There is something about modern Western culture that demands that stories have both a hero and villain. This contrasts with, say, The Iliad or Hayao Miyazaki’s films, where the villains have understandable motives and the heroes aren’t all that heroic.
This is particularly true in the United States, where political commentary demands that we consider Franklin Roosevelt a hero and Ronald Reagan a villain, or vice versa, although both men inspired their country and both had policies that failed.
After all, having complicated feelings about a figure is no fun, even when they have both admirable and regrettable traits.
Tennis fans who felt this way were probably most comfortable in the mid-1980s. Then, your villain could have been Jimmy Connors, who was brash and whose shots were ugly.
Or maybe it was Ivan Lendl, who intentionally drilled opponents at the net and whose game represented the triumph of raw power over touch and grace. Or maybe it was John McEnroe, who was John McEnroe.
More than any other player, Johnny Mac behaved as though he didn’t care whether people liked him, provided he could wear his black headband to the bank.
Whether it was the numerous, often outrageous complaints he made about officiating, the open contempt he seemed to have for all of his opponents save Bjorn Borg, and the occasional trash talk he directed their way (check out the 2:00 mark in this clip; Lendl seemed to bring it out of him more than anyone else), Johnny Mac all but encouraged the perception of him as a villain.
When he left the game in the early ‘90s, there really wasn’t anybody to take his place.
Some traditionalists hated Andre Agassi for his flashy colors, long hair and refusal to play Wimbledon, but his gradual evolution into an elder statesman who could win on any surface won virtually everyone over.
Some weren’t fond of Goran Ivanisevic’s racket breaking (or his occasional homophobic slurs) but his affable wackiness, combined with his historic 2001 Wimbledon victory, have since given his career luster.
Thomas Muster and Lleyton Hewitt were cut from the same cloth as Jimmy Connors, in that their all-encompassing hunger for victory occasionally boiled over into surliness.
However, even those of us who disliked their attitudes and didn’t enjoy their style of play still found much to admire in their determination to make every ounce of their talent count.
In an era were the personalities of guys like Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras and Patrick Rafter reigned, there was only one player with all the makings of a true tennis villain: Marcelo Rios. He fit the bill in two ways: 1) the ungodly amount of talent he possessed, and 2) an attitude that regularly crossed the line between “surly” and “mean-spirited.”
The list of accusations against him includes, but is not limited to: Refusing to carry the torch for Chile at the 2000 Olympics, punching a Rome taxi driver in the nose, throwing his second wife out of a car, and telling Monica Seles to move her “fat ass.” Some of these may be only rumors, but can you imagine any other player in this sport generating them?
Due to these factors, plus the intensely loyal following Rios developed among Chileans and the devoted admirers of his talent, Rios could have been the game’s greatest antagonist, and his presence on the tour could have provoked spirited debate for years. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), Rios never won the Grand Slam title that was expected of him, despite a brief stay at No. 1. By 2004, he was retired after multiple injuries, leaving no proper villain to take his place.
McEnroe has since been quoted as saying that the biggest problems in men’s tennis today are “too much money and too many nice guys.” If McEnroe was an exaggerated example of tennis in his era, James Blake provides a similar representation of today’s game. Blake, whose last trip to the quarters of a major was at the 2006 U.S. Open, spent much of that match saying “Great shot!” as Roger Federer sent winners screaming past him.
But Blake isn’t the only one; Federer, despite being utterly dominant from 2004-2007, has been cited by both his contemporaries and forerunners for his humility. If the ‘80s represented the Me Decade, our current era might be considered the Mensch Era. Sure there are always incidents on tour, but it’s hard to see anyone getting worked up over the antics of Paul-Henri Mathieu and Mardy Fish.
And yet, some insist on making villains where there need not be. Check the message boards on YouTube, Tennis.com and many other sites with tennis coverage, and you’ll find many who choose to emphasize the following:
* Andy Roddick is a one-dimensional player who berates umpires.
* Novak Djokovic fakes injury time-outs and bounces the ball too much in between points.
* Rafael Nadal also takes too long between points and has too many wedgies.
* Roger Federer ... well, just look at that cardigan.
Some of these statements are unproven, while others make no sense at all. Even those that are rooted in truth miss a larger point, which is that each of these guys contributes far more to the game than they detract from it.
Roddick has gone off the handle at umpires, certainly, but he’s a tireless competitor with a peerless sense of humor who has given nothing but credit to Federer for his achievements (maybe not to Djokovic yet, but give it time).
Djokovic does bounce the ball a lot, but it’s the umpire’s job to enforce that rule. Furthermore, the entertainment value he has brought to the sport since his arrival on the scene more than makes up for any injury delays he has brought.
Rafa Nadal is a great guy in practically every respect, even if he doesn’t make the game look as smooth as Federer. Those levying criticisms against him (and Federer) are wasting their breath, as are those who feel these guys need to be defended.
John McEnroe had a point about the money involved in tennis, but there can never be too many nice guys. 2009 looks to be another great year for tennis, if you don’t spend it looking for villains. No matter who your preference is, we’ve got a surplus of good guys to enjoy.