NERVES, NERVES, NERVES
I wasn’t sure I’d actually seen it. Had Arab player Ons Jabeur really vomited on Centre Court underneath the royal box? None of the commentators mentioned it, so I went online, thinking an ordinary punter might have tweeted about it. Google revealed that Jabeur had previously deposited her stomach contents on tennis courts in Toronto and Mallorca.
So a personal pattern and not a comment on the royal family then. In fact it seems rather an efficient way to dissolve stress. The gutsy Tunisian went on to serve for the match and defeat former Wimbledon champion, Garbine Muguruza.
At the post-match press conference she confirmed that it was because of nerves, a word we’ve heard a lot during this Wimbledon with regard to women tennis players. We always do. From the very beginnings of the game women have been dismissed as hysterics and emotionally fragile, despite the fact that, to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, they were doing everything men did but with blood running down their bodies because they had to do it in corsets.
Naomi Osaka’s introduction of the mental health debate into sport feeds right into that framing of gender. For that reason alone I was disappointed that John McEnroe’s assessment of Emma Radacanu’s withdrawal from her fourth round match against Tomljanova - that nerves had got to her - turned out to be correct, not because I thought Emma had failed in any way but because people have always used ‘nerves’ as a cudgel to beat women with. That well known tennis expert Piers Morgan said players should be able to handle pressure and that Emma was a quitter. John McEnroe cautioned she would have to toughen up.
Yes, that John McEnroe, the one whose nerves were so strung out that he thumped his racquet, swore, and in one infamous encounter when Jimmy Connors was wagging his finger sanctimoniously at McEnroe’s questioning of a line call, almost thumped his opponent. If you want a laugh, have a look at the youtube footage. McEnroe shoves Connors in the face and only the intervention of an umpire staves off an all-out boxing match. McEnroe was still losing his temper on court at the age of 48, indulging in an extended tantrum at the Champions’ Cup, a seniors tournament in Naples, Florida.
Emma will toughen up, and I don’t imagine it will take her as long as it took Mac. The one sensible thing Piers Morgan said in his tweets to Andy Murray was that, Sporting pressure is nothing like the pressure many people have to face in the real world. He's right, and those who're talking about this as a mental health issue have got it wrong. Emma Radacanu’s response to the extreme stress of getting to the fourth round at Wimbledon was a perfectly normal response to a physical onslaught that most people will never have to deal with in their lives. She reacted exactly as you or I would – raised heartbeat to the point she felt she couldn’t control her movements, blurred vision, dizziness and nausea. Had she continued she could well have had a heart attack.
It was common sense on Emma’s part to follow the medics’ advice and withdraw, not quitting. What happens in sport is that desire floods the body, sending a myriad impulses to the brain and causing sensory overload. The champions are the ones who learn to channel that desire and send a different set of messages to the brain – That ball looks like a football, I can hit it anywhere I want, It will not go out, I will win this point.
Players who lose don’t desire victory less, but wanting something too much can cause a player to overhit, sending the ball wildly out of court, or to mishit, sending it spiralling into the ether. It can cause them to yell at the umpire, as Dennis Shapovalov did in his semi-final against Djokovic - without a single commentator suggesting it was a sign of mental weakness. On the contrary, Shapovalov was praised for his fighting spirit, despite his failure to convert the many break points he had against the champion.
Courage is not a gender specific attribute. Men and women are equally brave, but clearly deal with stress differently - men generally direct it outwards, pumping the air, smashing racquets, swearing at umpires. Women tend to direct it inwards, as Emma did, resulting in what must have been a terrifying and disorienting experience.
But it’s exactly the same experience, as footballer Marcus Rashford pointed out to Emma: It happened to me playing for the national team in U16s against Wales. I remember it to this day. No explanation for it and it never happened again. You should be very proud of yourself.
Whether you’re an 18 year old girl or a 16 year old boy you have to learn to cope with it and Emma undoubtedly will – she appeared on television the next day talking happily about her experience at Wimbledon and displaying both self-assurance and composure. No modern tennis star gets to the top without a team of people behind them and she’ll have coaches and sports psychologists lining up to help her because sporting pressure, unlike paying the mortgage or making the money stretch to pay for the kids’ shoes, puts an insane amount of immediate physiological stress on the body, flooding it with innumerable chemicals and producing extremes of emotion in the players. Handling that is a skill that players can learn and many of the greatest champions had public meltdowns before they did – both Borg and Federer in temper, Martina Navratilova faltering when it came to closing out matches.
That’s what so surprising about Naomi Osaka’s introduction of mental health into one of the less stressful parts of the game – the post match press conference. When the tennis authorities made them mandatory I thought it was rather cruel – a player has just lost, may be devastated emotionally and yet is expected to give a coherent discussion of the match and their opponent.
