Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Giving tennis the elbow

Compare and contrast, if you will, the following two pictures that you can find in today's papers covering tennis pro Andy Murray.

The top photo (or very similar versions of it) can be found on every front page of almost every daily paper. The second photo is available online.

Both pictures are taken from the same match yet it is the first that is to represent the essence of the story, the second (where he is actually playing some tennis) is a bit of an afterthought filling out the coverage.

When choosing which paper to buy I was confronted with a whole row of screaming faces with various celebratory headlines. I guess I'm meant to admire macho face pulling more than someone playing a sport and actually enjoying it. If they'd been a decent paper without Mr Shouty on the front I'd have bought it - sadly there wasn't.

I can't be the only person who finds this sort of identikit macho posturing unpleasant. I don't blame the player - the press have a choice about what they print. There's no shortage of pictures they could have chosen demonstrating skill, grace, enjoyment, charm, humour or the simple hard work involved in the actual playing of the game at top level.

The press make a conscious choice when they run pictures like this. When women players aren't being portrayed as eye candy, it's complaints that they're grunting too much (presumably devaluing their phwoar factor). The values are clear. Women grunting is bad, men screaming is great.

Maria Sharapova eating a banana is worth printing, Andy Murray smiling as he rallies back a serve, well that's not really what the tennis loving public want to see is it?

The level of dedication and discipline involved to become a top level player must be phenomenal but it seems to me that the second photo of Murray exemplifies those virtues far more, and in a far lighter, more elegant way, than the faux he-man posing of the one the papers actually ran with. Is the fact of winning more important than the playing and enjoyment of sport? Well yes, I guess it is, but I doubt that's healthy.

In case I'm risking appearing as if I'm hankering for the good old days I'd like to highlight that there's a fascinating program on Radio Four at the moment about the great English tennis ace Fred Perry that's well worth a listen.

Obviously it's nice to hear about how he grew up in a housing co-op and was the son of a Labour MP but more importantly his story is one that shows that there was no golden, ideal age of honourable sportsmen.

Perry was imbued with a natural talent to be sure but he was also accused of arrogance, even of indulging in McEnrow style tantrums and sportsmanship, visibly throwing matches once he thought he might lose. He even pioneered merchandising and the Fred Perry brand still exists today. So the 'old days' weren't so different.

One writer condemned Perry as the man who "screwed up men's tennis in England, although this wasn't his fault. The way he could hit a forehand—snap it off like a ping-pong shot—Perry was a physical freak. Nobody else could be taught to hit a shot that way. But the kids over there copied Perry's style, and it ruined them. Even after Perry faded out of the picture, the coaches there must have kept using him as a model."

However, I think there are a number of differences between then and now and one of those is the press. Where once talent and good play were the greatest virtues it's now aggression and bankability for the men and looks and bankability for the women. Even though Perry was quite probably a dirty player who cared more about fame and money than tennis that was not what people idolised.

The players and the game have many sides to them and as with so many things in life it's possible to portray the same thing truthfully in starkly different ways. So whilst many of us will have no exposure to the games themselves the portrayal of the players has an impact, even on those who have no interest in the sport.

It seems to me that the media deliberately reinforces some of the most unhealthy aspects of the game. Whilst they could use Wimbledon as a tool to promote the social, fun aspects of sport - helping build grassroots clubs and showing that keeping fit can be enjoyable - they go for the angle that all that matters is the elite, when in fact that's probably the least interesting part of the game.


scott redding said...

Serena Williams joked the other day that her real last name is Williamsova. Russian women tennis players have taken over the top 16 of the game, but is their portrayal in Russian media (sexism/banana-eating-wise) that different from ours, I wonder.

weggis said...

Thank heavens the football season starts tomorrow!

First round of the Eufa Champions league. Can't wait.

Jim Jay said...

Don't worry Mr W I wont post on tennis more than once a year!

Scott: I thought about adding in the Williams sisters as I think they're treated very differently from the other tennis stars... possibly because they're black - but for the sake of brevity I thought I'd leave out a whole new section.

But it is interesting I think.

Strategist said...

Top banana!

Great post (particularly if it is all a complete smokescreen in order to smuggle that Sharapova pic in past the PC police!!)

Anonymous said...

An excellent piece of writing. Quite refreshing as I'd not given the matter any thought at all.