Purple hair, dreadlocks, bad boys: who says Wimbledon has no characters left?

Dec 13, 2016 @ 3:04 pm
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Though the all-white dress code may be restrictive, some competitors – Dustin Brown, Nick Kyrgios and Bethanie Mattek-Sands among them – are doing their level best to stand out.

It is a perennial refrain: where are the characters in tennis? Who are this generation’s rabble-rousers, our Jimmy Connors, Ilie “Nasty” Nastase, and, the most indulged brat of all, John McEnroe? Where are the psychologically impenetrable enigmas like Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl? Why has the sport become so straitlaced and humourless?

The debate was reignited on the eve of Wimbledon by McEnroe himself. The three-time champion suggested that the rules needed to be changed to make it more exciting. He’d start by removing line judges and have the players decide when the ball was in or out. An umpire and Hawk-Eye would settle the most contentious disagreements. Then McEnroe would ban on-court microphones so that opponents could yell at each other without fearing a fine.

“The players need to be able to feel that they can express themselves,” McEnroe reasoned. “I’m sure on the soccer pitch, they’re not saying, ‘Hello, how are you?’ Or on the rugby field. Is it really different in tennis? Should it be treated differently?”

McEnroe is correct that real characters have become an endangered species in tennis, but the first week at Wimbledon 2015 has been enlivened by some authentically offbeat performers. On the men’s side, the 20-year-old Australian wonderkid Nick Kyrgios is through to the fourth round and enthusiastically justifying his nickname, the Wild Thing. Dustin Brown, a German-Jamaican journeyman, provided some of the most intoxicating moments of the tournament in beating Rafael Nadal with a mix of old-school serve-and-volley and outrageous invented shots.

In the women’s draw, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the world No 158, upset the seventh seed, Ana Ivanovic. Until now, Mattek-Sands has mostly been known for her novelty sartorial choices, which have included cowboy hats, pink knee socks and chandelier earrings. She also has an extravagant tattoo of lilies running down her right bicep. A yellow dress made from tennis balls that she wore to a pre-Wimbledon party in 2011 led to a description of her that has stuck: “the Lady Gaga of tennis”.

These are certainly not the usual suspects, and they have lit up a phase of the tournament typically dominated by ceremonial drubbings for lower-ranked players. Of the breakout performers, the one with the greatest potential is Kyrgios, the 26th seed, perhaps the most eccentric player to reach the highest levels of tennis since the 1980s. McEnroe has anointed him as the current player most like himself and Kyrgios, perhaps accepting the mantle, has even taken to competing in a throwback towelling headband.

At Wimbledon, Kyrgios, an Australian with Greek-Malaysian roots, has done McEnroe proud. In a perfunctory first-round victory, he shouted “dirty scum”, an insult that he insisted was self-admonishment and not directed at officials (the All England Club agreed). In the next round, he took umbrage when a line judge reported him to the umpire for swearing. When the umpire refused to be drawn on the exact nature of their conversation, Kyrgios barked, “Does it feel good to be in the chair up there? Do you feel strong up there?”

So far, so charmless, but Kyrgios does have his winning moments. He plays explosive, high-wire tennis accompanied by a stream-of-consciousness commentary. In his third-round clash on Friday against Milos Raonic, the No 7 seed, Kyrgios had a prolonged back-and-forth with a stranger in the crowd wearing a Batman T-shirt, which he claimed was key to his victory. He tried impossible trick shots (didn’t work), stood next to a ballboy to receive serve (didn’t work either) and threw his racket down so violently that it bounced up and landed five rows back in the first tier of the stands. But, like McEnroe, every outburst and stunt made him more focused and, in turn, discombobulated the hapless Raonic.

Asked afterwards if tennis had become too conformist, Kyrgios replied, “I guess so. I’m not the biggest believer in saying nothing out there or being a robot. I feel you should express yourself. You know, it’s a sport.”

McEnroe’s also a fan of Brown, the world No 102, describing his win against Nadal as one of the all-time great performances by a lower-ranked player. (He was unable to rediscover the magic on Saturday and lost in four sets to Viktor Troicki.) A 30-year-old with thick cables of dreadlocks down his spine, Brown was born in Germany but played his formative tennis in Jamaica. When he returned to Europe, he travelled round tournaments in a VW campervan – though one with three rooms and a bathroom, he notes defensively – and strung other players’ rackets for pocket money.

After tactically dismantling Nadal on Thursday, it was suggested to Brown that it must be a relief to talk about his tennis, not just his hair or his unusual backstory. “I am the way I am,” he replied. “Obviously it’s great that people appreciate it. But on the other side, if I would worry too much about what people think, then I wouldn’t have the hair and definitely wouldn’t look the way I look.”

Brown looked out at the press corps: overwhelmingly white and middle-aged. “It’s difficult when people ask me that about myself because for me it’s normal,” he said. “I could be sitting here and saying, ‘Why are you guys all different?’”

For Mattek-Sands, a 30-year-old American, the conversation – even at pristine, all-white Wimbledon – has again been dominated by clothing. She said, diplomatically, that the rules, which stipulate no more than a 1cm coloured trim, had “gotten a little excessive” – though she has managed to express her unique sensibility by wearing white knee socks and a transparent-backed shirt, and dyeing the ends of her hair purple.

What niggles Mattek-Sands, though, it that it’s becoming harder at Wimbledon to show your personality through your outfits. “I was actually Googling some players – like when John McEnroe played, Arthur Ashe, they had colour everywhere: on their sleeves, big stripes, they were coming out in coloured jackets. So I feel it’s actually gotten stricter.”

Her point was hard to argue with: we can complain about the lack of characters in tennis, but when you dress everyone alike, it’s not so easy to stand out.

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