It’s one of the biggest frustrations of 2014.
And I’m not even talking about the tennis that was played!
Japan’s Kei Nishikori – then 24 – and Simona Halep – the 22 gone on 23 year old of Romania – were two of 2014’s biggest success stories. Not only did they put together highly satisfying seasons for themselves, but each was a young climber on their respective tour. A first Grand Slam final is what a 30-year-old David Ferrer accomplished less than two years ago – what a now 29-year-old Stan Wawrinka accomplished less than one year ago! Yet it was a feat that each of them achieved.
Both Simona and Kei made a substantial rise up the world rankings – Simona from number 11 to number 2, and Kei from number 17 to number 5. Each, when uninjured, were a force to be reckoned with. Simona whitewashed Serena Williams at the WTA finals, and Kei took out Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic in five-setted succession at the US Open.
These are choice triumphs of many. They were two of the brightest stars of last season.
Which is why it bewildered me when, at each Grand Slam tournament last year, whatever lofty seed the two attained… again and again I saw these players sentenced to the outside courts! The lower stages!
Regularly, during the first week of competition, the schedule organisers thoughtlessly threw the seeded duo onto the likes of Court 12 at Wimbledon, or another random French Open outsider, with little room for spectators.
Considering the quality of these competitiors, it was actually staggering. Even at the beginning of week two, to be scheduled on Court Three at Wimbledon was quite an achievement for them.
And it’s been happening once again, this week, at the Australian Open! I’m not just talking about the scheduling – which has been far from its best all round, for all the players. No – there’s also been a general overlooking of the pair.
Nishikori and Halep are making some of the best progress in either draw… But how often have you heard their names? How often have they come to your mind? How often are they discussed?
It would be unfair of me to say that the duo are totally disregarded. They are provided with the obligatory monitoring of progress that all the top players receive, and both have a firm fan base to confirm their existence. But the fact remains that many players below their rank and calibre are drenched with unnecessary focus that could instead be – profitably – poured into their budding careers.
Kei and Simona are constantly thrown under the radar. And the question is, Why?
I’ve thought that question through, and that’s what we’re going to tackle now. All in all, the answer comes under a major heading that can parent several sub-points.
And this is it:
TENNIS HAS BECOME WAY TOO OFF-COURT FOCUSSED
Last I looked, tennis was this sport with forehands and volleys and aces, where there was generally one person either side of this thing called a court, trying to beat each other off it across a net.
But imagine someone from another planet dropped into earth for a visit. If they were to take a look at how tennis is portrayed in writing, in pictures, by word of mouth… They might see it as a worldwide boarding school of friends and enemies, a continuous debate over which gender is the best, a gossip-ground, a fashion contest, and a dance floor.
I’ll get to the point.
These days, the attention you get as a tennis player isn’t gathered so much by how well you’re doing in the sport – although granted, if you have zero personality and you’re world number one, you can’t really be ignored (albeit most of the articles concerning you are going to be about, or include, how you have zero personality.)
Here and now, a lot of the attention a player gets in tennis is garnered by appearance, likeability, off-court habits and persona.
And I have to say it, even as a female: the WTA is far bigger a culprit of this than the ATP. Far bigger, in terms of media.
So let’s go through some points as to why this heavy heading would have an effect on the value of Simona and Kei (a.k.a, the sub-points.)
– The Language Barrier
When Kei Nishikori won his first ATP title, he could barely utter a word of English. These days, his vast improvement is apparent, and admirable. For a person of any nationality, to take on and to succeed with the task of learning English is a valiant effort.
But the fact remains that Kei’s English has its limitations – something he must find frustrating, along with many others. The same can be said of Simona. She may be in possession of the most endearing monotone on earth, but she, too, is limited to overuse of certain words and largely the same lines of description.
That makes it difficult, as the tennis world delve for further insights on personality, for them to become a favourite with anyone delivering information to the globe. And in turn, the English speaking, character loving public.
Therefore, as the adored champions and home hopes steal the glory courts, it results in the poor prospects being shunted further down the line.
What I am not saying here is that it’s wrong to take note of the characters of the players. Although tennis is the staying sport, and will survive the lives of countless players, the guys and girls behind the racquets are what brings the sport alive. I myself am a hardcore fan of many people-pleasers (as you may have gathered.) Who can’t love the gentlemanly, funny, legendary Roger Federer? (Note: Opponents are not an option.)
But there is a point where it goes too far. Where people pry too deep. And it causes problems – not just for the players victimised, but problems of another kind for the players ignored. It’s wrong for the majority of coverage to be on a player’s personality, when that isn’t what tennis is about. At least 50% of the reason I support the players I do is because of their ability and talent. The attractiveness or the inspiration of their game.
If we haven’t already reached that point of Too Far, then we’re dangerously close to it.
However, there’s more to this situation than that.
– The Image Thing
Precious, precious little infuriates me more than this.
Tennis is about your skill with a racquet and a yellow fuzzy ball, and grit and determination and stamina, and running around a court getting manically sweaty.
So WHY do we have to thrust physical appearance into this?
