Tennis Coverage In A Polarized Age
It is more than a little ironic:

For decades, the know-nothings in America who don't regularly follow tennis -- you have either seen them on talk shows or read their bombastic columns, typically before Wimbledon or the U.S. Open -- have huffed about the need for "personality" in tennis. 

(I won't claim to know about the media landscapes in Britain or Australia, the other English-speaking countries which host major tournaments.)

"If only we had tennis players who hated each other, " they said.

"If only we had bad boys in tennis again," they said.

A lot of mainstream American media voices -- individual columnists, radio talk-show hosts, or hot-take TV shows which focus on tennis 0.001 percent of the time -- have long opined that tennis needed conflict and combativeness to become ratings gold, the way it was in the Borg-Lendl-Connors-McEnroe days of the early 1980s.

That line of argument was always full of crap, but it is being exposed in new -- and more distressing -- ways today.

You want conflict, you carnival barkers in the American media? You got it Monday night at the inaugural New York Open, when Donald Young felt and perceived a racial animus from his American opponent, Ryan Harrison. It was combative, nasty (not Ilie Nastase, but who cares?), and fiery.

I don't think many people enjoyed the spectacle, whether in Long Island inside Nassau Coliseum or watching on Tennis Channel.

This Young-Harrison episode unfolded on the same night that Ben Rothenberg, writing for Slate, unfurled the story of how the creation of ATP tennis pro Darko Grncarov -- which caught fire at the Australian Open -- was built on a foundation of falsehoods. Grncarov attracted support from some of tennis's most luminous lights as well as hundreds of fans (f not more) on #TennisTwitter, chiefly because he expressed what could generally be viewed as progressive views contrary to a number of players (Americans prominently included) in a sport which often displays a country-clubbish culture.

I will write about what these stories mean for tennis fandom at another blog in a separate piece. Here and now, I intend to write about what this means for tennis journalism, or at least, tennis coverage in the broader sense. 

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The mainstream (non-tennis) media has never had a clue about what "works" for tennis, at least in the United States. (Again, I won't claim to know what happens in Britain, Australia, or other places unless I have a specific insight into a situation. In this case, I don't.) 

One has to keep in mind that the Borg-Lendl-Connors-McEnroe era was part of a tennis boom in the United States which was fueled by a number of forces particular to the 1970s:

1) Tennis was just beginning to settle into a professional existence, undeniably a major engine for the growth of the sport relative to its amateur iteration, which ended in 1968.

2) ESPN didn't arrive until September of 1979. CNN didn't arrive until 1980. The 1970s were a time in which this nation's populace had four basic TV options: ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS. The New York Times and Washington Post were giants in the media realm precisely because the media landscape had not been fragmented into hundreds of TV channels and hundreds of thousands of blogs, podcasts, video channels, and streaming options. If you cracked the media spotlight in the 1970s as a professional athlete -- for positive reasons beyond a one-night rarity -- you generally stayed there. 

3) The Battle Of The Sexes in 1973 lent tennis in the United States a level of public visibility and cultural centrality which can intellectually be grasped today, but whose emotional force could be understood only by people who lived through the experience. (I had not yet been born, so I can't say I fully know what this event meant to the people who lived through it.) 

Yes, Chris versus Martina and the ATP rivalries which sprouted in the late 1970s certainly helped the tennis boom, but Fedalovic (the Big 3) and the Williams Sisters represent five tennis giants who stand (this is not meant to generate debate) in the same exalted realm as their predecessors, and yet there is no current tennis boom in America.

The point remains: Forces and dynamics situated in the 1970s gave power to tennis rivalries which the present day lacks in the United States. Media proclamations about what the sport of tennis needed were little more than media people selfishly wishing for certain things, the undercurrent being that those same voices and personalities cared little for tennis as a sport; they just wanted the drama, largely because drama makes good television, radio and print coverage, in their minds.

This brings us to the present day.

While Twitter, social media, blogs and podcasts represent a new media realm compared to the late 1970s, the thirst for drama among large subsections of the tennis-covering world remains.