But the point about tennis – and why it’s so highly paid – is that it’s not just about ferocious forehands and blistering serves. It goes beyond skill and athleticism and the tribal rivalries of sport to become psychodrama. At 23 Osaka is the number two player in the world and has won nearly $20 million dollars but she didn’t get all that money for her aggressive shot making and 125 mph serve – she got it because a great tennis match is the ultimate
revelation of the self.
The characters matter in a way they don’t in team sports.
It’s why tennis is the highest paid women’s sport in the world, why women players get endorsements for perfume and clothing and do fashion shoots for glossy magazines, why Osaka herself is able to use her success as a platform for political campaigning, wearing seven different Black Lives Matter face masks during the 2020 US Open.
And it’s also why sponsors love the sport and invest in it. A young woman like Osaka perhaps has no understanding of just how incredible an achievement it was for women’s tennis to get to where it is today. When Billie Jean King started playing, women’s prizes were one twelfth of the men’s. Billie Jean forced the tennis authorities to listen to her by organising her own circuit and taking a group of influential players away from official tournaments. Virginia Slims cigarette company sponsored the tour and although the advertising slogan, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby was perhaps a little patronising, it was also true. In the following years women’s tennis became a multi-million pound sport, televised all over the world.
Billie Jean admits to being torn about Osaka's stance but points out: In our day, without the press, nobody would have known who we are or what we thought. There is no question they helped build and grow our sport to what it is today.
Thanks to the press I now know about Osaka's activism, her coming to America at the age of three, where her father trained her and her sister with the same methods Richard Williams had used to train his daughters, Venus and Serena, both multiple Wimbledon champions.
I also know that she's a very stubborn person who far from being too fragile to attend post-match interviews. At the age of 16 she refused the offer of training at the USLTA nationa training centre in Boca Raton because they hadn't shown much interest in her when she was younger. She even forced the postponement of the 2020 Cincinatti tournament for 24 hours by threatening to withdraw because of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a black man who was left paralysed after officer Rusten Sheskey shot him in the back seven times.
Perhaps she thought she’d play the withdrawal card and bend the rules to her will. But the Grand Slam tournaments made it clear they’re bigger than any one player. I had been looking forward to seeing her in action but with fantastic matches starring players like Aryna (The Howler) Sabalenka; the athletic former champion Angie Kerber; our own glowing talent Emma Radacanu; and world number one Ash Barty, who took the trophy fifty years after her mentor and fellow indigenous Australian, Evonne Goolagong, no-one actually noticed her absence.
The thing is, those press conferences are rarely very taxing, a succession of routine questions and usually routine answers. Just occasionally they result in something honest, like Andy Murray’s heartbreaking interview at the 2019 Australian Open, when he revealed he might have to retire.
But for the most part a player could perfectly well get away with the Bull Durham approach. In the 1980’s film, Kevin Costner’s finest hour, coach Crash Davis teaches star baseball player Ebby LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) not just about the sport but about how to answer questions at press conferences, giving him a collection of cliches to trot out for the reporters. My personal favourite is the gem, I want to give it my best shot and the good Lord willing, things will work out.
Billie Jean King has never trotted out cliches. She just wanted to be paid fairly for spilling her guts on the court, something she did time and time again. Following Osaka’s decision not to compete she talked about the players’ responsibility: While it's important that everyone has the right to speak their truth, I have always believed that as professional athletes we have a responsibility to make ourselves available to the media.
Responsibility is a word that Billie Jean always took very seriously. Perhaps Osaka should think about her responsibility to the players lower down in the pecking order than she is. They’re struggling for attention from the press, struggling sometimes to pay the expenses of life on the tour - and they don’t have the luxury of walking away from major tournaments.
Most of them wouldn’t dream of it. The day after her public meltdown, Emma Radacanu gave an interview to the BBC’s Sue Barker. She could easily have ducked out of it, claiming she was ill, but she was open and sunny, honestly admitting what had happened and neither making excuses for it nor apologising for it. She even forecast the score for England’s European football match. It was an object lesson in dealing with the press and must have won her even more supporters than she already had.
Rather than constantly discussing sport in terms of winners and losers, it’s time we moved on to a less Thatcherite form of discussion. It’s not just about the major stars, it’s about the whole glorious cut and thrust of competition and what it reveals about the people taking part.
By the time Emma Radacanu plays in her next Wimbledon I’m pretty sure she’ll be able to handle the roiling, boiling, pressure cooker atmosphere of Centre Court, which has to be experienced to be believed.
And given the gladiatorial nature of tennis as a sport I’ll be more than fascinated to find out how Naomi Osaka handles real pressure when she next deigns to come to Wimbledon – not the pressure of talking to a few journalists who’ve heard it all before but that of playing a British opponent.