressing. Most women live life frugally to a fault, clutching their cash more tightly than Nadal's unmentionables cradle his most famous asset.
Tennis needs the feverish support of the beer-swilling frat boys and aggro chav set. I know, I know- they're not my cup of tea either, please save your emails. Tennis needs to enlist the help of the demos that spend money- the failed athletes, the weekend warriors, the socially stunted, the bean counters and the henpecked husbands. At the close of a long work week, male sports fans pack stadiums and arenas, pubs and assorted local watering holes, intent on enjoying the thrill of competition, the heat of battle and the intense rivalries existing among opposing factions. They are the people the ATP suits need to chase down, court and woo away from other sports far more successful than tennis is right now. If marketed correctly, tennis can and will separate them from their money just as easily as professional football, basketball and baseball do in 2009.
Growing up, I loved watching former top-gun Marcelo Rios snarl and sneer his way through the tour in the 1990's. I admired his talent, his dangerously and strategically placed ink and most importantly, his attitude. Rios never found himself in need or want of "friends." His opponents barely received a nod of acknowledgment from the surly Chilean, no matter the situation. Rios was comprehensively disliked by many who crossed paths with him, and he couldn't have cared less. Shame he's a bit too long in the tooth to mount a comeback- tennis could use a little more of his piss and vinegar, a little less of the current crop's sugar, spice and everything far-too-nice.
I wonder what old-timers like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl think about young players showcasing buckets of warm fuzzies for all the world to see. Unless I'm mistaken, none of them hugged, kissed or caressed at net after a hard-fought match was won or lost. Battle-weary warriors of their generation knew how to behave, expertly crafting the drama that kept tennis fans entertained for seasons on end. They knew how to deftly close a show with a dirty look, a terse handshake and a healthy dose of seething contempt.
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|1. Djokovic||12 500 pts|
|2. Murray||8 750 pts|
|3. Federer||8 670 pts|
|4. Ferrer||6 970 pts|
|5. Nadal||6 385 pts|
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