Lost in translation?

Trial by cliche... Maria Sharova does reasonably well.-AP

Tennis can be brutal but is nothing compared with what can happen at the presser after matches. By Kevin Mitchell.

Media veterans of the Wimbledon press conference have been privy to some extraordinary scenes over the years: fights, gaffes, drunkenness, laughs and a million words of inanity as writers from around the world struggle to dig nuggets of insight out of bored tennis players. While 2009 has not been a vintage year, it has had its moments.

What is staggering — disappointing, actually — is how arch reasonably intelligent journalists become when thrown into the antiseptic environment of what over time has come to be regarded grandly as a “conference”. Put the same people in a bar and the results are far more entertaining.

At its best, though, a Wimbledon presser is more like Prime Minister’s Questions — without the decorum. As anyone who was there will remember, the gatekeepers of probity — rostered blazers of stern countenance from the All England Club appointed to play Mr. Speaker — could do nothing whatsoever to restore order at the depth of our witlessness many years ago, when John McEnroe, just ejected from the semifinals, retreated in a hissy fit after being asked by the venerable John Jackson about his relationship with Stacy Margolin. That was only the start of the entertainment.

American and British writers, some of them expensively educated, at least one of them stupendously drunk, brawled after a fashion as HBO, granted rare access to the party, filmed the whole sorry scene. It was not our finest 30 seconds. A survivor of the skirmish reminisced recently, “We’ve not had anything as good as that since. What’s the matter with us?”

No blows that Tuesday. Except to the intelligence. Of Sharapova’s 15 or so inquisitors a dozen were Americans — and this is reported in no way as a slur on that fine nation. However ... it is difficult to imagine what flight of fancy inspired the question, “Will you be coming back to Wimbledon next year?” Certainly, Maria had to pause. “Will I be coming back? Let me take a second to answer that question.” She’s coming back.

When Sharapova had dealt with writers from her homeland (“She is much more relaxed with us,” a Russian journalist confided), they wheeled in her conqueror, Gisela Dulko, of Argentina. Was she, we hoped, bothered by Maria’s grunting? Er, no. Well, bugger that line of inquiry. How about Maria’s “distinctive new jacket”, then — what did she think of that? “Very pretty.”

Just as we were sliding into farce, The Sun reminded us all why we were here. “Our publication is making you the new pin-up of Wimbledon. Would that be a welcome attention for you?” Gisela peered back, clueless. A translator whispered the inquiry to her in Spanish and she burst out, “Oh, that would be nice!”

There are considerations that transcend the prurient and idiotic in tennis, of course. Like shameless plugging. When Serena Williams stepped up, a few of our number were nonplussed when she was asked, “Got your G?” “Yeah,” she smiled as if being reminded of her corporate obligations, “I had a G moment today, for sure.” This, as aficionados of fizzy drinks will need no telling, was a reference to a drink Serena always ensures is visible for the cameras on court.

Novak Djokovic beat Simon Greul 7–5, 6–1, 6–4 in a minute under two hours with 14 aces (and none coming the other way), so the first thing we wanted to know was, “Was it too easy today?” The correct answer should always be, it is never easy enough, surely.

Novak, though, didn’t think it was easy at all. Get a life, fella; there’s tougher to come. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad question, though, because Djokovic went on to reveal a little more about his fragile sense of self-worth. “I’m aware of my qualities,” he said. “It’s just that I don’t want to create an extra pressure on myself, because I know how hard it is to deal with it.” Humanity. At last.

Roger Federer is the most relaxed of our subjects, in English, Swiss-German, French or just raised-eyebrow language. But even his legendary patience was stretched at the end of a long day. “One last question,” Mr. Speaker barked as Federer was winding up in English. “Make it good,” said the player. It wasn’t.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009