The first week of Roland Garros was shaken up by the statements of the whimsical Ernests Gulbis. The Latvian accused Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray of being "boring". Did he say out loud what many people are thinking or is he exaggerating?
"Tennis today lacks characters. I respect Roger [Federer], Rafa [Nadal], Novak [Djokovic] and [Andy] Murray but all four are boring players. ... Their interviews are boring, they are rubbish. It's a joke.” If he ever has to go to war, it's safe to say that Ernests Gulbis would go to the front with a bazooka. Asked by the sports daily L'Equipe before his second round match against Gael Monfils, the Latvian pulled out the heavy artillery. His target: the ‘Fantastic Four’ of men's tennis, including Roger Federer, who usually only collects praise. "I often go to YouTube to watch interviews” he said. “For tennis, I quickly gave up. It is a joke. It's Federer who started this trend. He has this great image of the Swiss gentleman, perfect for him. I repeat, I respect Federer, but I don't like young players trying to imitate him". With these words, Gulbis has opened up a worthy debate. Are today's champions really boring?
Yes, they are boring
If the spectacle offered by Federer and his closest rivals on the court in recent years is hardly questionable, their behaviour off the court can easily lead to boredom or annoyance. A guy like Djokovic, for example, will always say the same sentences in a press conference after the match, whether struggling or strolling to victory. His opponent will always have played very well; it would always have been complicated, blah blah blah…
Vapid words filled with so many good intentions that they end up sounding hypocritical. "Djokovic, it's wrong, he just likes to show up and play" launched the Pole Jerzy Janowicz, another big mouth on the ATP Tour, earlier this year. As for Federer, he is "rather full of himself, he has something that is not natural." His comments echo those made by Sergei Stakhovsky who had criticized last year the “too smooth” behaviour of Roger as President of Players’ Council: "He’s a good person but too neutral for my taste. Too Swiss(...) He doesn't want to damage his image." Never make waves, this could well be the motto of the Helvetian champion, who obviously prefers the quiet shores of Lake Geneva to rougher waters: he has kept the same girlfriend - now his wife and mother of his children - since the age of 19, always has a kind word for his opponents and his fans, always dons the appropriate outfits, no scandals, a charitable commitment... Miss Universe couldn’t do better.
Thanks Colombia....on my way home. You overwhelmed me with your support and love! I will never forget my visit and hope to be back soon.— Roger Federer (@FedererOfficial) 16 décembre 2012
Much the same goes for Nadal, Murray and Djokovic, the latter differing only by a few politically correct jokes, including coming onto the courts wearing a mask to amuse his fans once in a while.
We are indeed far, very far from the tribulations of Ilie Nastase, from the permanent rants of John McEnroe, from the dark and uncompromising looks of Marcelo Rios or from the colourful outfits of Andre Agassi back in his early days...
No, they’re not boring
Gulbis can try to shoot at everything, but he needs to realize that to be at the top level, a champion cannot afford too many off-court distractions. Moreover, the Latvian recognizes it: if he has never been never able to really worry the best, despite an undeniable talent, it’s because of his excessive taste for partying and a lifestyle that is incompatible with making it to the very top. This analysis also applies to Gael Monfils, for example.
Of course, you will never see Nadal make tabloid headlines, but the way he managed to come back on top after a serious injury this year compels admiration. And it doesn't make him "boring", no offense to Ernests. Because the Spaniard doesn't always waffle and isn't shy to let rip in the media sometimes. In 2009, for example, the organizers of the Madrid's tournament became his target of choice with their idea of dyeing the clay blue and he expressed his displeasure in a tweet in November 2011 following the decision of the ATP granting the organizers the right to try the experiment in May 2012.
Espero no tener q jugar algún dia sobre hierba azul ;)....— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) 9 novembre 2011
This year, it’s HIS Roland-Garros, deeming the weather conditions "poorly anticipated" by the organisers and bemoaning match schedules that don’t suit him perfectly. In a match, too, the Spaniard can let loose. Just look at this second round loss at Wimbledon 2012 against Lukas Rosol.
Andy Murray can also be the “bad boy” once in a while, if the match takes a turn he doesn’t like. And let’s not talk about Djokovic.
Even Federer had, so we heard, a reputation as being a sore loser in his youth... And not only in his youth. For proof:
And if the Fantastic Four usually do everything it takes to embellish their image, it's also because they are fearsome businessmen, who know how to act like gentlemen and respect the reputation of tennis, considered as the gentlemen’s sport par excellence. In this, they operate a similar strategy to that used by Zidane in the world of football: Mr Clean on the surface, a perfect model for advertisers but sometimes able to launch a few cheap shots behind the scenes...
At the end of the day, Ernests Gulbis with this groundbreaking interview had the merit to bring up an interesting question, but the answer is much more complex than it seems. First, because amongst the four players targeted, some seem to be less smooth than others: Nadal doesn’t always waffle in the media, Murray hardly hides a bad temper and Djokovic has the merit of occasionally eschewing the more formal protocols. Of the four, it's certainly Federer's image that can irritate the most by dint of being too perfect: always well dressed, polite, multilingual, respectful of the opponents, of fans and journalists, even if he has to use a good dose of hypocrisy. But Gulbis must know: No one can rule for more than a decade on the tennis world on talent alone. A healthy lifestyle and an appropriate behaviour are necessary. Earning the respect of the opponent and the audience is part of the victory.
By Régis Delanoë