A game of emotion

These days, camaraderie, rather than conflict, mark the men’s and women’s tours. At the end of matches, hugs and pats on the back have replaced perfunctory handshakes at the net — often even by bitterly disappointed losers.

Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro comforts Spain’s Nicolas Almagro after he collapsed on the court following a left knee injury.   -  AP

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.”

— Rudyard Kipling (from the poem “IF”)

All-time great Chris Evert used to quip that she spent more time with tour players in the locker room and on the courts than she did with her husband. The globetrotting pros are competitors but also colleagues. As with any other workplace, friends and enemies co-mingle. But tennis is one of the rare pro sports where opponents share the same locker room.

Sometimes it’s friendly and fun; sometimes not so much. Brad Gilbert, who coached Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, recalled sitting in a 1980s locker room with the intense and often antagonistic champions, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker. “I couldn’t believe the electricity in that room. These four guys wouldn’t even look at each other and wouldn’t talk to each other.”

Personalities in this most individual of sports run the gamut from the surly Lendl and the aloof Maria Sharapova to the cheerful Kim Clijsters and the genial Roger Federer. Sharapova once called the locker room her “least favourite place.” For most players, it’s where they share the latest gossip and let their hair down. It’s where raw emotions and painful injuries are laid bare after matches.

These days, camaraderie, rather than conflict, mark the men’s and women’s tours. Perhaps that’s because the average age of world-class players has increased to nearly 30, and for the first time the Top-5 men are all 30 or older. These mature veterans, especially down-to-earth Federer, humble Rafael Nadal, extroverted Novak Djokovic and a poised Venus Williams, have set the tone with their classy professionalism. At the end of matches, hugs and pats on the back have replaced perfunctory handshakes at the net — often even by bitterly disappointed losers. (Many women prefer a cheek-to-cheek gesture of affection.)

Not surprisingly, the enduring images of the first week of the French Open reflect this zeitgeist. In a second-round match, with the score tied at 6-3, 3-6, 1-1 against Juan Martin del Potro, Spain’s Nicolas Almagro re-injured the knee that forced him to retire two weeks earlier at the Italian Open against compatriot Nadal. Writhing in pain and sobbing uncontrollably, Almagro collapsed on his back. Spectators chanted “Nico, Nico” to try to make him feel better. Del Potro rushed across the court to console him, putting his hand on his side and then helping him off the court. The 6’6” Delpo hugged the distraught Almagro and placed his hand on Almagro’s head, like a father comforting his injured child.

Then the two old friends, who have known each other since the juniors, sat down together. The empathetic Argentine, himself plagued by wrist injuries for years, continued his support. “I told him that tennis is important, but health matters more than tennis in this case, because I want him to be out of his bad patch,” del Potro said afterwards. “It’s really sad to see Nico go down like that.”

Loss of a more existential kind triggered another poignant episode. Two weeks before the French Open, Steve Johnson’s 58-year-old father unexpectedly passed away in his sleep. Steve Johnson Sr., a prominent Southern California coach, taught his son the game and inspired him to become a college star and turn pro. The grieving Johnson, who withdrew from the Italian Open after the tragedy, outlasted Japan’s Yuichi Sugita in five sets in his opening match in Paris. Then, against 20-year-old rising Croatian star Borna Coric, Johnson channeled the memory of his father to “keep strong” even after being penalised a point due to smashing his racket and inadvertently hitting a ball into the stands. On his fifth match point, Johnson unleashed a forehand winner to prevail 6-2, 7-6, 3-6, 7-6.

That last shot also unleashed a torrent of emotions. He dropped onto his knees, and his eyes welled with tears. In his on-court Tennis Channel interview, Johnson, choking on his words and still tearful, won the hearts of spectators when he said, “I just miss my dad, you know? I wish he was following along. I know he is, from upstairs. Just so emotional. It’s hard to describe. I just know he was looking down on me on that last point. And gave me the strength to finish it off. He always taught me to be a fighter, to be a competitor.”

Coric, who failed to convert set points in the fourth set, angrily smashed his racket on the court after losing. Spectators booed. Later Coric explained his understandable lapse and paid tribute to Johnson. “I think everyone gets mad from time to time. Maybe I didn’t show it in the right way, but I made a mistake. All the credit to him that he was able to go through this period and also to play this good.”

"I just miss my dad, you know? I wish he was following along. I know he is, from upstairs. Just so emotional. It’s hard to describe. I just know he was looking down on me on that last point. And gave me the strength to finish it off. He always taught me to be a fighter, to be a competitor," says Steve Johnson.   -  AP

 

It’s not often that a defeat feels good. But that’s how two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova felt after she lost in the second round to Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a 32-year-old American known chiefly for her doubles success. Five months earlier, Kvitova was stabbed in her racket-holding left hand when she tried to fight off a knife-wielding robber in her Prague apartment. Surgery repaired damage to tendons in all five digits of the hand as well as two nerves. Before the French Open, Kvitova said, “Not many people believe that I can play tennis again. So I’m happy that I can play. I actually already won my biggest fight. I stayed in life and I have all my fingers.”

