Can you imagine someone such as Dennis Rodman, that maverick former NBA superstar and Hall of Famer, on tennis’ ATP Tour?
Purists would have cringed.
The sport, steeped in its archaic traditions, would have likely hounded him out. Or, in the least, a few grand slams would have asked him to cover up his tattoos and piercings, and, of course, his garishly dyed hair.
Yet, 18 years ago, Pete Sampras, at the peak of his reign in men’s tennis, was wishing for a Dennis Rodman in tennis.
“Really, when the game was successful you had four guys in the top five,” said Sampras in 1998. “They played each other in the semi-finals and finals of all the slams, they had different personalities and they all hated each other.
“So that’s great theatre. And now – it’s sad, but true – that’s probably what the game needs.
“It needs a little controversy. It needs a little Dennis Rodman type of guy. It needs a little more hatred, or whatever you want to call it.”
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Tennis, of course, is in a much better place now than it was in 1998, quality wise at least, thanks to this period’s big four of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. There is no dearth of sublime tennis or theatre, but the sport still needs characters.
You know, for a bit of “controversy” and “hatred”.
There is Ernests Gulbis, but his appearances on the bigger stages are fleeting. Fabio Fognini has his moments and Nick Kyrgios is trying his best to be the “character” that tennis so desperately seeks, but he is not really getting it right.
Truth be said, a Rodman-like rebel will never be tolerated in tennis. It is too polite a sport.
Still, can we not have a bit of humour? Can we not have, at least, an “A-Rod”, if not Rodman?
Really, as you watch all these drab, and always politically correct, post-match interviews, do you not miss Andy Roddick and his acerbic wit? His quick-fire and often self-deprecating, humour?
After humbling Roger Federer in the semi-final of the 2016 Australian Open, one of the first questions that Novak Djokovic had to answer was about how Federer and Rafael Nadal had helped him become a better player.
Really? So, that means, Djokovic is now helping Federer, Nadal, Andy Murray and the rest become better players?
If he is, it is not very obvious.
Looking bored with the question, and rightfully so, Djokovic rambled on with a well rehearsed and oft-repeated reply.
Contrast that with Roddick’s response to Federer’s bid to comfort him after their 2009 Wimbledon final that he had lost in five sets.
“Don’t be too sad,” Federer told Roddick, talking about his loss to Nadal in 2008 final. “I went through the rough ones as well, even one on this court last year, but I came back and won.”
“Yeah, you’d already won it five times,” Roddick replied loudly, for everyone to hear.
Roddick lost four major finals to Federer and finished with a 3-21 head-to-head record, but he could still joke about it.
“I want another crack at Federer, until my record is 1-31,” he once said.
At another time, the on-court interviewer asked him: “Last time, at Wimbledon, you said ‘Next time I may have to punch him’. Do you have a Plan B?”
“Hit his face by a racket,” Roddick replied.
After a shattering 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 loss to Federer in the semi-final of the 2007 Australian Open, he was asked how “it was like for you just being there at the end”.
Roddick replied: “It was frustrating. You know, it was miserable. It sucked. It was terrible.
“Besides that, it was fine.”
Then, of course, there was his take on Djokovic’s injury woes at the 2008 US Open.
“Back and hip. Cramp. Bird flu. Anthrax. Sars. Common cough and cold,” Roddick said. “You know, he’s either quick to call a trainer, or he’s the most courageous guy of all time.”
Would anyone dare speak about his peer with such freedom today?
Today, every opponent is a “great champion” even if he has just been blown off the court.
That is why we miss Roddick’s humour and honesty.
“If nothing else, I’m a decent quote,” he once said.
Tennis desperately needs someone like him. If not a Rodman.
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