The Tennis and Twitter Connection

Photo: @laurarobson5

The post first appeared at Tennis Grandstand.

Rebecca Marino announced on Wednesday that she was stepping away from her tennis career, perhaps for good. The Canadian’s ranking had slipped to outside the top 400 after returning from a seven-month absence, but she appeared to be approaching 2013 with a fresh mentality. A few days earlier, the former World No. 38 spoke candidly to Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times about the effect that online abuse had on her decision to take a break from tennis. Following her second announcement, Marino held a conference call where she also spoke openly about her struggles with depression.

While Marino made it clear that she had been suffering from depression for the better part of six years and sought help during her sabbatical last year, her story is one of many in the shark tank that is a tennis player’s relationship with social media as a whole.

Tennis has a large online following which far outweighs its characterization as a ‘niche sport.’ The rise of social media over the better part of the past five years has allowed fans access to a player’s inner circle. First, players posted exclusive content on their websites and next came personal pictures and stories on their official Facebook pages. Both of these could be monitored by a third party, but Twitter added another dimension; it allowed fans to theoretically interact directly with players. As tennis players travel the world week in and week out, their fans get a chance to see the world as they do.

Teen sensations Laura Robson and Eugenie Bouchard, who are both avid tweeters, took the social networking site by storm in October when they released their version of the popular ‘Gangnam Style’ dance craze featuring cameos by Heather Watson, Maria Sharapova, Samantha Stosur, Fernando Verdasco, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the WTA physio team. It may have never crossed their minds to create this gem of the Internet, nor may it have been available for fans if it weren’t for sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

With all the good, however, comes the bad.

As one would imagine, not all of this fan interaction is positive. There is perhaps an unwritten rule in the tennis-tweeting community to ‘never @ the player you’re speaking negatively of,’ but if players really wanted to find negative comments written about them, Twitter makes it all too easy for them to do so. Not only can players scroll through their mentions to read tweets directly composed to them, they can search their surname to find all tweets of which they are the subject.

Following Robson’s three-set loss to Yulia Putintseva in Dubai on Monday, she received her fair share of the abuse that has unfortunately become infamous on the social networking site. Some of the negative comments may have led to the Brit briefly deactivating her account; however, she reinstated it less than a day later. As Marino confirmed to The New York Times, much of the abuse comes from disgruntled bettors who lost money betting on a match. The majority of these comments are not even constructive in nature; they are hateful, personal attacks laced with profanity.

To avoid all of this, some players don’t even manage their own accounts, or merely hook it up to tweet links from their Facebook pages; setups like this provide little or no fan interaction. Other players who enjoy interacting with their fans, such as Paul-Henri Mathieu, have tried their best to take a stand.

While there is much more to Rebecca Marino’s story than just online abuse, it shows that at the end of the day, no one really knows much about the majority of the people he or she is interacting with online. The power of anonymity on the Internet is an incredible thing; no one really knows how overly abusive or negative comments, coupled with whatever else a player is dealing with, can affect them.

Just because an athlete is in the public eye doesn’t mean he or she should be treated with any less respect; many smartphones have the capability to sync with Twitter, so the vitriol and abuse, along with the praise and support, is as close as a player’s back pocket. Repeated encounters with this would no doubt have an effect on just about everyone.

Kerburnout?

In 2012, arguably her breakout season, Angelique Kerber played 21 tournaments and two Fed Cup ties; out of her 85 singles matches, she played 23 three-setters, which equates to 27%. She’s made a name for herself over the past 18 months by grinding out wins, even when not playing near her best.

However, Kerber’s been dealing with overstressed disks in her back since a fourth round loss to Ekaterina Makarova in Melbourne, which forced her to withdraw from Germany’s Fed Cup tie with France this past weekend. On Tuesday in Doha, she dropped her opener to countrywoman Mona Barthel, 6-1, 6-2. For the majority of the match, Barthel was hitting an average of 20 km/h bigger off the ground than her countrywoman, who missed many short balls in the net; Kerber looked a step slower, and this is crucial for a classic counterpuncher who relies on her movement. This is especially true for Kerber as an individual, for whom clutch shots on the run and lethal down the lines are a trademark.

Of course, health and fitness play a part in this result. Kerber probably should take more time off, but I bet she won’t; she did not defend her Premier level title in Paris last week (which was coincidentally won by Barthel), has a title in Copenhagen to defend, a semifinal in Indian Wells, a quarterfinal at Roland Garros and a semifinal at Wimbledon on her ranking. When you play, and win, as much as Kerber did in 2012, it’s difficult to be out for any extended period of time. I do give her credit though for staying out there and playing until the end, on a day when Yanina Wickmayer, Varvara Lepchenko and Maria Kirilenko all retired in their Doha openers with injuries.

Kerber’s ‘I’d rather be anywhere else but here’ attitude when the going gets tough is, for some, part of her charm; unlike many others, she tends to channel that negative energy, turn it into positive and use it to help her play better. However, for the most part, we have yet to see that fire this season; when things have gone wrong in matches she’s lost, she seemed resigned and almost defeatist. In addition, Kerber’s game, much like her countrywoman Andrea Petkovic’s, is not fluid and free-swinging. This might cause both to be more prone to injuries than others.

