by Matt Zemek
By now you have surely heard about — if not read — the Darko Grncarov story, a tale of self-made magnificence and a socially aware athlete… which didn’t add up. Ben Rothenberg became the super-sleuth who uncovered a much more inconvenient and complicated truth surrounding the social media sensation birthed at the Australian Open.
I have fallen for internet hoaxes before. I have thought that certain tweets represented breaking news, when in fact those tweets had not been confirmed by either the primary sources involved or by major news organizations (or both). I acted prematurely and foolishly. I therefore take no pleasure in seeing the revelation of this hoax. That’s always the worst way to react to one of these kinds of stories — both as a journalist and as a human being. When something like the Darko story comes to light, the universal human hope should be that everyone involved can grow from the experience.
At my Patreon site, I wrote earlier on Tuesday about Darko, linking his episode to Ryan Harrison’s latest fiery descent into the pit of bad behavior, and how it amplified the way Tennys Sandgren was handled by journalists as a public figure. That piece focused on tennis journalism and the behavior of anyone who covers tennis, whether on-site as a reporter or from a greater distance as a blogger or commentator. (I fall into the latter category.)
This piece will focus more on the fan’s side of the divide — chiefly in tennis, but in reality all of fandom (which includes the arts and has implications for politics as well, though that is certainly a landmine-laden piece of terrain).
What does Darko Grncarov — or the too-good-to-be-true image presented to the world — illustrate about the reality of tennis fandom in the 21st century?
Let’s start with the Bible. (Uh-oh.)
I promise this will be relatively painless.
Jesus, trying to make a point to his intended audience, once offered a simple illustration about doing the right thing. A father asked his two sons — in separate conversations — to work in the vineyard. One son said no but later went into the vineyard and worked. The other son said yes but never did work.
Speech is not incidental to — or irrelevant when measured against — personal behavior. However, our actions often cut against our spoken words. While it is the height of virtue to do the right thing for the right reason with a cheerful (or at least willing) heart, it is better to do the right thing with a conflicted heart than to do the wrong thing (or fail to do the right thing) with that similarly conflicted heart.
The son who said no to his father but then did the work was not a paragon of virtue, but he was more virtuous than the other son who said yes but didn’t uphold his commitment.
This, in many ways, embodies the world of tennis fandom — as illustrated by the Darko deception, but also by the everyday course of human events in the tennis world, from one tournament (or episode) to the next.
It is noteworthy that an articulation of a very (politically, ideologically) progressive set of views created such a strong and positive fan response to such an obscure player — a player who, as it turns out, spun a big ball of lies.
Just imagine if Darko:
A) was exactly who he said he was, not a profound embellishment;
B) was exactly who he said he was, only a top-100 player instead, someone who won a match at a few Masters 1000 events every year and occasionally hit the third round of a major.
A player with the level of achievement outlined in point B, above, combined with the progressive views which flowed from the Grncarov Twitter account in January, would be a WILDLY popular player across the globe.
Several players who generally meet the description outlined in point B have cult followings or, if that turn of phrase is uncomfortable, ardent cheering sections. Benoit Paire is one such player. Sorana Cirstea is another. Plenty of other examples exist of players who somehow get a little more social media traction than other relatively comparable players who fade into the background and/or who receive fan support mostly based on nationality.
This is not empirical fact, but I strongly think that an ideologically progressive ATP player who makes a regular home in the top 100 (especially the top 60 and gets into most if not all Masters 1000s each year) would become a massive fan favorite on #TennisTwitter.
Even if you were a diehard tennis nut (that is meant with affection – it is not a pejorative term) in the mid-1980s, it was still hard to follow the whole of the sport outside the superstars because the media reach of the time was so comparatively limited. Here in the United States, for instance, only premium cable (HBO) covered the early rounds of Wimbledon. Even the second week of Wimbledon was tape-delayed except for the finals. Readily accessible TV coverage of tournaments from week to week was not a reality. The internet and all its capacities to deliver content — and with it, news and details of what a No. 55 tennis player did in his spare time — had not yet come into existence. The tennis world was so much more closed than it is today.
Relative to 1979, tennis fandom in modern times might not be that different in terms of its core attitudes or motivations. Much as people love the calm of Federer or the spicy fire of Nadal today, they might have responded similarly to the ice-man Borg and the raging inferno of John McEnroe. Some like it hot, some play it cool. To that extent, fan attitudes — what turns them on (or off) — aren’t all that new.
However — especially as it relates to social media — tennis fandom is different today because fans, as consumers of tennis (or sports, or the arts, or politics) are so much more aware of what is going on throughout their industry on a global scale. Attitudes and their patterns don’t necessarily change with eras, but what marks THIS era as unique relative to the distant past is the instant access to enormous quantities of various kinds of information — not just player statistics or live-streaming of matches at an ATP 250, but the off-court stuff, the extracurricular activity, and all the other things which provide a glimpse into a player’s personality.
Fans can embrace — or detest — an athlete’s public presentation of who he or she is in any era, but they have so many more tools or gateways today, furnishing more reasons for their attitudes.
This is a more potent and volatile dynamic than anything which existed 35 to 40 years ago.
