By Tumaini Carayol
(June 17, 2014) EASTBOURNE, ENGLAND – Whatever mood Jelena Jankovic was in, it was not a good mood. For one, she was standing on, in her view, the worst surface known to mankind. Her hatred for the grass is no secret and, as transparently pointed questions flew her way; essentially asking her exactly how much she detested tennis on grass and hated whoever first dreamed it up, it was showcased yet more as her diplomatic response was belied by the festival of pained facial expressions and rolled eyes that accompanied it.
Serving two games from defeat against the relatively harmless Madison Keys, she finally had enough. Her breaking point was broke. Out came a stream of her typically baritone and croaky-voiced yells to no one in particular, all in her native Serbian. One of the trillions of older people lined up around the court sensed a moment of humor, responded with a loudly-voiced mock agreement “Yeah, for sure!” As a smattering of laughter erupted from those within earshot of it all, Jankovic turned on her heel and, while leering in the vague direction of the offending fan she roared back with at full capacity of her lungs. “Yeah, for sure…what?”
The testiness was only beginning. As Jankovic departed from the court, stomping flat all that encountered the soles of her feet as she crossed Eastbourne’s blissfully vast grounds, fans and practising players alike turned as she yelled blue murder in more, furiously deep and croaky Serbian to her brother. Sensing their opportunity to bag one of those autographs, two girls would follow in a single-minded pursuit of her. The first, after chasing for a while and demandingly staring at the back of her head in hope that the star would pivot and sign, eventually had the sense to rapidly move away and duck for. The second, however, wasn’t so wise. After fighting for the Serb’s attention and failing misery, she turned and sobbed herself dry.
The grumpiest of all, though, wasn’t particularly grumpy this time. Victoria Azarenka was a tight 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 loser to the all-bamboozling power of Camila Giorgi. The paradox of Camila is that she is so softly-spoken, so quiet and so small yet on the court she explodes into the most aggressive being known to mankind. She doesn’t attack balls, she attempts to transfigure them into fluffy nothingness through screaming force. Her crazy father, with the now trademark gray and long locks that may or may not be uncombed and unwashed since leaving the womb, provides the final contrast.
But after the loss, Azarenka was fairly upbeat at her intensity and focus and the fact that she had pieced together some form of matchplay after so long off. Even in this unaffected state, however, she still managed to notch up some friction as a fairly standard and beige question was met with the rasping response of “that’s a very silly question”. The rest of her answer was matter-of-fact and regular, and it was almost as if she was oblivious to her typical friction-creating.
The men carry such low profiles in Eastbourne that it is sometimes easy to forget that they even exist there, but they had their moments too. Gilles Simon was so comically inept on a doubles court, crashing and burning before the public’s eyes – but not before bunting his partner, Cristopher Kas, with a return. There came also the amusingly sad sight of Andrey Kuznetsov, who lost early in the day then resurfaced later on the practice court with a crater-sized box of balls, four empty cans and abjectly alone. He placed down the four cans on the four corners of the boxes before proceeding to sorrowfully aim and fire serve after serve at them. Not a soul came to watch, coach or encourage him, and he eventually loaded the balls back into his box and walked off completely alone. It must have been a terrible serving day.
In the end, though, it was Madison Keys who stole the show after effortlessly punching out Jelena Jankovic. Her conferences stand as reaffirmation that the real value is in being there and the bare transcripts sometimes provided offer little in the way of underlining how and why something is uttered. For Madison’s part, it rarely projects in print but in press she’s serves endless charm even with the most standard of answers. Unlike other players, she doesn’t take herself seriously and allows the sarcasm and self-deprecating humor to show. There were good answers and there were great answers, but the best came as the subject turned to the, until recently, alien sport of soccer. Quickly, she summed up the thought process of the entirety of America in one, succinct answer.
“This week is the first time I have watched a full football game,” she said. “And I still am not a huge fan, but I’m getting more and more into it as the World Cup goes on. There is a couple of times where I just don’t understand what’s going on. I’m just like, Wait, why does he have a free kick? Why is the other guy rolling on the ground? No one touched him.”
Soon after, she could be seen marching out of the news conference with a newly minted spring in her step. A good day on and off the court.
Tumaini Carayol is covering the Aegon International for Tennis Panorama News. He is a freelance tennis writer for various publications, and also writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault. Follow his tournament updates on twitter @TennisNewsTPN.