Tennis Abounds With Personality

Rafael Nadal writes his own bilingual blog with the same passion he brings to his game. Photo: Tim Clary.
NEW YORK--For years, there has been much angst in tennis circles about the sport's fading popularity in the United States, and one of the theories that gets tossed around is that tennis "lacks personalities."

Critics say it's not as compelling as back in the heyday, when John McEnroe was throwing tantrums, Jimmy Connors was pumping his fist and Chrissy Evert and Martina Navratilova were slugging it out week after week.??

Those legends were fun, for sure, but anyone who thinks today's game lacks personalities wasn't paying attention to the U.S. Open the past two weeks. Either that, or the sport is doing a very poor job of marketing its stars.??

You want personality? Click on YouTube and search for U.S. Open runner-up Novak Djokovic, a charismatic Serb who not only has a brilliant all-court game, which he displayed on Sunday, but an uncanny ability to impersonate his peers. He brought down the house after his quarterfinal with his spot-on imitations of Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal, including an exaggerated underwear grab that had fans and reporters howling.??

Speaking of Nadal, the Spaniard with the bulging biceps exudes personality. His bilingual blogs are a treat to read and he plays with unbridled passion. His marathon quarterfinal against David Ferrer, which he lost, was full of drama. Unfortunately, U.S. Open organizers started that match at 10:20 p.m. and it didn't end until 1:50 a.m., which means most of America never saw it. Ditto for James Blake's five-set thriller against Fabrice Santoro, which ended well past midnight.??

You want personality? Check out No. 3 Jelena Jankovic, one of the funniest female players in quite some time. She smiles and jokes during matches, even bantered with Jerry Seinfeld from the court during her quarterfinal against Venus Williams. Like Djokovic, Jankovic is from Serbia, a country the size of Maine that must have sense of humor in its water.??

You want personality? Pay closer attention to top-ranked Roger Federer, who won his fourth straight U.S. Open on Sunday. He is more interesting than you might think. Federer is possibly the best tennis player in history, and his game is sublime. He also happens to be insightful, polite, intelligent, multilingual, and clean-cut--attributes we claim to want in our sports heroes. Oh, and he gets text messages from Tiger Woods. How many people can say that???

Top-ranked Justine Henin is also a great story. In the past six months she transformed from a guarded--bordering on chilly--character to a warm, open woman who seemed genuinely happy to spill her soul to a small group of reporters Sunday, still basking in the glow of her second U.S. Open title.??

Henin went through a divorce early this year and recently reconciled with her father and siblings, from whom she had been estranged for many years. "I'm much happier now, more open, sharing my feelings," she said. She also revealed that she has jumped out of a plane 25 times. Boring people don't jump out of planes.??

You want personality? How about the Williams sisters? Like them or not, Venus and Serena Williams are the most remarkable siblings in sport history and they always give you something to talk about--their power, their outfits, their extracurricular activities and their behavior--or lack thereof--at news conferences.??

Serena gets two thumbs down for her demeanor after her quarterfinal loss to Henin. The once-charming and likable younger sister showed no grace, suggesting Henin won because she made "lucky shots," when, in fact, Henin won because of her precision, diversity of shots, and courage to charge the net despite her diminutive size.??

Williams thinks she can parachute in and win trophies, as if she is somehow entitled. It doesn't work that way. Just ask Federer. If she really cares about tennis, which she says she does, she needs to get back in shape and take the game--and her opponents--seriously.??

The list goes on. You want glamor? Maria Sharapova. You want wit? Andy Roddick. Outrageous outfits? Bethanie Mattek. Rising American star? 6-9 John Isner, the 184th-ranked wild card who took a set off Federer. Harvard-educated? Blake. A mom? Sybille Bammer. An Israeli army corporal? Shahar Peer.??

If you're sick of flawed sports heroes--Barry Bonds, Michael Vick, Jason Giambi, Pacman Jones, to name a few--don't tune out of tennis next time it's on TV. Give it a chance. You might be surprised.

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