Tonight, as Maria Kirilenko was about to step onto Arthur Ashe stadium, Pam Shriver asked her how she felt knowing that the crowd was going to be against her. My daughter flinched in shock at the question. I heard myself saying “Ouch! That sucks!” But what really sucked was that Pam Shriver thought that this was a fair question to ask a non-American player as she was about to face the challenge of playing a young American on her home turf.
I have been ambivalent about pre-match interviews for a long time. I don’t think that they are inappropriate in certain sports like boxing or fake wrestling where the pugilist can seize the opportunity to call his opponent a ten-pound weakling. But I don’t believe that they really play any kind of necessary or even important role in tennis. Really tennis pre-match interviews serve no purpose that I can detect. Fans do not benefit from them and neither do the players. And when the questions are loaded with such negativity, they may even psychologically damage the player and throw her off her game.
I am confident that no tennis player enjoys being asked difficult questions in those final moments before entering the court. In an ideal world, those moments would be for the player to turn inwards and find the resources of mental strength needed to face an opponent in front of a hostile crowd of thousands. It is not a moment to be outward-focused, having to respond to a partial interviewer.
Of course it can be argued that if a player is such a mental weakling that he or she cannot handle a tough question, then they deserve to lose the damn match anyway. And one can also argue that all players should develop the Serena Williams ability to respond by repeating the same trite phrases over and over – she’s just going to go out and play her game, she’s just going to go out there and have fun, and similar inanities.
But not everyone has the mental fortitude of a Serena Williams. And for some players, being asked whether they are ready to face a crowd of people who will be rooting for their opponent may be enough to set them back psychologically. Of course some players have the ability to channel their annoyance at an inappropriate question into a winning performance. Could that be what Maria Kirilenko did tonight?
The stress on McHale could be seen from the giant-sized pimples that have broken out all over her face. I was relieved that Pam elected to ask her an easy question not designed to throw her off her game. It could have been much worse. Pam could have asked her what it was like to be only 19, and already being weighed down by the power of American expectations. Conversely she could have asked Maria: “You beat McHale at doubles yesterday, what did you learn from that experience that you are taking into this match?” Ha ha. Like that would never happen.
Players of course have no choice but to go along with the program. Some years ago Hewitt tried to buck the system and got fined a hefty penalty for refusing to do a pre-match interview at the Cincinnati Open. I am not aware of any other player who has since tried to get out of doing one of these interviews. Probably no one thinks it worth it to give up hundreds of thousands of dollars just to answer one of the Pam Shriver’s stupid-ass questions.
But I think it’s fair to query what exactly is the point of these silly interviews. Do we really expect a player to set out her game plan as she is about to step onto the court? Do we expect her to say that her knees are knocking in fear? Does the TV audience need to see the player answering these silly questions? Who really benefits from this charade?
I also find myself wondering if ESPN comes up with a list of questions to be posed or whether the interviewers just do their own thing. It’s hard to believe that the script is generated by ESPN when Darren Cahill always seems to find a way to pose non-threatening questions when placed in the same situation. Cahill’s questions are always gentle and respectful. Afterward he always wishes the players well. And he never goes in for the jugular, regardless of the nationality of the contestants.