Kvitova displayed her old power and precision in a 6-3, 6-2 first-round victory over 86th-ranked Julie Boserup at Roland Garros, as her team and family wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Courage, belief, Pojd (‘come on’).” Later she wept a few tears and said, “Courage and belief was everything I needed to have for this to come back and play here again.”

The heart-warming comeback ended when the rusty Kvitova double-faulted for the second time in the second-set tiebreaker of her 7-6, 7-6 loss to Mattek-Sands. In another touching display of compassion, Mattek-Sands embraced Kvitova at the net and told her how inspirational she was.

The upbeat Kvitova told the media, “I have to say that I’m kind of surprised how I played, even though I lost. I think it was good fight, but I think the (last set) tie-break showed that I don’t really have matches under my belt. But I feel good. I’m happy that I’m back.”

Ethnicity, nationality and religion all stirred the emotions of Ons Jabeur in her dream debut at the French Open. The 22-year-old Muslim from Tunisia decided not to fast this Ramadan during the tournament, but will later atone for the missed days, using a “credit system.”

Hitting 30 winners, Jabeur, a lucky loser in the qualifying event, scored a big 6-4, 6-3 upset over sixth-seeded Dominika Cibulkova to become the first Arab woman to gain the third round at a Grand Slam tournament. After Cibulkova double-faulted on match point, the jubilant Jabeur could barely hold back tears. Then she sprinted to her team for a Tunisian flag and proudly held it over her head.

“Well, when I win, I represent the Arab world. When I lose, I try to be just Ons Jabeur,” she said. “We are small country. The Arab world is like when you do something good, you’re from Tunisia, and from Morocco, other Arab country, they get interested in you. For me, it’s not only about Tunisia anymore, and it’s all about the Arab countries, the African continent.”

French compatriots, friends and longtime rivals, Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet first competed against each other in a tournament 13 years ago. In the French Open third round, a hobbling Gasquet was forced to retire with a groin injury with Monfils leading 7-6, 5-7, 4-3. Disappointed but showing French flair, Gasquet planted a kiss on Monfils’ cheek. It made Monfils smile.

Another kind of kiss — attempted, that is — caused an incident at Roland Garros. During a live TV interview, Maxime Hamou, a 21-year-old French qualifier who lost in the first round, yanked Eurosport presenter Maly Thomas toward him and tried several times to kiss her. “It was frankly unpleasant,” said Thomas. “If it had not been live, I would have punched him.”

Hamou apologised on Facebook for “my overflow of enthusiasm crudely towards Maly,” but the tournament revoked Hamou’s accreditation. Hamou may face further punishment from the French Tennis Federation for his inappropriate behavior. “In a normal world, Maxime Hamou would be in court for sexual assault,” tweeted French journalist Claude Askolovitch. But 13th-seeded Kristina Mladenovic gave the French plenty to cheer about. In the first round, the statuesque 6’ blonde Frenchwoman rallied from 3-0 down in the deciding set to overcome Jennifer Brady 3-6, 6-3, 9-7, and in the third round, she pulled off another Houdini-like escape from 5-2 down in the third set to outlast 2016 quarterfinalist Shelby Rogers 7-5, 4-6, 8-6.

Petra Kvitova’s (in pic, left with Bethanie Mattek-Sands) heart-warming comeback ended when she double-faulted for the second time in the second-set tiebreaker of her 7-6, 7-6 loss to Mattek-Sands. In another touching display of compassion, Mattek-Sands embraced Kvitova at the net and told her how inspirational she was. - Getty Images

 

“I went through so much emotion in this match, I don’t know what to say,” said Mladenovic, thanking the fans after defeating Rogers. “I don’t have words to describe the love I have for you and what you bring me.”

Against defending champion Garbine Muguruza, Mladenovic orchestrated the boisterous French crowd to perfection, raising her arms and pumping her fists after winning pivotal points. When the exasperated Muguruza disapprovingly wagged her finger as she left the court, the fiercely partisan fans booed her.

Mladenovic also cleverly exploited her knowledge of six languages to get under Muguruza’s skin by frequently yelling “Forza!” — Italian for power. When a reporter asked Muguruza about that ploy afterward, she was so unnerved she took a break from the press conference before returning to answer the question.

Despite 16 double faults, Mladenovic kept her own nerves in check to upset Muguruza 6-1, 2-6, 6-3 and reach her first Roland Garros quarterfinal. “So many players wilt under the pressure of playing in their home Grand Slam,” observed Tracy Austin, a Tennis Channel analyst. “Mladenovic seems to thrive.”

To Almagro, Johnson, Kvitova, and other diehard competitors in the Darwinian world of tennis, Kipling’s immortal words offer little consolation. But in this memorable week, the fittest showed how much camaraderie and compassion matter.

“I can’t think of a major with so much raw emotion in the first few days,” noted Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo. And with so much to feel good about.