Tennis has found its free spirit

IF you don't know what amped means, find a dictionary of slang. Look it up. Learn it.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

"Roddick is a boy and it is nice to see him behaving like one." — Pic. MIKE HEWITT/GETTY IMAGES-

IF you don't know what amped means, find a dictionary of slang. Look it up. Learn it. Get used to it. If you want to be part of Andy Roddick's world, English as you knew it is not going to be enough. Neither is sport as you know it. Good thing, too.

If Roger Federer's stylish game with its improvisatory touches is all sublime jazz, and the steadfast Juan Carlos with his sheet music presents himself as a classical musician, then Andy Roddick, his hair tousled, his forehand echoing like a drum-beat, his gift for entertainment evident, is all rock'n'roll.

There's no question he's going to bring tennis a new following; there's no arguing that his manner is also going to get him into a lot of strife.

A few weeks ago, it was announced Roddick was going to star in a reality tennis show, The Tour, where cameras will follow him from May to September during the 2004 ATP Tour.

Said Roddick, using a vocabulary usually found in his girlfriend Mandy Moore's Hollywood world: "I am totally amped for this show. I'm just this guy who happens to play tennis, but my life has become this circus. It's a wild ride, and I've given The Tour producers total access ... except my bedroom . sorry, I have to draw the line somewhere!"

Amped, so we think, means ready, tuned, excited, charged up. Or thereabouts. It's not a word readily associated with tennis players, whose press conferences are littered with utterances that usually never get past the banal. The dull baseline soliloquies that have passed for tennis in recent times have bruised the game; the players themselves appear uni-dimensional, cardboard cut-outs who see the court as their workplace and not much else. This may fit the definition of modern sport, but entertainment it is not.

Like most sport, possibly a Don King-managed boxing title fight aside, tennis has turned clinical. Players show up, play and retreat to their luxurious five-star prisons. Autographs are often restricted to two minutes of pen-work. Spectators are kept at an armed guard's distance. Spontaneity is harder to come by than an Indian Test opener. Players insist they are "having fun out there" and that "a love for the game" persists, but this is said by men with long, grim faces usually associated with undertakers. Apparently, this is professionalism.

Pete Sampras's singular discipline was compelling, and at least his tennis was constantly brilliant, but always there was a sense that he held his personality on a tight leash, unwilling to reveal himself. His successor, Lleyton Hewitt, carrying a chip the size of Australia on both shoulders, played not just a less virtuous game, but saw no vice in picking up a trophy and going home without giving anything of himself. That he is locked in a court case with the ATP, themselves artless in selling the game, over the matter of a not-given television interview speaks for itself.

Admittedly, it has become expected of players to succumb to a narrow stereotype: hard-working, focussed, committed, straight-laced, colourless, bland. It is not all bad, but it is limiting. It is possible for athletes to let their personalities flourish and to partake of life beyond the field of play, and still be disciplined. Sport should not be confused with a monastic order. Alas, in India for instance, cricketers are rarely allowed to be themselves; instead, they must embrace convention and submit to the humble, team-man clich� beloved by most. Should an interesting character emerge, immediately he is viewed with suspicion.

That said there is too much talk among sportspeople that the press is too intrusive, the tournament year too long, the pressure too heavy, the expectation too disproportionate. To discount all this would be unfair, it is not easy. But when you get to play with a racquet for a living, and earn a million dollars for a week's worth of passing shots, and tickets to the hottest Broadway show are a command away, giving a little back to the fans is not an impossible ask. It's not as if these fellows are working for Medicins Sans Frontiers.

Fun as we know it is dying, free spirits are frowned at, impulsive fellows are sent off to be tutored by media managers, whose very existence revolves around the clich�. Sport is not all serious business, there is time for frivolity, for an expression of personality. Parading cricketers in turn before the cameras, none saying much beyond "we will take it to the opposition" has limited appeal.

Roddick is a boy and it is nice to see him behaving like one. It is refreshing to see him chat up talk show hosts, do skits on Saturday Night Live, high-five opponents on court. He looks a kid who likes the taste of life, flirting with a world beyond tennis, breaking out of his cocoon. He plays fine tennis; he is also wide-eyed about stardom and seems to mostly enjoy his journey to success. Despite what you may read, sport is not a matter of life and death.

Young people will be drawn to him, he speaks their language, he reflects some of their attitudes, and tennis can only be better for it. Audiences want to see skill, but they are also taken up by exuberant characters, by heroes who do not lock up their personalities. Not everyone should be a clone off a conveyor belt. No doubt Roddick occasionally will give umpires lip for no reason, and will make the odd wrong choice (it is called growing up), but he is a compelling figure, warts and all.

But Roddick has also put himself in a perilous position. Should his form dip, as often it will, we will be told he is not a serious fellow, not given to hard work. It will be said he is spurning his gifts, being distracted by extraneous matters, not focussed on the task at hand. If he has, by the time this column is published, lost the world No. 1 ranking, be sure some will contend he should have been practising in Houston for the year-end championships rather than filming Saturday Night Live. In short, he will be asked to decide whether he is an entertainer or a tennis player, as if both are somehow incompatible.

Eventually Roddick will change. Perhaps age will do that to him, perhaps the criticism will wear him down. Some will say it is a blessing, but a few will consider it a pity. Some birds, after all, are best left uncaged.