Why mainstream tennis journalism (still) sucks in 2012
I can’t think of any other area in which a journalist would boast about being unable to sell a story on one of the world’s ten best practitioners in that field, but that’s exactly what the Sunday Times’ Barry Flatman did last night, tweeting from the WTA year-end championships in Istanbul: “Is it me or are the WTA Championships in Istanbul a little lacklustre this year?” he asked, before admitting without a trace of shame: “If I’m honest it’s hard to get over enthusiastic about selling stories on Angelique Kerber. Missing Wozniacki, Clijsters. Even Ivanovic.”* In subsequent replies, he stated a preference for #52-ranked Laura Robson’s presence at the YEC over #5-ranked Angelique Kerber’s, due to her nationality and rather than her accomplishments; he also hauled out the old canard - surely entirely discredited by now** - of arguing that male players should be paid more than the women, based on a single example.
Where to start? When will it end? These are attitudes that have been sadly endemic in mainstream tennis journalism since forever. There’s the massive laziness when it comes to reporting on the players who aren’t sport-transcending megastars: if a player doesn’t already transcend the sport, it’s as if their back stories, personalities and games are deemed unworthy of coverage. Way to sell tennis to the public, guys! There’s the inbuilt misogyny whereby the majority of tennis reporters barely bother to disguise their resentment at having to cover the women’s game. Flatman’s yearning for Wozniacki and Ivanovic demonstrates that it’s not some gold standard of excellence he’s demanding, but rather a nebulous definition of media-friendliness - and the closer this leans to docile feminine “niceness” or glamorous sex appeal, the better.
Is the idea that tennis can be sold based on itself - the way in which players actually play it - too ludicrous? Kerber has outclassed all of the women Flatman cites in that department this year. And the idea that he can’t sell a story about her merely speaks to his own limitations as a journalist. Off the top of my head, here are a few angles on Kerber I’d be interested to know more about:
- Her relatively late development from a journeywoman into an elite player at the age of 24 following a run to the US Open semi-finals in 2011 that almost the entire tennis world assumed was a fluke. She’s attributed the improvement to the hardcore fitness training she did over the summer that year, and you can see in her results how it’s propelled her. All year, she’s won several key epic matches - and gained a reputation as a mentally tough player always ready to spring a comeback on an opponent wobbling at the finishing line. It’s a classic case of fitness begetting wins begetting confidence begetting wins.
- The rise of German women’s tennis from the post-Graf ashes has been a huge story over the past couple of years, with Kerber, Sabine Lisicki, Andrea Petkovic, Mona Barthel and Julia Goerges all posting eye-catching results. Any time success happens in a wave like this it’s worth exploring it further: how the players push each other, what training methods have been implemented, what the knock-on effect on the sport’s popularity at home has been. This wave also fits into the wider WTA trend towards players maturing later - none of those women were teenage prodigies; the tendency of German players to focus on finishing high school has been cited as a reason for their relatively late emergence. And then there’s the next German wave to come: Kerber, Lisicki, Petkovic, Barthel and Goerges all have flawed games and I’d hazard that none will win a Slam, but anyone who’s been following up-and-coming youngsters will know that they’re just the start. Teenagers Annika Beck, Anna-Lena Friedsam, Carina Witthoeft and Antonia Lottner are all showing real potential right now.
- Kerber herself might not fit the narrow definition of off-court “media-friendliness” that the tennis media and the WTA seem unable to think beyond, but she’s a compelling player and personality on court: I love watching her counterpunching game, the way she can turn defense into offense just when she seems to be out of a rally, the way she can take the ball so early and redirect it. She can bring the drama, too, as anyone who watched her Wimbledon quarter-final can attest: a match with so many twists and emotions that both players’ teams looked like they were suffering PTSD afterwards. I’ve seen players hit winners in anger, in desperation and in disdain before, but Kerber is the only one I’ve seen hit winners sarcastically, as though mocking her own poor play. It’s tremendously entertaining. She’s also the only player who was able to beat Serena Williams over her magical, dominant summer this year: even if Serena’s mind wasn’t entirely on the job in Cincinnati, any loss is telling - particularly against someone with a game style (left-handed, resourceful counterpuncher) Serena historically dislikes. As it happens, Kerber and Serena have been drawn in the same group at the YEC - and, contra Flatman, it’s probably the second most exciting popcorn match of the round robin stage.