Maybe I shouldn’t, but I take my role seriously.
Sure, I’m just a lowly tennis writer and sports are merely games. One of my favorite quotes came decades ago when Jantzen executive Bart Blout was asked, “In light of the events of 1984, what is your biggest concern for the sporting goods industry?” He replied: “Nuclear war. The rest is just a game.”
Still, tennis is the game I’ve dedicated my life to, and I know a thing or two about the freedom of the press. Views on it vary widely. I’m making zero comparisons here, but Mr. Hitler wasn’t a fan. He wrote, “It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.”
Thomas Jefferson (good forehand, suspect second serve) had other ideas. Our third President contended: “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it…No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying…in establishing, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual…is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”
Maybe this is TMI, but after today’s Tennys Sangren press conference I prayed for strength, insight and fairness. In 38 years of publishing Inside Tennis I had never seen anything quite so troubling.
After his 6-4, 7-6, 6-3 loss to the amazing Korean Hyeon Chung, Tennys Sandgren came into the interview room and, amidst great tension, quickly read a statement from his phone. It was hard to absorb, but the intent was clear. Like no other tennis player before him, he threw the media under the bus.
He started by saying, “You seek to put people in these little boxes so that you can order the world in your already assumed preconceived ideas. You strip away any individuality for the sake of demonizing by way of the collective.”
Wow, that in itself sets off bells. For decades I’ve been trying to amplify and celebrate the unending individuality in this sport, whether it’s the singular beauty of Federer’s backhand or a free spirit streaking across Wimbledon’s Centre Court. If there were orders from “the collective,” I sure didn’t get them.
More than anything I try to be a truth-teller. And, if I can lift the spirit, all the better. I certainly did that the other day when I wrote my first story about Tennys – a fun-loving and appreciative piece called “Tennys is Not Dead.”
Sandgren continued his statement, contending, “With a handful of followers and some likes on Twitter, my fate has been sealed in your minds. To write an edgy story, to create sensationalist coverage, there are few lengths you wouldn’t go to to mark me as the man you desperately want me to be.”
Yet, all the stories I saw in reputable media outlets – The New York Times, USA Today, London’s Telegraph and this website – were balanced. No one wanted Sandgren to be a bad guy.
Yes, it’s true, online critics noted that he had tweeted two photos of Serena and captioned them with the word “Disgusting,” and that he had contended that there was no racism in the US. They did call him a racist.
Similarly, defenders of gay rights bristled after they read this tweet: “Stumbled into a gay club last night… my eyes are still bleeding #nooneshouldseethat.”
Many were upset with Tennys’ re-tweets of alt-right messages, and his saying that when it comes to the alt-right he found “some of it interesting.” In his statement, Sandgren also contended, “You would rather perpetuate propaganda machines instead of researching information.”
Wow, I thought to myself, this fellow is missing the mark. Lots of people are researching and digging deep, but the day before his match with Chung, Sandgren deleted almost 19 months of tweets. The other day Sandgen said he would talk about his views. But he wouldn’t allow any questions in his press conference – except on the match itself – and he rejected my request for a one-on-one interview.
As upsetting as any of his comments today was his critique of the tennis media. “You dehumanize with pen and paper and turn neighbor against neighbor. In so doing, you may actually find you’re hastening the hell you wish to avoid, the hell we all wish to avoid.” Jaw-dropping! Speaking for myself, I try to humanize. I agree with Roger Federer, who said today, “Story telling is important in sports.” And one of the greatest things in our sport is that it brings people together. This year’s men’s semis feature a young Korean rookie vs. a Swiss veteran and a Brit vs. a Croat – stories abound, and we love to tell them.
We feel it builds community.
Sandgren contended, “It is my firm belief that the highest value must be placed on the virtue of each individual, regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.” Beautiful, it’s just a shame that his social media, to a significant extent, did the opposite.
But little is black and white. The press is far from perfect. Shortcuts are sometimes taken. Reporters are humans who generally are trying to do their best. But they have opinions, and on occasion there are agendas.
Some of Sandgren’s thoughts were intriguing. He had posted on Twitter an inspiring sentiment: “Question everything, except why you are struggling. For struggle is the birth of all things.” I love that thought. And Sandgren offered an almost Zen-like, against-the-grain comment to the New York Times: “If everybody thinks you are amazing, you probably are doing something wrong.” He spoke to ESPN of learning, growing and his desire to talk. He said he wanted to embody Christ’s love. One reporter asked, “Where’s the love?”
Since the original dust-up about his views, Sandgren had two days to recalibrate. He did delete much of his Twitter. But then he blasted away, accusing the press of a multitude of sins. One tennis editor noted, “He thinks it’s okay for him to believe and say what he wants to, but if he’s asked about it he feels he’s being attacked.” Tennys could have told the press that the whole experience of suddenly being on the stage and in the spotlight was daunting, and that maybe there were some things that were in error and he would reflect on it all.
But he didn’t.
Then again, he is only 26. And that’s the great thing about our game. It allows people to grow. If they do, we’ll be here telling their story. And, we all hope the next time it will be an inspiring one, a feel-good story just like the tale of the No. 97 player in the world who made it all the way to the quarterfinals of one the greatest tournaments in tennis.