While it’s still too early to tell how Kerber will perform for the rest of 2013 if or when she gets healthy, we’ve heard the story of players who overplay in order to rise up the rankings, and it coming back to hurt them later, before. And all too often.

The WTA’s Lost Girls

This post first appeared at Tennis Grandstand.

One of the things that makes tennis so unique is the ability to categorize periods in the sport by generations; the struggle of the “new guard” to take control from the “old guard” is a constantly recurring narrative. With the news Wednesday that Agnes Szavay has officially retired from professional tennis due to lingering back issues, it’s only right to take a look at the highest-profile players in what can be dubbed “The Lost Generation” of the WTA; each of these women, fairly close in age, all found success over a short period of time that all went away in an instant due to injuries, personal problems or both.

It all began with Nicole Vaidisova.

In 2004, her first full season as a professional, Vaidisova became the sixth-youngest champion in WTA at the Tier V event in Vancouver, aged 15 years, three months and 23 days. Behind her strong serve and attacking baseline game, Vaidisova looked to be the next champion who had been groomed of the courts of the Bollettieri academy.

Despite being born in 1989, Vaidisova was a force on the senior circuit while her contemporaries were still playing juniors. When she made the semifinals of Roland Garros in 2006, defeating Amelie Mauresmo and Venus Williams along the way, Caroline Wozniacki was the second seed in the junior event, players including Dominika Cibulkova and Ekaterina Makarova were unseeded there, and Agnieszka Radwanska won the title; in addition, Victoria Azarenka was the 2005 ITF Junior World Champion. Vaidisova reached her second Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open in 2007, and peaked at No. 7 in May of that year.

Also in 2007, the trio of Anna Chakvetadze, Tatiana Golovin and Szavay arrived.

Golovin burst on to the scene very early in her professional career, reaching the fourth round in her debut at the 2004 Australian Open and winning the mixed doubles with Richard Gasquet at their home slam in Paris later that year. She boasted an impressive all court game, also highlighted by a lethal forehand. Inconsistency followed, but Golovin found form late in 2006, when she reached her first, and only, Grand Slam quarterfinal at the US Open. She captured her two career WTA titles in 2007, finished runner-up to Justine Henin in two big events in the fall indoor season, and ended that year as World No. 13.

At her peak, Chakvetadze was perhaps the only player with legitimate claim to the (oft-misguided) comparison to Martina Hingis; Hingis herself affirmed the comparisons, once stating, “She’s very smart around the court and she has good vision. You don’t see anything specific that she’s winning matches [with] so I definitely see some similarities.” The Russian burst on the scene in 2004 as well, when she qualified and defeated reigning Roland Garros champion Anastasia Myskina in the first round of the US Open. Following a steady rise, she won her biggest career title at the Tier I event in Moscow in late 2006; on the back of a quarterfinal in Australia in 2007, she made her top 10 debut in February. Another quarterfinal at Roland Garros, a semifinal at the US Open and four titles put her among the elite at the 2007 Year-End Championships in Madrid. She is one of only a handful of players who can boast a win over both Williams sisters.

Possessed with a strong serve and elegant two-handed backhand, Szavay rose from obscurity to “destined for stardom” in a matter of a few months in 2007. As a qualifier at the Tier II event in New Haven, she reached the final, where she was forced to retire against Svetlana Kuznetsova up a set due to…a lower back injury; looking back, an injury which had originally been attributed to a taxing week may have been a sign of things to come. Nonetheless, Szavay reached the quarterfinals of the US Open, where she was again stopped by Kuznetsova. The Hungarian pulled off a lot of upsets in 2007, but perhaps greatest of these was her 6-7(7), 7-5, 6-2 triumph over Jelena Jankovic in the Tier II event in Beijing; at a set and 5-1 down, Szavay hit a second serve ace down match point en route to one of the greatest WTA comebacks in recent memory.

After starting the season ranked No. 189, Szavay ended it ranked No. 20. For her efforts, she was named the 2007 WTA Newcomer of the Year.

With the good, sadly, came all the bad. Vaidisova suffered from mononucleosis in late 2007 and her form took a nosedive; she officially retired in 2010, as her stepfather stated she was “fed up with tennis” and that it was “understandable” because “she started so young.” Chakvetadze, after being tied up and robbed in 2007, dealt with a whole host of injuries; she too is currently sidelined with a recurring back injury. Having made a foray into Russian politics in 2011 with the Right Cause Party, and being a featured commentator on Russian Eurosport for the 2013 Australian Open, it’s unclear when or if she will return to competition. After reaching a career-high ranking of No. 12 in early 2008, Golovin has been inactive since due to chronic lower back inflammation, and has ruled out a return. Whilst still being troubled by her back, Szavay showed only flashes of her best form in the seasons since, including upsetting then-World No. 3 Venus Williams 6-0, 6-4 in the third round at Roland Garros in 2009. 2010 was her last full season; a failed comeback in 2012 concluded with a retirement loss to countrywoman Greta Arn in the first round of the US Open, her last professional match.

It’s hard to say if this quartet could’ve taken the next step into legitimate slam contenders, or even champions, more than five years removed from their days in the sun. But largely due to matters outside their control, we’ll never even know.