Excuse Me, Mr. Fognini, There’s No Such Thing As an Ugly Squirrel


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Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Bill Simons

When the volatile Italian character Fabio Fognini, according to Google Translate, called a Swedish woman umpire “an ugly squirrel,” many were horrified. We were thrilled.

After all, we have been collecting animalistic quips and quotes for eons.

It’s not just that there are a vast array of animal nicknames. Stan Wawrinka is the Stanimal. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario is the Barcelona Bumblebee. Miroslav Mecir is El Gato – the Cat. Juan Carlos Ferrero is the Mosquito. Tim Henman is Tiger Tim, René Lacoste was the Crocodile, and these days, Nick Kyrgios is The Wild Thing.

Then again, there’ve been a gazillion references to animals in tennis, for instance cows. Maria Sharapova said when she played on clay, she was like a “cow on ice.” Then Simon Barnes took that further, observing, “There’s a strange kind of awkwardness about Sharapova. She’s a mix of grace and clumsiness, like a young horse that forgets how to count up to four legs.” After a Swiss tournament gave the young Roger Federer a cow, the wide-eyed kid quaintly informed us, “It’s nice to have a cow, it’s such a quiet animal, and so big.” And animal activist Martina Navratilova bought a farm in Florida to save 25 cows.

Let’s face it, many claim there is a lot of monkey business in our sport. A national magazine got into hot water with the USTA when its US Open issue pictured the tournament as a zoo. Speaking of which, when the young Pete Sampras failed to defend his first US Open title, he said he was glad to have the monkey off his back. After one big Davis Cup tie, Bob Bryan admitted, “I had a circus of monkeys in my stomach…playing tambourine in there.”

On a more serious note, when the popular broadcaster Doug Adler said that Venus Williams was using guerrilla tactics, his ESPN bosses claimed he meant “gorilla” tactics and then promptly fired him. Speaking of gorillas, a Sharapova critic claimed she grunted like one.

One other thing – legendary pro Dennis Van der Meer said, “Whether you have a blindfolded gorilla tossing balls or a pro shouting numbers, the student will innately learn to hit the ball better,” and, believe it or not, “King Kong” actually played a role in the debate over equal prize money, when noted movie critic John McEnroe said, “I went to see the movie ‘King Kong.’ It was too long, [and] being long didn’t make it better. So I don’t believe the argument about men’s matches being longer is relevant.”

Good reader, please allow us to slither along here. Sports Illustrated described Monica Seles as “a spooky little kid who turned out to have the game of a rattlesnake,” while the BBC said that Federer’s forehand was “dipping like a snake’s head.”

As for animalistic tennis names, there’s Tomas Berdych. But we prefer Mardy Fish. Speaking of fish, John Isner shamelessly noted that his sponsor, Bass Pro Shops, “has a lot of hook-ups.” Wimbledon’s all white butterflies are applauded for following the all white dress code. And the tournament’s much celebrated Rufus the Hawk is the most famous bird in tennis. A Michael Llodra groundstroke killed a bird in Australia, and when China’s Li Na retired, her parting message to her fellow countrywomen was, “Be the bird that sticks out. With hard work, your dreams will come true.”

Of course, animals have long been part and parcel of Serena’s and Venus’ careers. Serena once traced her insecurity to childhood games. She confided, “When we played ‘Duck, Duck, Goose’ in kindergarten I was never goose. I need to talk to a shrink about this.” Venus adores her dog and recently insisted that her love of her sport, her family and her dog were enough for her.

But a while ago when bees hassled Venus at Wimbledon she asked the media whether bees actually sting. A know-it-all reporter replied, “Just once.” In Australia in January, Venus coyly reminded us, “This old cat still has a few tricks left in the bag,” and then proved it by reaching the finals of two Slams, thank you very much.

The most infamous animal critique in tennis history came from Venus’ father Richard, who in 1997 called Venus’ foe, Irina Spirlea, “a big white ugly turkey.”

But we digress. This is not because we are like koalas. (Mary Carillo once said those cuddly little Aussie critters “are stoned on eucalyptus all day long.”) We simply got carried away, and forgot that for years Inside Tennis has been squirreling away many a great commentary on what else? – squirrels. It’s not only that in 2010, Robby Ginepri’s season was ruined when he swerved to avoid.

Rather, we are referring to a sullen Serena US Open press conference, which prompted Bill Dwyre to observe, “She met the media like a rattlesnake meets a ground squirrel. Her answers were like hisses.”

Bob Bryan once dismissed the chances he and his brother had against “The Woodies” duo, saying they were “the greatest of all time, period. We’re just squirrels trying to get a nut.” Similarly, after Sam Querrey left Novak Djokovic up a tree at Wimbledon last year, his coach Craig Boynton said, “Sometimes a blind squirrel finds a nut.”

All of this brings to mind a critical point, Mr. Fognini. All the squirrels we’ve encountered are rather cute. So our claim, signor, is that there is no such thing as an ugly squirrel.

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