Monday, March 11, 2013

Cheering the Enemy

If there is one thing this Indian Wells experience has taught me, it is that my fandom in tennis is completely inconsistent. What one player does that irks me, another may do and I am entertained. I haven't found myself to yet completely be able to differentiate between the action and the person in a way that is truly unbiased. Take for instance the issue of becoming the modern John McEnroe and acting out on the court during a match.  Growing up, McEnroe was my favorite player and his behavior/personality was certainly a big part of his charm to a young Matt Jones. But then earlier in the week, the American with the most in common with Johnny Mac, Jack Sock became enemy #1 of The Outer Courts. Sock lost to our hero Ivo Karlovic (everyone take a second and give a moment of silence for the wittiest player on tour's exit last night from the main draw) and over the course of the match, his behavior not only was frustrating, it gave me the rare emotion of sports anger. He belittled the referee, popped the ball out of the stadium after a losing point and even mocked the relative slowness of a ball boy's attempt to pick up a wayward shot. I went to the match wanting to root for him (primarily because of the hilarious of his name of course), but instead left satisfied that his behavior had been rewarded with a loss.

But then today I went and watched the tour player potentially most known for his hothead and brutish behavior, Ernests Gulbis, and somehow came away a fan.  In his three set victory over Andreas Seppi, Gulbis portrayed the same childish antics, he punched a Corona sign that was minding its own business and only had the misfortune of being placed on the net, threw his racket against the ground (breaking it in the process) and told one fan to execute an action one might undertake with a straw on one of his covered body parts.  It was terrible behavior and it caused most of the crowd to hiss, boo and root vociferously for his opponent. Yet somehow, I ended up actually pulling for Gulbis during the match's closing moments. Despite all his boorishness, the entire Gulbis package left me entertained and wanting to see more. Even though Gulbis essentially engaged in the same actions Sock did (only difference being the words mumbled under his breath were not English, but instead came off with a heavy Eastern European accent) my reaction to them was much different.

One explanation may be that Gulbis seems to be a character out of a WWE script.  His background is that of an aristocratic Latvian, complete with a mother who is a famous actress. He seems to give absolutely no care or worry in the world as to his public perception and even when the crowd was on him the hardest, his actions showed that he paid them no mind.  I felt as if I was watching the tennis version of Ravishing Rick Rude," walking to the ring and telling all the unwashed masses that their jeers only helped fuel his fire.  Like the best bad guy wrestler, his style was quietly confrontational and I couldn't wait to see what he would do next. In a sport that I can already tell needs the occasional jolt of personality, Gulbis is a bad guy that we can count on to entertain us with his antics, while also adding in the needed spice of great tennis. If this were wrestling, he would be the bad guy you love to hate, and in classic WWE style, it would only be a matter of time before he turns "face" and we all cheer his attitude in reverse.

But that doesn't explain my aversion to Sock. Jack did the same things, has the same tennis potential and even is a member of the good old USA (#MURICA!). Why not give him the same breaks?  It is a question I will reflect on as we move the tour towards Miami. I consider Gulbis a character and can't wait until his match on Wednesday versus Rafael Nadal (must see television). Maybe if I give Jack Sock another chance, he will join the Latvian as a Tour player whose matches I cannot miss.