Tennis Biases Take Shape Early (Agassi, Federer, Nadal version)

In a previous blog entry on Monica Seles, I mentioned that I saw her in the stands watching Andre Agassi play Aaron Krickstein during the 1988 Lipton tournament on Key Biscayne. Agassi, then 17, was up two sets to love and had a match point in the fourth before retiring one game into the fifth set. Apparently he had some sort of injury, but the feeling I had from where I was sitting was that Agassi didn’t want to gut it out after blowing a big lead, and quitting seemed a more attractive option than giving Krickstein the satisfaction of a straight-up victory. Of course, I couldn’t get into Agassi’s head, so I don’t know.

A few months later, in July 1988, I was watching a U.S.-Argentina Davis Cup tie on TV. Agassi was absolutely grooving on his groundstrokes and crushing Martin Jaite, a likeable player who was simply overmatched. With Jaite serving at 0-4 in the third set and down two sets to none, Agassi caught a Jaite serve with his hand, giving the Argentine the point and the game. It was a show-up-the-opponent move unlike any I’ve seen before or since, regardless of whether Agassi intended it that way.

A couple months after that, Agassi reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open, losing to Ivan Lendl. Even Lendl thought Agassi wasn’t interested in fighting it out. “He was giving up, hitting shots he knew weren’t going in,” Lendl said. (I often think of on-court 1988 Agassi when watching Nick Kyrgios.)

By then I believed that I had enough of a sample size to decide I wasn’t an Agassi fan. And then this: Several months later, in February 1989, I finagled a press credential to a U.S.-Paraguay Davis Cup match in Fort Myers, Florida. Paraguay was going through a bloody coup that same weekend, and it was unclear exactly what was going on in Asuncion. Agassi, asked if he felt any sympathy for the Paraguayan players, answered in the negative and added something to the effect of wanting to stomp out the Paraguayans like bugs. He owned it, too, saying, “I’m making fun of Paraguay.” (If a player did that today — and I can’t think of any who would — it would cause an uproar on social media. In pre-Internet 1988, it was barely noticed.)

So I was all in for Jim Courier and Pete Sampras when they developed rivalries with Agassi. Even 15 years later, long after Agassi became a philanthropist who took the sport seriously and respected his opponents, I was still rooting against him most of the time. Eventually, I came to admire Agassi, but never totally embraced him. Perhaps it’s ironic that Agassi changed, but I really didn’t.

I often think about my view of Agassi when considering the biases that fans and tennis journalists have in favor of or against certain players. We process what we see, and then make judgments based on our own values and personal tastes. I don’t mind flashy players, but I like to know that whoever I’m rooting for is trying really hard. It doesn’t have to be the extremely visible Lleyton Hewitt-Michael Chang-Jimmy Connors-Rafael Nadal-kind of effort. But I can’t feel like I want it more than the player does.

My bias for Roger Federer also started early. The first time I saw him in person was probably the 2001 Key Biscayne tournament. I was living about a mile from the stadium court at the time. Federer made the quarterfinals, only to get thrashed by Pat Rafter, who would lose an epic Wimbledon final a few months later. Over the next year Federer’s game blossomed, and he reached the Miami final in 2002, taking out then-No. 1 Hewitt before losing to Agassi.

By then I was already a fan of Federer’s game. Then when he annihilated the field at Wimbledon in 2003 (losing only one set, to Mardy Fish, in his seven matches), I remember thinking: I don’t know if he’s the best tennis player, but he definitely plays the best tennis.

The die was cast, and then solidified in 2004 and 2005. I was in the Key Biscayne stadium when Federer lost to 17-year-old Nadal, and it sort of annoyed me that Nadal got a win over a Federer who was clearly still feeling the effects of having been ill with a fever and vomiting a couple of days earlier. I was also in the stadium a year later, when Federer won an epic five-setter against Nadal in the 2005 final. Though I admired the way Nadal played, I wasn’t a fan because of something I saw up close that year.

During his round of 16 match against Ivan Ljubicic on the Grandstand court, I was sitting just feet away from Toni Nadal, who was coaching his nephew continuously and not trying to hide it. (I’m aware that the Nadals speak to each other in Mallorquin. I speak Spanish, and some words are similar, though not the same. He was clearly giving Nadal directions. For example, words sounding like “dret” or “diret,” indicating either “right” or “forehand,” which is “derecha” in Spanish.) Not the worst thing in the world, but I didn’t dig it.

I will also admit that one reason I like Federer goes back to the 2004-2007 period. I was a business columnist and reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, but I would pitch in to help cover the Key Biscayne tournament on off days or after work at night. In either ‘05 or ‘06, I asked Federer a question or two during press conferences. It wasn’t a lot. I wouldn’t have expected him to remember me.

Days later when we walked past each other in the tunnel that connects the locker room/interview areas to the stadium court, he nodded at me in acknowledgment. Not a big deal. But it struck me as unnecessarily polite. Keep in mind that at the time he was basically untouchable in any match that wasn’t against Nadal on clay. Tennis God says hello (sort of) to me. Why wouldn’t I root for him? I suspect that a lot of tennis journalists have been influenced by similarly pleasant experiences with Federer. The guy comes off as a mensch. (To be sure, for all I know Nadal is equally courteous.)

So I started rooting for Federer because I was drawn to him relatively early in his career, and didn’t have a great initial impression of Nadal. But if it weren’t for that, it would be more logical for me to root for Nadal. It’s easier to associate with Nadal’s game. He seems to have to try harder. As great as he is, it’s so obvious how hard he’s working.

Of course Federer is working hard, but it’s not so easy to see. You can admire Federer’s game, but you can’t associate with it. Who actually plays like that, gliding from place to place? How could anybody, except maybe Mikhail Baryshnikov or Nadia Comaneci, relate to how Federer plays? The athletes in U.S. team sports that most remind me of Federer are Derek Jeter and Tom Brady — people who give you the impression they have barely had a bad day or uncomfortable moment in their lives. Why would you root for someone like that?

In Federer’s case, it’s probably because he plays the way people would like to play. Federer is the tennis equivalent of aspirational marketing. He’s the attractive people in beer and car commercials who always seem to be having a good time while surrounded by cool people with flat stomachs.

In Federer’s case, even though he keeps winning, he became more sympathetic after 2004-08, the period when it seemed he lost one meaningful match per year — against Nadal at the French Open. His public crying probably helps, too.

But for me, it all stems from some early impressions. The biases start early and don’t change easily.

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