Sunday, May 17, 2009

The lost art of appreciating trash talk

When Serena Williams recently declared that she was the true #1, I had a good laugh. “Nice smack talk Serena”, I thought to myself and moved on to folding laundry or whatever mundane task was occupying me at the time. It never occurred to me -- pardon my naïveté -- that this would end up being something that the news outlets would not only blow up into a front page story, but would then end up interviewing poor Dinara Safina about it.

Huh? When did we lose the ability to understand and appreciate somebody talking trash? Most sport players of any caliber talk smack. They trash their opponents, trash their achievements, and declare themselves to be the best. Trash-talking is a psychological mind-game. It is part of the mental game of tennis (or any other sport). The hope is that your opponents buy into it because then you can climb into their heads and set up camp. And then win.

Trash-talking is a skill, but when done well becomes an art. Mohammed Ali did not invent trash-talking when he declared himself able to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. But he was one of the best at it. Ali was famous for talking smack even in the middle of matches. Once, in a bout against Foreman, when the latter had managed to land some serious body blows, Ali whispered into his ear “Is that all you’ve got?” Foreman said later that he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

So when Serena declared herself to be the true # 1, like I said, I laughed and thought, “Dayum, they should give that Serena a Ph.D. in trash-talk”. And continued scrubbing the toilet or whatever mundane task I was engaged in at the time. And I assumed that, given the chance, Safina would try to make Serena eat those words. After all, this is the same gritty Safina who had just survived a brilliant match against Venus in Rome.

But the sp
orts media, with grim humorlessness, grabbed hold of this story and started shaking in at Safina’s face. And if I were Safina, I would have laughed and responded with similar trash. But Safina responded with an equally grim earnestness that made me wonder, what, don't they talk smack in Russia? Is trash talking a peculiarly American phenomenon? I didn’t think so.

So here is poor Safina responding to Serena’s smack talk about Safina having no Slams and therefore not being the real # 1: “Yes, I didn’t win a Grand Slam but I was in two finals and in one semifinal in one year. Many people can’t achieve that in a career. Overall, I think I’m where I should be for the consistency of my whole year.” And you’d think she’s stop there. But you would be wrong. Safina continued: “(When) Amelie Mauresmo became No. 1 she hadn’t won a Grand Slam and nobody told her anything. I don’t know why people tell me and Jankovic that we should have won a Grand Slam. It’s overall how you compete. I still have time to win a Grand Slam. I think that will come.”

arth to Safina. If you’re gonna be a great # 1, (and trust me, you have what it takes), there are certain arts you have to master. And one of them is knowing how to respond to trash with more trash. If I were Safina, I would have said something like, “Well, I am choosing to focus on tennis and not fashion or so-called acting, and I intend to have a long career with lots of Slams”. You know, something that calls Serena out for her trash-talk but at the same time lets her know that you ain’t afraid of her and you’re willing to meet her behind the gymnasium, just name the time.

What else does Safina do? She reaches emotionally for the company of another loser and declares that she isn’t the only loser on the planet. Ouch. Somebody in the WTA needs to set up a class to teach these newbies how to survive at the top. For a start, they need to grow a sense of humor. And then learn how to appreciate trash-talk at its finest. And then how to throw trash back on trash.

Safina's incredibly honest interview (no trash) after losing to Serena at the US Open 2008

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