It’s ridiculous! For… Well, forever, Simona Halep was a better, more accomplished player than Eugenie Bouchard. She won six WTA titles in the back end of 2013, and backed that up with a Premier title and numerous top ten victories in 2014.
Bouchard, on the other hand, has won one solitary title, and her record against top players has nothing on her contemporary’s. She made three Grand Slam semi finals last year, and each draw (oh, how the truth hurts!) was practically gift-wrapped. Outside of the Slams, her standard was poor, as she was regularly tripped in a Sloane-esque manner.
But of these two, whose name is always mentioned first, and whose is an afterthought? Who do you hear more about during a Slam? Whose face appears on advertisements left right and centre? Who is more WTA-celebrated?
Who gets heaps and heaps of attention over an insignificant, feeble, split-second twirl, while the other quietly hard-works her way through the Australian Open?
Words cannot describe my disgust.
Simona has been as high as world number two, and Eugenie sits at world number seven. But who’s the darling of tennis coverage?
Before you leap: yes, I know Genie told people to Get Off over the… pathetic little twirl incident. But that doesn’t erase the fact that she laps up the marketing (admitted, last year) clustering around her, and practically begs for more. Does it not speak volumes that her favourite players were the WTA title-less Anna Kournikova, and Maria Sharapova?
And speaking of Sharapova, she’s had her fair share of being plastered over WTA billboards whilst being away from the top of the game.
It seems that the moment a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl steps onto the scene – BINGO! Every little insignificant, off-court detail about them snaps up the publicity space of the promising Romanian players, who have all the weapons to whip these porcelain dolls off the court.
Proof of how big a factor this is in the women’s game is that Kei – ranked lower than Simona – is currently doing a better job at roping in some interest than the 23-year-old. He may be swept over far too often, but at least the ATP are looking into his ability, and measuring him up against the highest ranked guys.
As this is turning into a full-on rant, for your benefit I shall move on. But whatever my personal feelings, the truth of the matter is the same:
Image is worshipped in tennis.
And it has to stop.
– Progress and Attitude
We’ll make this the last point, and this slips slightly back into the realm of personality.
Kei and Simona have proven to be two of the most consistent-when-healthy players on tour. They rarely stumble before a top player rears up in their path – and even then, they triumph half the time.
And yet this has cost them coverage. Because as they make smooth progression, the world seems more interested in the annihilations dealt out by the legends, or the upsets caused by the world number one-hundred-and-something.
This is not a fault. These occurrences are a part of the exhilaration and entertainment that is Tennis. However, it is a harsh factor of what we are examining: The negligence of two of the bright sparks of the game
And then there’s the case of attitude – a way of reacting, a way of approach. A way of speaking.
Two of the most pleasant and loveable attitudes in tennis just so happen to come from Kei and Simona. Gentle words, a calm manner, and an easy temperament surrounds them both. They prove that you don’t always need to be smiling to show the sunshine (although Nishikori’s sun reaches maximum brightness when his smile shows up). They deal with things in such a matter of fact way, that when Simona announced that she lost her Wimbledon semi final to injury, not her opponent, it didn’t sound a bit like excuses. It was just fact, and everyone accepted it.
But then you get the dreaded However.
However, when idolised blondies Maria and Genie are cutting themselves off from friendships with their fellow tour members, Ernests Gulbis is making yet another controversial statement, and Fabio Fognini is acting like a misbehaving child for the umpteenth time, the sad truth is that the Glorious Good – who don’t yet have the Legend status of Roger, Rafa and Novak – are lost among the crowd.
*** *** ***
And there you have it. The contributions to the lack of appreciation for Kei Nishikori and Simona Halep.
BUT! There is a silver lining.
And that silver lining is the worldwide viewing of the game of tennis. The real, the actual game. You know – the bit where they’re all on court?
Because last year, via this miracle, the general public of tennis fanatics became aware of Simona and Kei. They looked beyond the words and the stories and the debates and the multi-coloured outfits in the fashion contests… and they saw two future champions, giving it their everything on the tennis courts.
Japan, and Romania, and every other person with common sense, saw what the majority of people with the most privileged access to the sport missed, from right in front of their eyes.
They saw importance of Kei Nishikori and Simona Halep.
Whilst their fans continue to multiply, it increases the hope that those who are responsible for all things surrounding our beloved sport will turn around, look at the crowds, and reassess their current situation.
Because for the sake of Kei, and Simona, and many others besides them… that’s what tennis needs.
*** *** ***
Thank you for reading once again!
Is it possible to get writer’s block whilst knowing exactly what you want to say? Because if so, that’s what I’ve had for the past day-and-a-bit! Hopefully that didn’t make for tedious reading – it’s already delayed the re-designing of the site!
Feel free to comment, even if it’s just to tell me I got too rant-ish, or if you thought I was biased. The Tennis Obsessed is most importantly for your benefit, not mine, and so I need to know if you find an unforced error in anything I’ve written!
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And if you’re still gutted over Federer’s premature departure, believe me – you’re not alone…