British tennis players, Johanna Konta and Heather Watson, have both been complaining, one more vehemently than the other, about their treatment by the British tennis media. Following her fourth successive first-round exit at the French Open, Konta told the media they did “not make it easy” for her.
“I don’t think it helps if it keeps being said, ‘Oh, she hasn’t done well there before’,” said the 27-year-old Wimbledon semi-finalist. “If every time you went in to work – because, obviously, you travel – and let’s say for a few years your pieces of writing have been crap every time when you come into Roland Garros. Right? Just crap. And then your colleagues start to say, ‘You know, you really suck around that time’. And that happens, you know, for a few years.
“How would you guys digest that? It’s not something I would like to buy into, and I don’t think I do. However, you guys don’t make it easy.”
I was that guy. I used to be part of the pack. The vicious, salivating, flesh-tearing pack full of humane, intelligent, entertaining, life-enhancing people. So how did that happen? I have some sort of well-spring of goodness (albeit blocked liked a London sewer from a lifetime in journalism), but from the day I was sent to cover Wimbledon for the Sunday Times in the 1980s, sliding in through a turnstile illegally on Brian Glanville’s press pass, I was prey to the transformation process myself.
I, personally, never mind “we” the pack, was simply horrible to Jeremy Bates, Andrew Castle, Tim Henman, the Lawn Tennis Association in general (they deserved it), the Swedish sense of humour, Bonking Boris, Ivan Lendl’s service-returning crouch, the baguettes at Roland Garros, Wimbledon’s exaggerated pomp, its signposts, its Pimm’s (even though I drank them), its Royal Box and even its Virginia Creeper (“who won the women’s singles final in the Queen’s Jubilee Year” etc etc). Almost every British “failure”, hauling themselves on court as to the guillotine of public damnation, was fair game.
I was sexist about Stefan Edberg. Adoring when it came to Ilie Nastase. Biased in preference of Martina Navratilova over Chris Evert. Mocking of the “panting in print” of male colleagues over Gabriela Sabatini. And certainly not sober on Beaujolais Day at the French Open where, for reasons best known to themselves, the organisers offered crate-loads of free wine and cheese to the attendant media throng – during work hours. The Dutch journalists usually won the drink-off, with the Brits a close and determined second.
I heard the tale, though I didn’t witness the wonderful event first hand, of the John McEnroe press conference at Wimbledon which descended into a proper furniture-throwing punch-up between red-blooded British tabloids and the US media corps. A bewildered McEnroe had to be hustled out of the room for his own protection.
And yet, throughout this period, the writers bore witness to the sublime dramas and beauty of gladiatorial tennis with often glorious prose ad-libbed down phones from the depths of an onrushing hangover. In other words, like the rackets themselves, there was the rough and there was the smooth. The players had to get on with it.
We didn’t make a priority of the mental health of the players, I’m pretty sure. Human compassion existed because we were individually human, but as a “pack” the pressure of deadlines and the need “exclusives” was upon us. Our own fate and kudos was inextricably bound up in performance. It was a competitive existence. Newspaper sports journalism in the 20th century was of a testosterone complexion. There was “banter”. To give and take abuse was a sign of affectionate acceptance. I don’t knock it. I was vastly entertained by it.
There were also many exceptions to this rule. Nice people stayed nice no matter what the provocation. A lure of a “scoop” did not turn every member of the press box into an approximate psychopath. McEnroe could have been stabbing Jimmy Connors to death right in front of a brilliant former Guardian tennis writer and he’d still have missed it, staring upwards instead at the flight of a lesser spotted something-or-other swooping over Wimbledon at the time.
So this is a long preamble to the Konta affair. I understand that the power of positivity must be maintained in the minds of our sporting superstars. I find very moving – and right – the reaction of many journalists to the visible suffering of Loris Karius following his Champions League final goalkeeping howlers. I look back on my old cackling, heedless, teasing days on the tennis tour with a sharp intake of breath.
But – here is the but – Konta has lost in the first round of the French Open every time she has entered. That is a fact. An interesting one. A significant one. It is the truth. And the day that journalists stop telling the truth and become sport-sponsored mouth-pieces of the players is the day we should pack up our laptops and go home.
If I were Konta, I’d put a tennis sock in it, take no notice of us and carry on.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles