At French Open, separation in interviews makes for some odd and lost exchanges

By Karen Crouse

From behind a glass divider with frosted patterns, French Open players bare their souls to voices seated on the other side. It is Roland Garros’ version of the confessional, and in the first week of the French Open, players paid more than 158 visits to the boxy phosphorescent rooms and fielded more than 1,083 questions, many from reporters on the other side of the divider, as close to the athletes as the baseline is from the net.

“It’s obviously a very strange situation,” said Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, who is seeded 18th.

In accordance with coronavirus-induced self-distancing protocols, players’ face-to-face interviews with most reporters have moved online. Like videoconferencing desk workers everywhere, the participants are adjusting to the new normal while gaining a new appreciation for what is lost in the transaction.

“I miss you guys,” Dimitrov said Saturday night as he sat behind a desk and stared at a checkerboard of faces on a flat screen mounted to a post in the middle of an otherwise empty room.

Dimitrov, 29, added that he “feeds off” the “vibes” of a full house of reporters, even when the sentiments they express give him pause, as happened last week when a reporter from a remote location confessed that he was jealous of Dimitrov for dating Maria Sharapova and asked if he had kept in touch with her since their 2015 breakup and her 2020 retirement.

Dimitrov gracefully volleyed back the wild lob with a playful reply: “You can still be jealous.”

Dimitrov still loves the old-fashioned news conference, perhaps no surprise given that his arsenal includes a classic one-hand backhand. “Whatever insight I can give, it’s not only for me, not only for the audience, but also for the fans,” he said before his fourth-round match Monday against Stefano Tsitsipas. “One of the things our sport needs a lot more, I would say, is just get closer to the fans.”

Tsitsipas, the fifth seed from Greece, appreciates the value of the news media maybe more than most. Tsitsipas, a fan who dabbled in journalism before he became a professional athlete, sat up straighter in his seat when he was asked what he got out of news conferences.

“I have something interesting to say,” said Tsitsipas, who went on to describe at some length the Facebook page that he set up before he was a teenager.

Ten years later, Tsitsipas, 22, remembers vividly the details of the page he named “Tenniscore ITN,” where he posted news about top players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. He said he updated the information regularly after poring over the latest tennis results and news of interest. It was the daily assignment he gave himself before he started in on his schoolwork.

“I was really into it,” said Tsitsipas, who took great pains not to let his personal biases seep into his coverage.

“That is the most challenging part of journalism, isn’t it?” Tsitsipas said Saturday night with a mischievousness that perforated all the barriers between him and his audience.

“I think you all know that Roger Federer was my favorite player growing up, but I didn’t necessarily make him a god in my Facebook page,” he said.

A beatific smile lit his face. “Everyone was treated the same,” he added.

Because he was a novice journalist striving to find a unique way to present his information long before he became a seasoned competitor answering the same old questions, Tsitsipas said, he recognized how challenging it could be to give an interview a different spin or present a novel angle.

“I do appreciate journalists that come out a little bit more, I would say, unexpected,” Tsitsipas said. “Ask me some other things that don’t relate or don’t have to do with my tennis match, but in a way, in a deeper sense, and kind of unlock something within me in which I can express myself a little bit more open, provide more information. That’s what it is all about: information; getting the best, the most, out of the player.”

The virtual news conference, while better than nothing, is not the best vehicle for steering athletes down interesting paths. Interviews are constructed like points in a match. Participants often start out with a planned course of action, but the best will nimbly adjust depending on what is thrown at them.

There is a flow, a spontaneity, to a verbal rally that is hard to achieve when there is an audio delay on one end or reporters are fumbling to unmute their microphones — or are cut off by the moderator midsyllable as they try to nail down an answer with a second question.

Then there are the questions so convoluted they require multiple clarifications just so the player can make sense of what is being asked. At 114 words, the fifth of eight questions in the English portion of the Spaniard Nadal’s news conference Sunday took longer than some of the rallies in his straight-sets victory over American qualifier Sebastian Korda.

It began: “Can you sympathize with us a little because you keep winning so it’s often tough for us to ask you new questions,” and devolved from there. It was nominally about a nifty return that Nadal made on a windswept ball but pivoted to include whether Nadal had ever lost something that was important to him and did he like dancing off the court.

Nadal gamely answered the question about the shot, explaining that in the windy conditions it is important to stay focused and accept that you’re going to make mistakes.

“And have you ever lost anything that you have found?” the reporter persisted.

“Sorry?” Nadal replied.

The virtual news conference, featuring reporters logging in from all over the world, is revealing in its own way, as was demonstrated by the shirtless reporter in one tennis news conference in August. Or by the former world No. 1 Andy Murray at the U.S. Open when he commented on the plush Pikachu toys on a shelf in one reporter’s video background.

On Saturday night, after he stepped down from his news conference, Tsitsipas recorded an audio text to explain the difference in the dynamics now compared with before the pandemic.

“The absence of reporters can be felt,” Tsitsipas said, adding: “First of all, the energy you get from each one of them when asking the question, having them in person, it can give you a good or a bad impression. And it can also impact your answer.”

Like so much else that used to be taken for granted, the live news conference is a casualty of the health crisis that is appreciated a lot more now that it is gone.

“I much prefer the interaction person to person,” Tsitsipas said.

Referring to its virtual counterpart, he added: “Who knows? Maybe that’s the future of journalism.”

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