City Paper is not for tourists
Coco Gauff wasn’t the type of student who raised her hand in class. She preferred to blend into the background and keep her thoughts to herself. But that isn’t an option in her chosen profession.
Over the past week at the Citi Open, the tennis tournament held at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center and managed by City Paper owner Mark Ein, reporters gathered for the 15-year-old’s press conferences in numbers typically associated with older, more established players. The demand from journalists to speak with Gauff, who reached Wimbledon’s fourth round this year, exceeded her available time away from the court.
“I just think it’s crazy maybe four weeks ago, not many people knew my name,” Gauff told reporters before qualifying for the main draw of the Citi Open. “But now a lot of people do.”
This is the side of tennis that fans often don’t see. Professional players on both the women’s and men’s pro tours are required to speak with reporters after each match, win or lose, if requested by the media. Both tours can fine players if they fail to do so. The amount fined, which can go up to $20,000 for the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the governing body of the men’s pro tour, and $5,000 for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), depends on the player’s ranking.
The past month has been a crash course in public speaking for Gauff, who has attended online school since the third grade. And because of the individual nature of tennis, players are thrust into the media spotlight without the benefit of having teammates by their side.
“It’s a lot of pressure. Public speaking is something you have to practice, just like they practice tennis,” says Erika Kegler, the player development director for the ATP.
Each professional tennis player handles the attention differently. Some, like 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, have learned to embrace the often relentless interview schedule. Others dread coming off the court to answer questions.
Shortly after Ivo Karlović beat defending champion Lleyton Hewitt in the first round of Wimbledon in 2003, he stepped into a packed press conference. He had previously received attention from local media in Croatia, but nothing could prepare him for what he experienced that day.
“The press conference was almost three hours,” says Karlović, who at 40 is one of the oldest active players on the ATP Tour. “It really hit me. It was hard. I was not really used to it. They didn’t know who I was. I was there beating Lleyton Hewitt, and they really wanted to know everything about it. It was tough. I was not ready. I didn’t know how to speak with them.”
“After an hour, you don’t even know what you are answering anymore,” he adds with a laugh. “It is like everything in life, you get used to it. After that, nothing was that big, so everything after was easier, then easier and easier, then you already know what’s going to be asked.”
Both the ATP and the WTA provide resources to help prepare players for the inevitable media attention.
ATP University is mandatory for players ranked in the 200s in singles or top 100 in doubles. The three-day workshop is held twice a year (at the Miami Open in March and in London in November), and teaches players about the business of the game, anti-doping and anti-corruption rules, financial management and literacy, and interacting with the media.
The WTA has Player Development programs that “promote and enhance players’ career fulfillment and well-being,” according to Amy Binder, WTA’s vice president of global communications. Players who meet certain criteria will go through media training within Player Development, where they meet with members of the WTA communications team or an outside specialist. “We show them the role of communications and the media staff, journalists, and the importance of timelines, deadlines, storylines,” Binder says.
Nick Kyrgios admits he didn’t really pay attention to the courses at ATP University. Kyrgios, 24, is arguably the most polarizing player in professional tennis, and has contentious relationships with some of his peers and members of the press.
The Australian has stated on the record that he prefers basketball to tennis and that he enjoys team sports more. After his loss to Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon this year, Kyrgios, known for his unfiltered and candid responses, had heated exchanges with journalists at his press conference. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head at questions he felt were beneath him before answering.
“Personally, I’m not really a fan and I don’t really like it,” Kyrgios says about the media obligations. “But I understand in today’s society it’s an important thing. It’s how people read about the game, attract new fans, make money, all that type of stuff. So I completely understand why it’s necessary, but to say I’m a fan of it, I’m probably not.”
Speaking to the media after losses can be particularly tough.
“I’ve walked into press conferences knowing what kind of questions are going to come at me,” says Kyrgios, who made an appearance for the Ein-owned Washington Kastles of World TeamTennis on July 27. “When you’re sitting there and you see who’s asking it, and you understand they’re only asking not because they genuinely care but because they kind of want you to bite on it and retaliate on their question, it makes you frustrated. I think the toughest part of it is have some discipline and sometimes be the bigger man and not retaliate to their question. It’s not easy. It’s not as easy as it seems to just walk in there and be good with answering all the questions.”
Young players have learned not to read articles about themselves—often the hard way.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova rose up the WTA rankings quickly as a teenager, and would feel the urge to read stories written about her. She sometimes felt her words had been misconstrued and would get “really upset.”
As a result, Pavlyuchenkova, 28, remembers that she put up a “wall” anytime she would give an interview in her native Russia. It took until her 20s before she could let her guard down.
“I just hated them,” she says. “I felt everything I was going to say, they were going to turn it around … But after, naturally it just disappeared. I’m totally chilled and open and fun to do interviews. I don’t care anymore … I realized it’s not so bad and it’s not the end of the world.”
Media interviews also allow players to reveal their personalities, especially in an individual sport like tennis. Former world No. 1 Andy Roddick, who retired in 2012, prided himself on his witty one-liners at press conferences. After losing to Federer, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2, in the semifinals of the 2007 Australian Open, a reporter told Roddick his performance in the post-match press conference was better than his on-court one.
“No shit,” Roddick replied. “If there were rankings for press conferences, I wouldn’t have to worry about dropping out of the Top 5, I hope.” (The video of interview on YouTube has over 1 million views.)
Kristina Mladenovic won’t say she enjoys doing interviews, but the 26-year-old from France doesn’t mind them. She speaks French, English, Serbian, Spanish, and Italian, and is known for her candor and giving long responses to journalists. Even at a young age, Mladenovic says she wanted to be outspoken and show her personality, which has garnered criticism in the past. She once wrote in a 2017 first-person article for Sport360 that she was disappointed her doubles partner backed out of their partnership without telling her in person. The two have since played together.
“I had many people saying, telling me you should maybe protect yourself more and give them less like content and like just sort of being boring and answer classic like most of people do so they don’t criticize you. I’m like, that’s not my personality. I’m saying nothing bad, but I like to be productive and just say what I think,” Mladenovic says of her general approach to the media. “If you have boring questions, I don’t want to be boring with answers. I try to take it like happy mood and positive.”
Federer recently told Vogue that he didn’t trust journalists in the beginning of his career. Now, after decades on tour, he accepts and even enjoys the hours-long media grind. Fellow pros, including Gauff, Pavlyuchenkova, and Mladenovic, praise his approach with the press. He appears to have fun with it.
Gauff wants to do the same.
This article has been updated to reflect Kristina Mladenovic’s current status with her doubles partner.