The following statement applies to Nick Kyrgios and Gael Monfils, but it is easy to forget in the heat of the moment — and not just a tennis moment, but a life moment: Human beings are complicated.
News flash, right? “Tell me something I don’t know, Matt,” you might be thinking.
Writing about sports — more precisely, writing about sports on a daily basis — involves a fair amount of repetition. There are only so many different ways of saying that Novak Djokovic is the best, or Alexander Zverev needs to evolve, or Dominic Thiem needs to schedule better. In this business, you’re going to repeat yourself. Writers and commentators will circle back to familiar themes and points of emphasis. Writing and commentary on sports represent continuous conversations, but the conversations occur over days, weeks and months, not just the two or three hours during a match.
It might be easy enough on the surface to identify what is happening — or has happened — in the careers of Nick Kyrgios and Gael Monfils:
Kyrgios is volatile, Monfils inconsistent.
Kyrgios gets excited about tennis when playing elite opponents or when performing for big crowds at events such as the Laver Cup. He doesn’t get as excited when playing the No. 38 player in the world on a side court. He doesn’t tend to his fitness to the extent that he needs to. He is effusive in moments of joy, angry in moments of disappointment. One can easily make those observations about the Australian.
Monfils is a crowd-pleaser who loves to get fans involved in his matches and his tennis. He hits outrageously brilliant winners at times and can flummox opponents with his considerable defensive skills. However, his consistency comes and goes, partly the product of poor shot selection and partly a lack of clarity about the style he wants to play. He does not disguise or hide his body language when he is losing or playing poorly. One can just as easily make those observations about the Frenchman.
Let’s be clear, though: Knowing what one sees on the surface doesn’t make an observed athlete an easy person to know. Seeing the problems in an athlete’s performance or style of play is an evaluation of that athlete’s TENNIS.
Being able to identity the thought process or attitude behind an erratic (Kyrgios) or inconsistent (Monfils) brand of tennis is not easy at all. What makes these guys tick? This is when we try to get inside the mind of other human beings, which is one of the most difficult and exasperating endeavors launched by any mortal creature.
WHY is Kyrgios the way he is? WHY is Monfils the way HE is?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the foggiest idea, and even if I had enough money to travel to cover tennis tournaments around the world, bluntly asking either man that question would merit a slap in the face. I would need to cultivate a relationship with an athlete before asking him/her a sensitive question such as that one, and even then, I would not have the right to expect or demand a candid answer.
This isn’t something unique to athletes. This is the complexity of the human person on display. We can sit here and — accurately enough — say that athletes need to sort out this problem or correct that flaw, but insisting that the process is simple, when we are in fact dealing with enormously complicated human beings, does no one any favors.
An important point of going into this discussion is as follows: When I (like anyone else in my line of work) criticize an athlete, I am rendering a verdict on the ATHLETE. I am NOT rendering a verdict on the HUMAN BEING. It is similar in politics. Who you are as a politician and who you are as a person are often two very different things.
When I point out the erratic play of Kyrgios or the inconsistency of Monfils, I am not referring to words such as “disgraceful” (Kyrgios) or “unacceptable” (Monfils). I am not attaching social or cultural judgment to my words. I am offering an appraisal of how they play professional tennis UNLESS I go out of my way to tell readers that I am commenting on their behavior, not just their performance.
I won’t speak for anyone other than myself, but as someone who has written about sports for nearly two decades, I can tell you that on many occasions, fans think that criticism of an athlete is personal or motivated by an agenda. To be sure, agendas (making money) can enter the larger picture as an explanation or motivation for sportswriters and commentators, but at heart, the writer sees what s/he thinks and is compelled to write it.
I do think tennis would be better if Kyrgios and Monfils won big, but that doesn’t mean I get up every morning and place emotional importance or internal significance on needing those men — or other such figures — to win matches and tournaments.
So many people so dearly want to see Gael Monfils succeed. If I criticize him, I am not somehow “rebelling” against the wishes of a large number of people. I think it would be a great story if he succeeded; however, that cannot mean that I shield him from criticism. There is nothing professional about that. Just the same, I shouldn’t go out of my way to criticize him, either.
The same is true with Kyrgios and everyone else I cover. A lot of people want to see Kyrgios fail. This is the other side of the coin relative to Monfils. Does that mean I should praise Kyrgios more than other players in similar situations? Of course not.
It is natural, normal, and — moreover — healthy for fans to want specific outcomes in sports. THIS IS WHY I WRITE ABOUT SPORTS! If there weren’t passionate fans, there would not be any need for me to write or tweet about competitions! I need fans to care. That sustains my work and gives me a purpose to shoot for every day.
However: Wanting something to happen, wanting someone to succeed (or fail), doesn’t mean a sportswriter must write according to that need. The writer measures the athlete — as an athlete, not a person — relative to the goals the athletes pursue and the desires fans have for them. The writer isn’t taking sides in the debate over whether Gael Monfils or Nick Kyrgios succeeding is good for tennis; the writer is constantly trying to assess how close Monfils or Kyrgios are to reaching their foremost goals.
There is much to reflect on as Acapulco and Dubai wind down.
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