Photographs: Getty Images
Over the last 40 years or so, tennis has been littered with some nice, some bland, but mostly loved and respected guys at the pinnacle… Edberg, Becker, Sampras, Agassi, Courier, Kuerten, Roger, Rafa, and so on.
But let’s go back exactly 40 years. The year is 1982. Tennis found itself in a golden age of players and characters. Take a look at the top three men's players in the rankings.
At various times over the following couple of years, three men stood atop the table. You might’ve heard of them: John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl. Three of the best, but also, three of the most divisive athletes to play tennis. Temper tantrums on, and sometimes off the court, brash personalities, aloof personalities.
That trio of champions certainly didn’t endear themselves to everyone, yet who can argue that they didn’t also do a heck of a lot of good for our sport?
One can only imagine how ‘Tennis Twitter’ would’ve reacted during their time, had social media been around in 1982.
Ironically, it was in fact Twitter that inspired this piece. Believe it or not, it can be a wonderful space for tennis analysis, match results, news, etc. However, scrolling through the endless tweets, replies, retweets, and opinions, it struck me…
Occupying those same three positions 40 years on, are, Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, and Alexander Zverev. We seem to have come a full circle, and in more recent times, slowly morphed from ‘The Big Three’ dynasty, into ‘The Divisive Three’. The questions I pose are….Is our current trio, a more disliked top three than McEnroe, Connors, Lendl? How did we get here? Is the negativity warranted? Is it good or bad for tennis?
Let’s start with Novak. He has forever divided opinion in the tennis universe, even before recent years. The early knock on him, was that he would retire from matches regularly, or fake injuries during a match. Right or wrong, I’m not sure, but interestingly, he has lost a professional match through retirement, walkover, or default, 15 times…the exact same amount Nadal has.
He has also had the perception of craving the same adoration from the public that Roger and Rafa receive. Whether there’s truth in that or not, only Novak could tell us. But generally, in the pre-pandemic era, he remained respected, and legitimately well liked. You could say he was just unlucky to be on the receiving end of the ‘Fedal’ fans.
Yet now, in 2022, much of that respect has dissipated, and he now divides opinion more than ever. It’s fair to say his downfall started towards the beginning of the pandemic, when he felt it was appropriate to organise the Adria tennis tour, across cities in the Adriatic region. While the rest of the world was locking down, and cancelling sports, Novak was packing the crowds in for exhibition matches. It clearly didn’t end well, with a number of players, including himself, contracting Covid, and the negative publicity severely damaging his brand.
Only a few months on from this, he was defaulted from the US Open after striking a lineswoman with a tennis ball. No doubt an accident, but more negative fodder for the tennis public.
Finally, his refusal to receive the Covid vaccination, and the mess that ensued as he attempted to enter Australia, was the final straw for a lot of people. Novak had officially lost the respect and popularity of the wider public.
Moving onto Daniil Medvedev, we find probably the most unorthodox looking technique, and a personality to match that style.
The negativity around him probably stems back further than the 2019 US Open, but there’s no doubt, Arthur Ashe Stadium was where it was pushed into sharper focus. Daniil displayed some petulance on court, such as snatching a towel from a ball boy, and responding to the crowd’s booing with the middle finger. During his on-court interview, he taunted the crowd to keep booing him, as it would help him play better, which, credit to him, it seemed to.
We also saw in Australia, the public took a real dislike to some of his behaviour, and were relentless in their jeering. The fact that Daniil is happy to call it out, and is refreshingly honest in his on-court interviews and press conferences, tends to just stir up the hornet’s nest.
The sad thing is, it clearly affected him mentality, and admitted as much at the end of the tournament. Personally, I like Daniil, and think, while certain elements of his behaviour may cross the line, he is honest, has a sense of humour, and is probably a little hard done by sometimes.
The last member of ‘The Divisive Three’, is the German, Alexander Zverev. While he burst on the scene at a young age, he was never fully able to capture the adoration one might’ve expected. Part of this, was the perception that he was arrogant early on in his career. To me, that is simply an opinion formed from afar, and not a major motivation to form a negative perception of him.
However, the real hate commenced in 2019, when allegations of domestic abuse were fired at him from his ex-girlfriend. While no official charges have been laid, mud sticks, and Zverev has borne the brunt of social media abuse over the last couple of years. Zverev has never really come out and addressed the issue in any detail, but nor does he have to. The ATP is still investigating, and until Alexander is officially cleared, which will likely never happen, there is a dark cloud that will continue to hang over him.
Earlier this year, at the Mexican Open, Zverev verbally abused an umpire at the end of a doubles match, and then smashed his racket on the umpire chair, just centimetres from his legs, in a calculated, and intimidating attack. While a large section of the tennis community was calling for him to be banned for a period of time, he was handed just a suspended sentence, further infuriating the tennis public.
Obviously, all three of these men have their passionate fans. The players are not universally hated. However, they are quite clearly, very divisive for a lot of people, and despised by others.
When you compare our current ‘Divisive Three’, to the ‘Big Three’ of yesteryear, there is a stark difference in popularity. But what of the comparison to the ‘Divisive Three, circa 1982’? It’s pure speculation and guesswork of course, but in my opinion, from what I have read, and heard, it’s a neck and neck call as to which trio would face more Twitter hate. If I had to jump off the fence, I’d go with the older brigade to win by a nose.
I tend to think in this day and age, the hate gets heightened, because every move, argument, and racket throw, is captured on camera. Back in the eighties, most people only saw a handful of matches on TV per year.
The other question I posed was, is it good for tennis to have such polarising figures at the top of our sport? I think all three players have completely different reasons for the public not warming to them, meaning it’s hard to throw them all in the same basket. But having anti-heroes can often be a good thing to create rivalries. Plus, a little controversy in the sport isn’t always a bad thing.
After all, how often do you watch a match between two players, where you have no allegiances, and really don’t mind who wins? For me, that is 90% of tennis matches.
It’s always far more exciting to cheer for the good guy. But to do that, you need a villain, and that is where Novak, Daniil, and Alexander have taken their place at the tennis table, just as those that came 40 years before them did.
As a footnote, if you’re in doubt as to the level of divisiveness these current players create, just jump on Twitter during one of their matches. It’s entertainment in its own right!