A very large chunk of this insistence on drama is no longer comprised of the columnists or talk-show hosts who talk about tennis only when the sport embarrasses itself or something very ugly or graphic occurs on a court. This subsection of the drama-courting tennis coverage superstructure is the online business model, specifically the current industry focus (for online websites across all categories, not just sports) on what the analytics (read: Google) say is being read... and not read.

As someone who had an online writing job with a company which enabled me to cover the four major tournaments -- but then had that job revoked last year -- I have seen firsthand (at multiple places of employment) how online media companies operate. One very simple core truth about online content production -- sports or other topics -- is that the publishers and leaders of media companies generally emphasize the analytics and demand that writers write in accordance with what the analytics say. They do NOT take the opposite path, in which they try to do something fresh or new and encourage writers to build a product which can reshape the analytics, thereby changing reader habits.

As long as the analytics retain power, writers -- the people who cover tennis or anything else under the sun -- will lack editorial power, at least to the extent that they work for media companies. I currently have this independent site, but it comes with trade-offs: a lot less money, a lot less visibility, and a lot less marketing support. Independent writing makes me less conflicted, but also less profitable or visible. Writers write to be authentic, which editorial independence promotes, but they also write to make a buck and be widely read. Independence does NOT serve those two parts of a writing life.

Within this larger industry focus on what the analytics say, the age of Donald Trump -- like it or not -- has hyper-politicized coverage of sports and other things which don't strike me as deserving a politicized flavor of journalism (or content creation). 

Reading that sentence above, some might think that I am part of the "Stick To Sports" brigade, the group of people (among journalists or fans) which thinks that politics have little to no place in sports coverage.

That is not the case. Sports were political long before Trump or even Bill Clinton. There has ALWAYS been a need to write about sports in ways which transcend sports themselves. Having a political bent or content in sports stories is hardly, by itself, any remote violation of sound journalistic principles.

Note the comment above about sports in the age of Trump: I referred to "hyper-politicized coverage." It's not that politics is part of the mix; the problem is that politics is thrown into the pot far too often, for reasons not legitimate to any story or exploration.

The modern age of online content, combined with the age of Trump, leads to this now-familiar clickbait formula: What does Tennis Player X (generally an American) think about this politically-flavored sports drama, inside or (especially) outside of tennis?"

A perfect -- and perfectly awful -- example of this: coverage of John Isner's opinions about Colin Kaepernick.

Isner is a noted Carolina Panthers fan, so hey, why not ask him about this prominent NFL personality? Clickbait central. Eyeball Alley. Rile up readers, get discussion and social shares rocketing up the board. Tennis publications rolled with that content -- and why not (from their point of view)? They very likely got many more reads than, say, a piece on Magdalena Rybarikova's rise up the rankings or David Ferrer's inspiring Montreal-Cincinnati run.

Here is the salient point to make about the Harrison-Young incident Monday night in Uniondale, New York: That was an instance in which one player was made to feel racially attacked by another player. To that extent -- and this is not a presumption of guilt toward Harrison -- the conduct and views of a player should receive considerable journalistic attention and scrutiny. 

When people who share professional space -- or who exist in the same line of work -- feel hurt as a direct result of a fellow professional's speech or actions, the views of the offending player demand attention and, if found to be a problem, require a combination of sanctions and/or education from the relevant governing bodies in tennis. It is entirely appropriate for sports -- as governed/governing entities -- to demand sportsmanship and fair play from their professional members. If personal views spill into harmful attacks on other competitors, that's definitely something journalists should investigate.

What John Isner thinks of Colin Kaepernick, or what CoCo Vandeweghe thinks of Trump, or what Tennys Sandgren follows and/or likes on Twitter?

No.

To pivot to Sandgren for a moment, the American was the subject of two journalistic inclinations during the Australian Open, both of them flawed. (I won't say "bad," because the inclinations had a reasonable intent; it's simply that they were not honored or carried out as well as they could have been.)

One journalistic inclination was to promote Sandgren, given that he was an American player enjoying a great run at a major. Commentators and writers remarked on how well-spoken Sandgren was, trying to build a character and image from a few moments of spoken interaction. The mythology-making machine of American media whirred and hummed, reflexively responding to an event without taking the time to consider all the tones and textures of Sandgren's story, in which case his personal views -- known in some quarters to be uncomfortable -- formed part of the real story.

