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IT’S OKAY TO HATE JOHN ISNER — BUT BE REASONABLE ABOUT IT

by

Matt Zemek

Yes, that is a purposefully provocative story title. Yes, titles of stories — fresh or stale — often determine whether readers click on links and ultimately read written content. However, I don’t apologize for that story title for one reason: Using titles with emotionally rich push-button terms are okay as long as they mesh with the content of the story. 

As a veteran of the sports content industry (side note: I just got released as a copy editor for a media company last week, meaning I have now cycled through three different media companies in addition to various freelance positions in my career), I can tell you this: A lot of companies will create incendiary or eye-popping titles when, in fact, they do not reflect the content, tone or trajectory of the articles attached to them. Plenty of companies and editors are shameless in driving the reader to a link which promises one thing but delivers another.

I therefore feel that as long as the title of a story I write is consistent with — and reflective of — the subsequent text I produce, I have not misled my readers or sold them a false bill of goods. Believe me when I say: “It’s okay to hate John Isner.”

Here is the explanation of that statement after Isner’s first Masters 1000 title, achieved against Alexander Zverev in a close and hard-fought Miami Open final on Sunday at the Crandon Park Tennis Center.

When I say it is “okay” to hate John Isner, I am not approving of said hatred. What I mean to emphasize is that hating John Isner does not make you a bad person. It makes you a flawed person, but we are all flawed, all in various stages of trying to live a better life. Hating a player because he voted for Donald Trump or because his tennis is (in your opinion) boring as hell is perfectly natural within the arena of sports competition.

Before I was a sportswriter, I was a sports fan. Most of us who write about sports were once fans. We loved the thrill of competition so much that we wanted to chronicle it. I do so from my keyboard at home, but others who have risen higher in the profession get to attend matches and tournaments on a publication’s dime, or can talk about tennis on television if they are especially lucky.

I mention my earlier existence as a fan because anyone who has been a sports fan knows what it means to be a fan: You root for your favorites, you root against your favorites’ rivals or against other people who carve out the role of a villain in that particular sport. The New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys, Notre Dame football, Duke basketball, and (for Europeans) Manchester United or Real Madrid are either fiercely loved or fiercely hated. They don’t allow for ambiguities. Specific players and coaches on these and other teams are either adored or despised. 

Hatred is part of sport, as organic as the lawns of Centre Court Wimbledon. Hatred, in this context, is relative. It is also an animating force which makes it easier to pour our passions — as fans — into the competitions we watch on a continuous basis.

Hatred, though, has its limits. It needs to in this world, or else we are in deeper trouble than previously thought as a society.

I can hate someone within the context of sports — not an enlightened act, but not an awful act — and still accord that person the respect of acknowledging how good he is or how well he played.

I don’t have to like his style. I don’t have to like his mannerisms. I don’t have to like the vibe he gives off. I don’t have to like his political or off-field/off-court beliefs. I DO, however, have to give him his due when he does well. As a sports fan, the people I hated often destroyed the dreams and aspirations of the teams and players I loved. Their excellence didn’t make me hate them less, but that excellence meant I had to honor what they achieved. 

I can’t speak for non-Americans since I have had virtually no direct exposure to the cultures of other continents’ and nations’ sports realms. All I can tell you is that in American college sports, the fans in arenas or stadiums will often chant “OVER-RATED!” at visiting teams when they lose. These fans don’t seem to realize that in their rush to diminish or demean a hated rival, they undercut their own victorious team’s accomplishment. If you beat an overrated team, your win must not have meant that much. 

That is where — and how — sports hatred goes too far. (Hatred leading to violence and death are assumed to be much worse; I am talking about “hatred” strictly as an attitude carried forth in sports discussions on Twitter and other public platforms, with violence never being a serious consideration or possibility.)

It is “okay” to hate athletes or teams in sports, but the moment one can’t see through the fog of (fandom-fueled) hate and give successful performers their due, something is lost. If an outcome is unstomachable and intolerable to the point of thinking the winner doesn’t deserve any credit or appreciation, doesn’t that go against everything we love about sports? 

