Monday, January 24, 2011

The problem with mind games (I)

In 2005, NPR ran an episode of the wonderful series ‘This American Life’ titled “Mind Games”. In the stories narrated by Ira Glass, characters play simple mind games on others, or on themselves, only to find them blow up in their faces. Some end up way over their heads in situations over which they feel they have little control. If you did not hear this episode at the time, it’s totally worth it to listen to the podcast.

I remembered this episode today as I started putting thought to writing some articles about the kind of mind games that tennis pros sometimes play, often with interesting and unexpected effects. Let me say in advance that this is a topic I intend to re-visit because it has so much meat attached to its bones.

Let’s start with Caroline Wozniacki who seems to have been hurt by media criticism that she is a boring interviewee. And indeed, she is. But that has always been OK with me because how interesting would the average 20-year-old be if she has done nothing but play tennis and travel with her parents since age 14?

In a normal (American) world Wozniacki would long have rebelled and dyed her hair blue. Instead she seems to have been utterly conforming. The one and only time she found herself fined for abusing an umpire (in 2006), she quickly took to her blog to deny that this is what occurred, claiming that she had only said that the linesman should take off his glasses. Snooze. Boring. And perfectly OK under the circumstances.

Until Caro decided that it would be a good idea to have the media revisit their impression of her. She decided to play a little mind game. I wonder if she may have gone too far.

First she did an interview in which she answered all of the media’s questions in advance, essentially saying that her interviews were boring because they asked the same lame-assed boring questions all the time. Of course her version was more sanitized than that. And because she kept that wide smile perfectly planted on her face while rattling off her spiel of unquestioned responses, the entire experience was silly in a frantic but non-lethal kind of way.

Next up, having invited the media to view her as more interesting, Wozniacki is asked to back this up with proof of having done something exciting. She responds with a story about being attacked in a local zoo by an injured kangaroo. She answers a series of questions about the supposed event. At no point does she indicate that she is making it all up. At no point does she hint that it is intended as a joke. At no point does she retract. Here's an excerpt of the interview:

Q. What is the most exciting thing you've ever done? If it's illegal, we promise not to tell anyone [...]
CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: [...] Well, the other day I went to the park and I saw this kangaroo lying there. If you've seen, I'm playing with the thing on my shin here. It was lying there. So I wanted to go over and help it out. As I went over to it, it just started to be aggressive and it actually cut me. So I think that's pretty exciting. But I learned my lesson and I just started running away. [...]
Q. It was a baby?
CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: It wasn't big. It was a baby. I just wanted to help it out. I found out that I shouldn't do that.
Q. Scratch you pretty good?
CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: Yeah, it scratched me pretty well. That's why I'm playing with this tape on my shin.
Q. Did you go to the doctor?
CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: Yeah, I went to the doctor. They cleaned it and everything. They wanted to do a few stitches. I said, there's no way you're going to do stitches. I just told them to glue it together. I'm playing with the Steri Strips. It's looking fine. So everyone is happy.
Q. You've done a lot of boxing. Did you think about boxing the kangaroo as it took a swing at you?
CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: I'm sure that was ready for some boxing. I like boxing. It looked so cute. But once it started scratching me, I was a coward and I run away.
Q. It wasn't a park near your hotel in the city?
CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: No, it was just a little bit outside of the city. We were just outside with some friends because we have a lot of friends here. They wanted to show me around the park. There was a kangaroo that didn't want to be nice to me.

The problem with trying to be funny when you’re rather quite boring is that the little mind game can blow up in your face. Now this 20-year-old has gone from being simply boring to seeming slightly mentally unhinged. Personally I prefer boring. It’s more authentic.

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