“Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl. But she doesn’t have a lot to say.” – The Beatles
We like to know our champions. We want to know their backstories – their setbacks, quirks and triumphs – what makes them rock. We want some sizzle with our steak. We seem to know every detail about Serena the player, the mother and the ferocious warrior. Sharapova gave us Sugarpova candy. And the oh-so-plucky Aussie Ash Barty played cricket.
With Elena Rybakina we get crickets. We know she’s good at tennis. But after she won Wimbledon last July she barely cracked a smile. We were left to wonder what her reaction would be if she won the lottery.
We do know she has a great serve, and her huge spin-free winners are flat. Unfortunately, dare we say, her personality is a bit flat, too.
Reporters have been trying to discover some talking points from one of the most impassive athletes we’ve encountered. She was recruited by a handful of US colleges. Which ones? “Oh, I don’t know. My father handled all that.”
So we asked, “What is the most fun or different thing you’ve done while you’ve been here in California?”
“I won’t say,” she replied, “because honestly, here, there’s a lot to do…Everything you want to see [is] so far away…So maybe I will have some time after the tournament.”
“Fair enough,” we thought. “Let’s talk tennis.” “What’s the best part of what you do? What do you enjoy the most?”
She responded, “Win the rallies…If I do it well, of course these are the most enjoyable moments.”
Okay, let’s reboot all this. We asked, “When it comes to being a pro who travels the world, what’s the best part: the food, the people, the places, the sights or just the whole aspect of the life that you lead?”
Elena shared, “It’s tough life, but…you meet a lot of people. If you have time, you see different cultures.”
Well that’s some progress. And she did reveal that she’s done some “crazy” stuff like riding roller coasters. So she was asked, “Do you scream on the roller coaster?” She told us, “I’m laughing all the time [smiling]. I’m not really scared.”
It’s not at all scary to think that Rybakina may be at the forefront of women’s tennis for decades. She’s just 23. We’ll get to know her. Plus, her deep-hit groundies are fantastic – her talent is sublime. Her racket does the talking.
And there’s a long history of less than charismatic champions in tennis. Neither Margaret Court, Steffi Graf, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg or Pete Sampras (who between them have 82 Slam singles titles) were the life of the party. If you want a cutting-edge personality, maybe go with Nick Krygios. His ranking, No. 22, isn’t at the top. But when it comes to stirring the milkshake, he’s your man.
Boredom is a part of tennis lore. Four-hour-a-day practices can be tedious. Constantly being on the road is more than a grind. When asked why Swedes were doing so poorly at Wimbledon, Stefan Edberg replied, “Because grass is an exciting game and we are boring people.”
While Sampras didn’t have a crackling personality, his gorgeous game enthralled us. The London Times writer Simon Barnes wrote, “Now comes the moment to sum up Pete Sampras. The phrase ‘rather good at tennis’ comes to mind, but it is inaccurate. ‘Seriously superb at tennis’ is much better. But what of the inner Sampras? All is a mystery. Tennis is a drama. But Sampras doesn’t have body language like everybody else. He is rather a rare thing: a top-level athlete whose body is nearly mute.”
When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Pete uttered the immortal words, “I’m just a tennis player, nothing more, nothing less.” He once noted, “People are always talking about personality, but what is it? Is it going out there and doing your best? Or is it screwing around and losing? Of course the game is about entertainment, but we’re all there to win. The first time I won Wimbledon, they said I was boring; the second time, they said I played boring; and the third, I was suddenly the greatest player in the world.”
The beloved Lindsay Davenport didn’t bark much at umps and we didn’t ever see her smash a racket. Still, she once admitted that if she were a reporter she wouldn’t cover herself.
The celebrated British writer Martin Amis claimed that in the old days when Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase set the tone, the term tennis personality, “was an exact synonym for ‘asshole.’”
Decades ago McEnroe once suggested, “Today’s male players are a boring bunch of clones. They don’t realize just how boring they are….We need to loosen the guys up…There are a lot of dour personalities out there.”
Britain’s old-school star Tim Henman disagreed, saying, “I don’t live dangerously. I’m not wild, but I would like to think I’m not a robot and a boring idiot.”
Long ago the New Yorker noted that Amis mocked the widespread notion that, “Modern tennis lacks personalities – big, brash, oft-gesticulating caricatures that please marketers…Amis gets to a vital point about the sport, that at its least appealing, it seems little more than a sweaty fashion show, both in the stands and on the court – a world that cherishes wealth, celebrity, and a level of male misbehavior.”
Mid-match, Kyrgios once mumbled, “I could not have picked a more boring sport as a profession.” And at times, tennis suffers from 6-0, 6-1 blowouts, tedious baseline rallies or one-and-done serving contests. In the end, perhaps more than any other sport, tennis is dependent on “personality.”
Of course, plenty of other sports can be boring. The old running offense at Ohio State was said to be “three yards and a cloud of dust.” The first six Super Bowls were duds. Mark Twain called golf “a good walk spoiled.” Baseball marathons, particularly in the dog days of summer, can be snooze-fests. And, in 1986, it wasn’t that thrilling to see Mike Tyson knock out Marvis Frazier in 30 seconds.
Of course, as if on cue, the Rybakina vs. Aryna Sabalenka Indian Wells final was a dandy little drama with a hint of tragedy. Sabalenka was hoping to win her fifth straight match against Rybakina, whom she’d downed in the Aussie Open final. But in the first set, Sabalenka’s worst nightmare reemerged out of nowhere. Her service yips started yapping again. Her untethered ball toss wandered freely. She suffered ten double faults (that’s 2.5 games) in the first set. Understandably, hints of terror crept onto her face. She shanked shots. In the blustering wind, she reduced her second serve speed to a crawl.
Still, she managed to gain set points. But her confidence was shattered. Rybakina would soon become the first Indian Wells winner from Kazakhstan. Elena prevailed in a dramatic marathon first-set tie-break and then used her devastating in-your-face groundies to score two second-set breaks of serve en route to a 7-6(11), 6-4 triumph. Amazingly, with her back-to-back wins over Iga Swiatek and Sabalenka, Rybakina has dismissed the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world.
After her victory she offered a delightful, if modest smile that, compared to her almost mute expression at Wimbledon, seemed like an ecstatic grin. How wonderful! The gifted young Kazakh, who’s won two of the last five big women’s tourneys, will rise to No. 7 in the world. Still, she remains a bit of a mystery. Sabalenka told Inside Tennis, “I don’t know her that good, but she seems like a very nice, cool girl. She’s a really good person on and off the court.”
Truth be told, we doubt the grand Indian Wells champion will soon take home the WTA’s “Miss Congeniality” award.
In the meantime, she sure is good at tennis. Her racket shouts loud, and that is hardly boring.
JAGGER BOMBS – THE ROLLING STONES AND TENNIS: Joseph Oyebog Jr. and Lindsay Davenport’s 15-year-old son, Jagger Leach, won the doubles title in the ITF Fila International Junior Championships.
This brought to mind the ongoing presence in tennis of Rolling Stone’s Mick Jagger and his clan. Every once in a while a Jagger makes waves in tennis. His ex-wife Bianca once discounted casual sex, saying, “Unless there’s some emotional tie, I’d rather play tennis.” John McEnroe long ago confided, “When you’re 26, who are you gonna listen to, Mick Jagger and Jack Nicholson or some old farts in the USTA?” Before one major, Jagger himself tweeted, “Konta makes the semis. 1st British woman in 39 years. I never made it to a Grand Slam.”