Tennis

Tour culture different for women

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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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WIMBLEDON, England

It was 7-6 in the tiebreaker Sunday at Wimbledon, and Novak Djokovic was about to lose. “Moment of Truth,’’ he yelled, trying to pressure and intimidate the, well, the kid on the other side of the net.

It was the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, the day off. The Bryan brothers got off their practice court at the same time Juan Martin del Potro got off his, and they took pictures together. The Bryan Bros. posted one on their Twitter account.

Djokovic had somehow run into a highly ranked junior boy, and they practiced together for a few minutes, then played a tiebreaker. Djokovic was screaming at him, trash-talking him. Still, the kid won, and Djokovic dropped and gave five pushups.

This all comes together as just another example of a strange cultural truth in tennis that has become more and more evident the past two weeks: For some reason, the women on tour don’t seem to get along with each other, and the men do.

This Wimbledon started with a storyline about the bickering between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Their dislike of each other was never exactly a secret, but it had never been this open before. Serena took shots, presumably at Sharapova, in an article in Rolling Stone magazine, and Sharapova shot back that if Serena wants to talk about personal things, she should stick to the fact that she’s a homewrecker.

It just seemed like a fun-to-watch personal thing. But more and more, things anecdotally keep popping up to show that it’s bigger than that.

“I think so,’’ John Isner told me early last week with a laugh that seemed to say, `That’s the understatement of the year.’ The women, you don’t even see them practice together. It’s weird.’’

Maria Sharapova

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By contrast, Isner said that on Monday, he and Roger Federer happened to be in the locker room at the same time.

“We were in the showers, and started talking WWE (professional wrestling),’’ Isner said. “I kid you not.’’

Maybe this is just an anecdotal thing, too, and it’s surely not tour-wide. Several young American women players started to break through on tour this week, and they’ve talked about how glad they are to have each other as friends on the road.

But when I asked legendary coach Nick Bollettieri, who has developed champion men and women, if the men get along in general better than the women do, he put it a little more succinctly:

“No sh**,’’ he said. “I had Sharapova, and saw Tatiana Golovin today and (Jelena) Jankovic all at the same time. Neither one would talk to any of them.’’

I guess the question is, who cares? It’s not a big deal. Players don’t have to be friends. That’s true. But it’s just an oddity, a social study. The men and women are in similar environments on tour, right? What on earth would make this difference?

Maybe it has something to do with the lead shown by the men at the top of the tour? Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal always seem to get along, and maybe they set the example? Meanwhile, Williams and Sharapova set their own example.

It might have something to do, too, with the minor leagues, where men tend to be touring together in smaller towns into their 20s, and not just as teens with parents around.

Who knows?

Heather Watson, a young Brit player, spoke with London’s Daily Mail about it last week, saying that it’s not just about Williams and Sharapova interacting with each other. She said that those two, and also Agnieszka Radwanska make a point of “blanking’’ her and other women away from the court.

“I don’t think it’s to do with being younger,’’ she said. “I think it’s based on ranking. Especially the top 3 and 4 in the world won’t talk to anybody. Victoria Azarenka does say hello, but the other three make an effort not to.

“That’s what they do. That’s just how they operate. They don’t want to give you anything, no weakness, nothing. . . . Fair enough, don’t talk while you’re playing, fine. But off the court, we’re still human beings. You do need to be ruthless, but I don’t think you need to blank everybody.’’

That made me ask Sharapova if this is some sort of strategy. Years ago I talked with baseball Hall of Famer Ron Santo, who said he never made friends with other players. He thought they could learn about his weaknesses if he opened up to them.

No, Sharapova said. No secrets.

But when someone asked if she has a good relationship with other players, she said, “During the tournament? Actually, it doesn’t matter. I’m not really friendly, or close, to many players.’’

A few years ago, on middle Sunday, I saw Djokovic play Robin Soderling in a tiebreaker on the practice courts. It was possible that seven days later they could have played each other in the final. But here they were, messing around. Throwing racquets in fun. When Djokovic won, Soderling took a small bill out of this wallet, crumpled it up and threw it at him.

Djokovic uncrumpled it, kissed it and said, “My work is done here.’’

When Isner had his famous marathon match, he came off the courts on day two, and Andy Roddick had gone to get him all sorts of fast food, comfort food, to help out.

Isner said there’s no reason you can’t be friends with other players away from the courts. Two days after he said that, he blew out his knee early in his second round match. He hobbled through the players lobby area.

Federer, a few hours from his match, strolled down the stairs holding his daughter’s hand. He looked up at Isner and said, “Just lock up on you?’’ They talked about it.

Then they shook hands, and Isner hobbled off.

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