When James Haskell, the former England bruiser, announced recently he was swapping the rugby pitch for the MMA octagon, he explained that an inspiration for the switch was Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. “I was only thinking during Wimbledon that I wonder what it’s like to be an individual sportsman at the highest level,” he said, “when you have to look after yourself and don’t have teammates to fall back on.”
It’s true, a court can be a lonely place. Which is probably why the top players all speak so highly of the teams behind them. No victory speech is complete without thanks for the coach, physiotherapist, psychologist, chef, stringer, clothing sponsor and a respectful genuflection to their opponent’s counterparts. The TV cameras have picked up on these relationships to ramp up the drama. An Andy Murray winner is followed inevitably by a cutaway to his wife, Kim, fist pumping or his mum, Judy, grinding her teeth and looking steely.
At the US Open, there is an extra razzle-dazzle to the players’ boxes. Naomi Osaka was watched last week by Kobe Bryant and Colin Kaepernick. “It’s really cool,” she said after beating Magda Linette in the second round. “But, honestly, I really wanted to finish as fast as possible because I didn’t want them to stay in the sun too long.”
In perhaps the most exciting personal development for Johanna Konta since she took ownership of Bono, what the Sun calls “a German dog” – it’s a dachshund (a popular breed in Britain since Queen Victoria’s day) – she was watched in New York twice this year by the actor Tom Hiddleston.
The pair met, apparently, in the street just a few days before. Konta said: “I did the Good Samaritan thing and said: ‘Don’t bother him, he’s obviously busy.’ And then he said: ‘I don’t usually do this but I’m a massive fan,’ and I was like: ‘What, who?’ It was basically that and then we got chatting and he’s super nice.”
The players’ box is so integral to tennis that I am dangerously close to being able to tell Federer’s identical twin sons, Lenny and Leo, apart. It’s so established as part of the sport that sometimes you forget how weird it is. When Harry Kane misses a penalty, the cameras don’t pan to his wife, Katie Goodland, for her distraught reaction. When Anthony Joshua is dumped on his backside, you don’t get to see his mum wincing.
It’s not always been ingrained in tennis, either. When John McEnroe and Björn Borg waged their famous fourth-set tie-break in 1980, viewers would not have had a clue who their girlfriends or even their coaches were. We had no idea that McEnroe was hanging out with Jack Nicholson and the Rolling Stones off-court or that he would skip the Champions’ Dinner after his win in 1981 to go on a bender with the Pretenders. The action, what we could glean of their contrasting personalities, was enough.
A shift seems to have taken place in the mid-1980s, and McEnroe was partly responsible. He started dating the actor Tatum O’Neal in 1984, they married in 1986 and, as his career wound down, her presence at his matches was almost as anticipated as his meltdowns. Read More