Accordingly, fandom brings — or at least, SHOULD bring — a note of caution: Public figures are scrutinized today in ways which didn’t exist 15 (social media) or 30 (internet) years ago.
There is and has been a long-held view of how athletes engage in public relations. Radio coverage of sports can be traced back to roughly 100 years ago. (The 1921 World Series, the centerpiece event of what was America’s most popular sport at the time, baseball, was the first World Series broadcast by radio.) Television followed a few decades later. Athletes have been exposed to the need to present a carefully crafted image to the public for some time.
However, they do not have ample experience with social media. With the internet, generally, but not Twitter. This is a decade-old medium — hardly brand new, but also not something with an entrenched history or longevity which TV and radio established long ago. Accordingly, it can be difficult — in the presence of a new medium — for an athlete (also an artist or politician), someone who necessarily has to be obsessive in his or her focus on work, to pivot to this other media realm and instinctively know how to handle his or her public presentation.
This does not excuse or even justify inappropriate views on various topics, from people such as Tennys Sandgren. The fact that Sandgren scrubbed his Twitter account is an acknowledgment that he was no longer comfortable owning some of his views and/or the associations which flowed from them.
A key point here: Sandgren’s inward views probably haven’t changed all that much. That speculation might seem pointless, but it contains value for the following reasons:
One can be generous in saying that Sandgren might have learned — from this firestorm of recent scrutiny — that he needs to exercise a lot more care and delicacy, and still guess that he hasn’t undergone an improbable ideological conversion.
Does that matter? I think it does, but that’s not even the heart of the discussion as it relates to fans.
First, why does it matter? I think that if any human person (especially a public figure) becomes a lot more careful in how he or she presents himself to the public, that is itself a victory. We shouldn’t want volatile or vicious speech to flourish. If someone is or has been irresponsible and then learns how to be more polished and respectful — even if the internal views aren’t different — that’s still a plus. It’s not a complete victory, but it is an improvement, something not to be minimized.
This is the bigger realization to make about the relationships between fans and players in the modern (read: social media) age: Public figures want to be loved (usually — some enjoy being a villain, such as Fabio Fognini). Athletes, artists, politicians — they crave affection, sometimes to an unhealthy degree, but generally in ways any human person would want to be loved. When a young athlete begins to get his or her taste of stardom, the playbook for how to handle that fame and adulation is not an established one. The athlete might think the rise to fame (whether 15 minutes or an enduring run in the tabloids and social media mentions) is the perfect time to blast out political views but then encounter blowback.
The point to make for tennis fans is not that the blowback isn’t important or doesn’t contain value — it surely does, and it had a role in Sandgren stepping back and reconsidering the way he handled his social media profile. The point is that public presentation by a young public figure is a container of constantly shifting sands. Tennis, being global and therefore highly diverse as a sport in terms of national, ethnic and religious representation among its players, is a theater in which diversity should be encouraged, but players from sheltered or intellectually isolated cultural backgrounds might not fully appreciate that reality until they taste a little success and therefore have more continuous exposure to the tour and everything that tour life involves.
When one considers the son who says no but does what he is asked, and the son who says yes but doesn’t follow through, consider young tennis players within that construct. It is very easy to say something on social media or like/friend certain people, but a lot more complicated — for better or worse — to act out one’s social media preferences in a deeper way.
Tennis fans should certainly disapprove of wrong-headed and concerning actions by players in and through the medium of Twitter, but the crowning point of this piece is that the disapproval should lead to re-education and constructive teaching, not to an acid bath of condemnation. As stated above, the outrage toward Sandgren expressed by a lot of tennis fans did have a positive effect… but now comes the next step of truly changing tennis culture to make sure the sport produces the more holistically aware and grounded professionals #TennisTwitter wants (and is right to want).
Telling someone how off-base his/her views are is necessary, but so is the follow-up which can get lost or neglected: accompanying the disapproving note with gentle yet pointed education about the better path. A great example of this: John McEnroe’s history-soaked two-minute message to Sandgren, illustrating how many pioneers of color — and from minority perspectives — enriched the sport of tennis over the decades and made it possible for Sandgren to enjoy the career he has today.
The Darko Grncarov story is not merely a social media drama, and not merely reflective of a desire among a lot of tennis fans for players they can believe in. The Darko drama shows how hard it is to find tennis players who meet an ideal representation of hopes and dreams, which makes tennis players no different from the rest of us.
The Darko story therefore makes it important for tennis fans, in the midst of voicing legitimate disapproval with social media presentations of views or personalities, to link disapproval with constructive education… and to allow public figures the ability to evolve and learn, instead of being told how awful they are.
“You did something inappropriate” does not inherently mean, “You are a bad person.” However, tennis fans need to be very clear that when they speak to or about tennis players, that separation comes across clearly. “You did something appropriate” needs to be followed by, “but I want to enjoy your quality tennis. This is how you can win my support as a fan.”
With a patient approach such as that, we will get to a point — not for everyone, but for many — where a tennis player doesn’t have to offer a public “Yes” but then do the wrong thing in private. S/he will offer the public yes AND do the right thing.
Tennis fans will have players they can believe in… unlike a fabricated version who was too good to be true.