Promoting an American player in a moment of success is not a bad inclination in itself; the RUSH to do so, however, was premature. It produced incomplete stories which, given Sandgren's personal views, were rightly off-putting to many American tennis news consumers.

However, another inclination also surrounded Sandgren at the Australian Open, the aforementioned desire to cover a tennis player's personal views... just because personal views might be uncomfortable or divisive.

Sandgren's career has been obscure. Unlike Harrison, Fabio Fognini or -- to use a well-publicized case from a few years ago, Michael Llodra at Indian Wells in 2012 -- he has not interacted with players, referees or fans on court in despicable ways that have caused direct harm to the other persons involved. 

While glossy personal profiles should not and cannot be done without investigating a player's fuller, larger past, making that same inquiry into a player's personal or political views just for its own sake, on its own terms, is also excessive.

Yes, we can have a discussion about political views which cross a bright red line. If Player X ever expressed direct and unreserved support for an atrocious policy or a completely unacceptable view toward whole groups of persons, sure, that matter would deserve journalistic attention and a response from tennis officials at various levels. Short of that level of clarity, however, a tennis player's (or any athlete's) personal views, if not used as a cudgel against other players, referees, or fans, remain just that -- personal views. 

They might be hard to swallow. They should lead toward less fan support. They should be reasons to search for better, more likable alternatives.

But should those views be the kinds of things journalists should ask about if not doing a personal profile, and strictly covering matches or tournaments? I don't think so. 

Here's the essential point to make about the relationship between politics and sports -- or more broadly, between sports and its "non-sports" components or crosscurrents: When politics affect sports -- and they often do -- by all means cover the intersection of the two. When politics do not affect sports, don't.

With tennis players considering forming a new union, and with all the economic and cultural tensions swirling through the sport, there are so many fertile and obviously legitimate avenues for writing about intersections between politics and tennis. 

Identifying a tennis player's personal views is not one of them -- UNLESS OR UNTIL those views affect the safety or well-being of other tennis players, match referees, or on-court fans.

Journalism in the attempt to create a larger-than-life American image of Tennys Sandgren was excessive, but so was the attempt to expose his views as inherently problematic, a pursuit which led many to believe in the Darko Grncarov hoax. In the former case, ignorance of political views led to a bad look for journalists. In the latter case, excessive focus on political views led to an error on the part of bloggers who insisted (with a considerable degree of truth) that mainline tennis outlets or journalists were not doing their jobs properly.

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EPILOGUE

I recently watched a conversation with Aaron Brown, who began his TV news career in Seattle (where I spend half of my year) and became a star CNN anchor at the beginning of this century. He was on the air for most of September 11, 2001, standing atop a rooftower in New York which was not too far from the World Trade Center.

Brown's rise to national prominence would not have happened without the support and encouragement of ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, a Canadian who became one of the giants of American TV journalism in the latter fourth of the 20th century. Brown, in this conversation, said that Jennings never oversold a story and never undersold a story.

Translated: Jennings didn't overhype stories which weren't that important, but he didn't dismiss or brush aside stories which were very significant and needed to be recognized as such. Jennings didn't ignore various contextual realities, but he constantly assessed whether the various components of a story were or weren't germane to the topic and its overall significance. Whether he personally admired -- or loathed -- a figure in a story he covered was not relevant to the quality of his coverage. How the details affected and magnified the story was always the point worth measuring. If it merited inclusion, Jennings shared it with his audience. If it didn't, Jennings either didn't mention it or put it in its properly diminished place.

This gets to the final truth about tennis coverage in the Age of Trump: If tennis players out themselves as holders of a given viewpoint, people with different views should not support them if they feel so inclined. Don't buy tickets for their matches, don't buy their clothing or products, silence them into a black hole of economic stagnation. Absolutely -- go for it.

However, is that deserving of news coverage and journalistic scrutiny? Only if those views and the actions which flow from them spill into competitions and direct interactions with paying customers entitled to a safe, non-threatening, non-discriminatory experience.

Ryan Harrison has stepped over that line. Tennys Sandgren did not.

I hope we can see that difference... and that tennis journalists will respond accordingly in each case.