In professional tennis, friendship never comes first

September 3, 2013

Entering Wimbledon this year, the buzz in women’s tennis revolved around the sniping between top-ranked Serena Williams and No. 3 Maria Sharapova over their respective choice of boyfriends.

On the eve of the U.S. Open, the off-court fixation was the friction between rising American Sloane Stephens and Williams. Was all truly forgiven in the wake of Stephens’s characterization of Williams as icy and unsupportive in a May interview with ESPN the Magazine? Or was the mutual admiration subsequently voiced by champ and challenger merely a ploy to defuse an awkward situation?

At the top ranks of tennis, friendship — or the lack of it — is more than gossip fodder for journalists and ardent fans. In the eyes of many players, it’s perilous terrain. And it seems particularly so in the women’s game, in which choosing friends often becomes a tactical question.

With a Grand Slam title at stake, many believe liking the rival across the net can prove as much a liability as a weak second serve.

On this point, Sharapova and Williams, champions who both acknowledge they have little interest in cultivating gal-pals in the locker room, are hardly unique. Chris Evert, an 18-time Grand Slam champion whose .900 winning percentage (1,309-146) is the best in tennis history, shared the sentiment.

On Background’s Nia-Malika Henderson tips her cap to Serena Williams, whose lopsided wins at the U.S. Open have kept her on the path to sports immortality. (The Washington Post)

Evert befriended Martina Navratilova early in the Czech émigré’s career. But when the rivalry was at its height, she distanced herself, fearing she would jeopardize her competitive edge if they became too close.

“I really would rather be on the court and turn the emotions off,” recalled Evert, 58, now a tennis analyst for ESPN.

In the few pro matches she played against her younger sister Jeanne, Evert said she felt physically sick, almost to the point of throwing up. She felt the same as a young player each time she faced Kristien Kemmer, whom she idolized.

“When I was emotional toward somebody, I didn’t want to lose,” Evert said. “But when I looked across the net and saw them fighting and hurting and dejected, I didn’t like that, either.

“I couldn’t win.”

So she recalculated her life off-court.

“I made a decision early on, if I were to have friends, quite frankly, they would not be the top players,” Evert said. “Friends I could hang out and practice with — who I could let down my guard with and have fun with — were [ranked] 50 or 60 in the world.”

The dynamic is slightly different in the men’s game, where the rivalries are no less intense but the displays of emotion generally more free-flowing at the net just seconds after one man’s triumph and another’s defeat.

Rafael Nadal all but smothered Roger Federer in a consoling hug upon toppling the Swiss to win his first Wimbledon title in 2008.

Here at the U.S. Open, Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro and Lleyton Hewitt embraced warmly following a four-hour, five-set slugfest in the second round.

“Men can compartmentalize and shift gears more easily,” said former pro Pam Shriver, 51. “They can be in battle and then shake hands and be friends — or at least have an authentic, warm moment that’s very public.”

Former champion Boris Becker concurred. For whatever reason, men get over defeat more easily and don’t begrudge the victor.

“I think it’s tougher for the girls,” said Becker, 45. “Guys have an easier time in general with that.”

In Evert’s view, it’s simply an extension of the fundamental difference between men and women that manifests itself in so many arenas of life.

“Men are warriors, and women are nurturers,” she said. “If you notice, all the men are hugging each other at the net and are the best sports, chatting and embracing. And women will be so upset and hurt and shake hands and hardly look at each other. Later on, they get over it. It just takes them more time.”

It’s not that male tennis players don’t have spats or even deep-seated enmity. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors genuinely disliked each other.

But whether one top player likes another or is regarded as “friendly” is more intensely scrutinized and commented upon in women’s tennis.

Agnieszka Radwanska refused to look at Sabine Lisicki after losing a gut-wrenching, three-set Wimbledon semifinal in July, extending an icy hand at the net, then snatching it back. The gesture prompted a torrent of commentary about Radwanska as rude, icy and a poor sport.

But being perceived as a loner, cold or even unfriendly is hardly a character flaw for an athlete trying to become No. 1 in the world in an individual sport.

Shriver, for one, said she fully understands why the third-seeded Radwanska didn’t feel like sharing an embrace after such a shattering defeat. By the same token, she said she understands why Williams isn’t hailed for mentoring the next generation’s champions and why Sharapova is deemed aloof.

“Serena is trying to be an all-time great player,” Shriver said. “Why would we expect her to be warm and fuzzy to rivals? That’s unfair to expect that.”

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