Sunday, August 14, 2011

Can you be a hater and not know it?

Mary Jo predicted the Serena loss to Azarenka yesterday in part she said because Serena had been training hard at Stanford. But somehow, in Mary Jo’s mouth, Serena’s hard training came across as a negative. You’d think that a player training hard to get back into tennis fitness would be the subject of applause. Instead it came across as a criticism, as part of what is so wrong with Serena. That is how hate works. It’s an insidious emotion. It permeates and discolors everything.

Take Mary Jo’s comments about Serena’s performance in Stanford: “I think she struggled a bit” and, Serena “played beautifully but never pulled the trigger”. Anyone listening to Mary Jo would be justified in thinking that Serena had lost every match at Stanford. You’d think that Mary Jo was explaining why Serena lost. In reality Stanford was the first tournament that Serena won since her return from illness and injury.

I don’t want to give the impression that Mary Jo never said anything positive about Serena yesterday. She did say positive things. For example, when Cliff Drysdale asked her point blank if Serena was the best server in women’s tennis, Mary Jo unhesitatingly replied, “Yes”. But that was late in the second set when an Azarenka loss was as obvious as the egg scrambled over Mary Jo’s face.

But I also noticed that whenever Mary Jo made a positive comment about Serena, she would often qualify it with the word “but”. For example, Serena doesn’t fist pump after every single point “but she’s gotta bring the competitive fire”. And as I just noted, the criticism that Serena “played beautifully but she never pulled the trigger”. I could give many more examples. Always the negative, always the subtle undercutting.

At times Mary Jo made statements that were not just negative but downright incorrect. For example, she said that Serena was “slowly coming through the rankings”. She must have realized how ridiculous that statement was because she immediately amended it to “well actually not that slowly”. Actually Mary Jo, Serena’s rise in the rankings since her return has been meteoric. She has gone from being ranked 169 after her injuries to now being near the top 30, a mere four tournaments after her return. When last has any player – male or female – made such a meteoric return?

In addition, I noticed that even when Mary Jo made a positive statement about Serena, a negative metacomment often seemed to be implied. An example: “Serena seems much more in sync with her serve tonight”. The implication – Serena is not always in sync with her serve. So I asked the TV how on earth can the same player be admitted to be the best server in women’s tennis and yet be someone who is not always in sync with her serve? And what the hell does that mean anyway? The TV had no idea either.

Of course it is possible that Mary Jo is just a negative person and that the negativity that I perceived towards Serena is actually applied across the board to all players. Then again Mary Jo seemed to get pretty excited and positive about Azarenka last night. I don’t remember her saying a peep when Azarenka double-faulted for the fourth or fifth time. I do remember her unqualified praise of Azarenka’s improvement this season.

An unintentionally funny moment occurred when Mary Jo suggested that Azarenka might consult her coach. It was clearly wishful thinking. And when Pam and Cliff started talking about how Azarenka was the only one grunting on the court, Mary Jo predicted that “the tighter the match gets you will hear her (Serena) grunt”. It never happened. In reality Serena continued to play contained, controlled, precise tennis.

But one of the problems with hate is that it can lead you to view the glass as half-empty. Where I saw a player using skills of PST to regulate her emotional energy, Mary Jo saw flatness and a lack of energy. Indeed she said that she had observed that same flatness and lack of energy the night before in the match against Safarova (“last night she was very flat”).

Actually Serena was not flat at all. She has been deliberate and intentional in her management of her emotional energy. Pam Shriver thinks that this is Serena’s response to her medical scare. I believe that it may also be an intentional self-correction ever since her loss of emotional control at the US Open two years ago. Kudos to Serena for learning how to manage her emotional output. PST recommends this kind of emotional modulation as a technique for developing the mental game. And as Cliff Drysdale sweetly observed, “I like the new serene Serena”.

But in all fairness to Mary Jo, I think that it is possible to be a hater and not know it. I don’t know if the problem is related to all that drama that went down between herself, USTA and Zina Garrison. But I do know that hate is not always conscious or intentional. Like racism and other forms of bigotry, its perpetrators may be truly unaware of their impact or motivation. I also retain faith in human nature and in our ability to change once we are given feedback and are of course self-insightful enough to use it. (Part 2 of 2)


TennisAce said...

Part 1

WHEW, Part 2 was well worth the wait. I don't know if I would call what Mary-Jo feels about Serena as hate. I think to call it hate, one has to look deep into the psyche of Mary-Jo and Serena and as neither of us will get a chance to analyse either woman, what I am about to say is pure speculation.

The Good Book says that there are some sins that are worse than any other. It talks about jealousy, envy, malice and pride and I think that all of these embody who Mary-Jo is. She is jealous of Serena's talent. As far as Mary-Jo is concerned Serena has so much talent that she can come from nowhere and take down some of the biggest names in women's tennis in only her third tournament back, including, the wonder of mental toughness, Sharapova.

TennisAce said...

Part 2

Envy: how could this woman from the ghettoes of Compton, with no approved coach, come from nowhere and accomplish so much while I on the other hand who have worked so hard, have so little show for it.

Malice: Same as envy, except, it comes across as hatred. I cannot stand what this woman has accomplished. Why should she be the darling of the tennis world and why is she making it so easy when those who are supposedly working harder than her have accomplished so little?

Pride: the inability to admit that every narrative ever written about Serena Williams has been wrong.

In her match against Azarenka, everyone in the studio wanted her to pump herself up. She did not need to. Why should she? Azarenka was absolutely no challenge to her. From where I was sitting on the couch, the match was on Serena's racquet so why pump her fist and yell come ons?

TennisAce said...

Part 3: Serena said in her post-match interview that as a result of her illness she realised that fist pumping and grunting took a lot of energy from her. As a result she is playing in a more contained way. Frankly speaking I like when she plays silently. I also like when all you hear are the effort grunts. When she shouts and screams the come ons it is because she is struggling

For some reason those in the booth have equated fist pumping and come ons as a sign that a player is engaged. From where I am sitting the greatest champions in tennis have never needed to show that they are engaged. They go about it like assassins. Silently and deadly.

Maybe the commentators need to find a new narrative because the one that they are hell bent on selling is sitting on the shelves and there are no buyers for the BS

Erik G. said...

Interesting analysis of MJ's commentary. I agree it's hard to be totally sure she's a 'hater', but MJ's well-documented moments of being left to wait by the phone in her role as Fed Cup coach hoping Serena would play FC might have something to do with it. Still, plenty of other ESPN commentators are not so subtle in their praise or scorn of players depending on past or present coaching or other relationships they've had.

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