How Twitter Is Taking the Fun Out of Tennis Fandom

I’ve always rooted for John Isner.

A few reasons: One is that he is almost always involved in close matches, and I like the drama of competition. I enjoy observing how players handle the key moments. Isner seems like a straight-up, honest competitor — a good guy I can feel good about rooting for.

I also appreciate the irony that he’s known for winning the closest and longest match ever, yet what has held him back from greater success are his losses in close, important matches. I have defended Isner in arguments with tennis buddies who complain that his game is one-dimensional. But that’s what makes Isner’s competitiveness not just good, but valiant. His margin for victory is crazy thin. One bad service game from him probably loses the set. If he hits just one kick second serve in a tiebreak that sits up a tad, that alone could cost him the set. Isner competes with the burden of that knowledge. He can’t think, “Oh, I’ll just get the mini-break right back.” With his return game, that would be delusional. So for those reasons, when I went to Isner’s first-round match at the French Open last year, I was probably the loudest voice out on Court 3 cheering for him against Aussie Jordan Thompson. (Isner won in four sets.)

But Isner complicated my fandom when I later read about views he has expressed on Twitter. Obviously he has every right to put whatever he wants on social media. And I have the right to like or not like him for his views. Of course, John Isner has no reason to give a rat’s ass whether I like him.

But none of that’s the issue here. It’s not that I agree or disagree with Isner’s views. It’s that I don’t want to know them. I didn’t ask to know them. I don’t want to have to read his, or anyone’s, Twitter timeline, Facebook posts or Instagram messages to figure out whether I want to root for him. It’s too much work. I didn’t become a sports fan because I wanted to do research. I was rooting for Isner because of what I saw on the court. He’s never been on the ballot of any election I’ve voted in. He plays a sport. I had all the information I thought I needed.

You can argue that I could quit Twitter and not see the opinions of Isner or any other players. But that’s not realistic. These things have a way of getting around, into news stories or the comments sections of unrelated articles.

So, what did Isner tweet that got me thinking? It was him describing as “amazingly disrespectful” the statement one of the Hamilton actors read aloud to then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence a couple of weeks after the 2016 election. In another tweet, Isner complained that the actor and cast weren’t being “tolerant.” Pence, for his part, later said he wasn’t offended.

Here are three things I thought at the time: 1) The United States is a great country. 2) One of the things that makes this nation great is that someone can lecture the vice president-elect in a theater without getting punished. Sure, most countries have freedom of speech. But it’s more institutionalized and ingrained here than pretty much anywhere else. I’ve lived in at least one other country where that actor might have gotten roughed up or killed for that later on. 3) I liked Pence’s response more than Isner’s.

Twitter is a terrible forum for engaging in complex conversations. Isner isn’t doing himself any favors trying to express his views in such a truncated format. It’s possible that if he had written a 750-word essay on why the Hamilton lecture bothered him, he would have come off as thoughtful. Instead, with just a few words, he made a lot of people think he’s narrow-minded.

Not to compare Isner with Tennys Sandgren, but Sandgren also didn’t help himself communicating via Twitter. He complained to the media during the Australian Open that he was portrayed unfairly. But all the information everyone had on Sandgren was put out by Sandgren. Perhaps if he had explained his thoughts in a longer format he wouldn’t have felt he was being mischaracterized.

In his podcast interview this week with Ryan Harrison, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim noted that when he started covering tennis in the late 1990s, he didn’t know what the players’ political views were. That was essentially the same thought I had reading Isner’s tweets. When I was a kid watching tennis in the 1970s and ‘80s, I didn’t have to sort out the cultural or political opinions of the 18th-ranked male player.

So, do I keep rooting for Isner? Maybe not quite as enthusiastically as before, but yes. I don’t have to agree with everything an athlete says or does. It’s also hard to change old rooting habits. Still, if I could choose, I’d like to go back to having less information about the players’ views. It made fandom more fun.

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