Let’s be precise here: The hatred for certain athletes doesn’t have to stop. We can still root against Player X if we want to, which makes his future matches and tournaments more interesting than if we were ambivalent about that athlete. However, if we love it when that player loses, we ought to accept it when that player wins. We don’t have to LIKE it, but we have to accept it. This is what sports is about at a very elemental level: Tasting the thrill of the happy outcome and the gut punch of the sad outcome are two sides of the same coin. If we — I am speaking from a fan’s point of view here — are lucky, we will stand on the winning side more often than not. Experiencing victory with some degree of frequency gives the fan a storehouse of riches large enough to be generous and magnanimous in defeat. Accordingly, losing often enough to know the sting of “almost but not quite” will, in an ideal world, enable a sports fan to cherish the victories that much more when they come, realizing that cycles of constant competition will invite both the sweetness and sorrow of sports. To know one side is to appreciate the other, since they live so close to each other on a weekly basis.

John Isner has spent a lot of his career coming up short — of major-tournament quarterfinals and semifinals, of making Masters finals (only three before this week), and winning Masters titles. He had worn the “almost but not quite” label, lacking a signature achievement at the age of 32. He easily could have gone away after flinching (some might say “choking”) late in the first-set tiebreaker of this final against Zverev. It would not have been the first time. Isner struggled with his forehand volley and was not a picture of lethal consistency from the back of the court (the way he was on Friday against Juan Martin del Potro). He played an imperfect match and could have succumbed to imperfect circumstances… but he didn’t.

His serve was typically clutch. He created 12 break-point chances with a few nifty passing shots and sequences in which his not-always-great footwork came together. He battled. He asked many questions of a 20-year-old player who is still learning to harness both his game and his emotions (including a raging temper). Zverev answered many of those questions well, but not all of them.

Isner played an average match, but he competed at a supremely high level, getting straight As for his intangibles and internals. 

If you wanted to identify a bad men’s match in Miami, think of the puffball fest between a diminished Mischa Zverev and the constantly baffling Benoit Paire. That match was an embarrassment for large portions of play. That was a match worth shielding one’s eyes from, if not avoiding altogether.

Isner-Zverev was a limited match and often a dull one, but not bad. Both men took care of their serves under pressure. Both men made a lot of poised responses to in-match adversity. Isner’s serve forces opponents to walk a tightrope in their own service games. For most of the day, Zverev did what he needed to do… but not at the end.

You can hate John Isner as a sports fan and acknowledge that he competed well, earning this first huge trophy at a relatively late stage in his career. You can dislike his boring game and (possibly) unpleasant personal politics all you want and still acknowledge that he doesn’t go out of his way to impose his views on others or upset the rest of the ATP locker room, where he is generally well-regarded.

You, as a fan, get to hate John Isner… but that also means he gets to have his life and his views as long as he doesn’t impose them on others (which he has not). It is okay to hate John Isner’s style of tennis… but that doesn’t mean his style of play is unsuccessful, or that he didn’t use that style well in Miami the past week and a half.

Hatred is a natural part of the life of a sports fan, yes, but even hatred has its limits.

*

Image taken from zimbio.com

 

2 comments

  1. I have read your piece a few times and while I expect I am closer to the age of Mama Zemak than to you, I still can’t get past the idea that it must be due to the fact that I am a woman of color that makes it hard for me to get your point. I would never root for any human being to suffer injury but I wonder if you have any idea of the level of damage done by people supporting the views held by John Isner? The anti-immigrant, anti-women, the anti-gay, anti-poor people policies that are being put into place are life-or-death and it’s hard to have a cerebral reaction to people who, if nothing else, are okay with supporting those who would do such harm. A writer, Robert Jones, Jr has a quote“We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” I have wondered what it is about so many white male American tennis players that gives them a worldview that has been shown to hurt so many. It is very hard for me to be reasonable about views that support hatred toward so many. However I also try to monitor myself that I am not letting my response to them turn into hate that can seep into my spirit. I’ve often thought it must be nice to have the privilege of dispassionately observing these things and then urging reason.
    Deb

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  2. Deborah,

    As long as you think about your views — as you are doing, and always have done — you stand on solid ground. This piece was written primarily to get people to think critically about fandom if they hadn’t mapped out specific parameters before or hadn’t considered certain tension points or dividing lines. To the extent that I approve of disliking/hating players in a sports-and-entertainment context, I had to spend at least some time articulating boundaries that are better off not being crossed.

    Thanks as always for a thoughtful comment! — Matt Z.

    Like

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