Laborious Fruit

Munich, Second Round

Inspired by a boisterous local crowd and the jauntily tilted BMW presiding over Munich’s Centre Court, Florian Mayer’s recovery from a set down against Marinko Matosevic kicked off a fine day for the German men. Later on Daniel Brands would conclude the day’s play with an aggressive third set dismissal of Gael Monfils. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)However, the most anticipated match on the ticket was undoubtedly the second one, between Tommy Haas and Ernests Gulbis. I confess I was excited.

Unfortunately, rain intervened. There didn’t seem to be an English-language stream available, and my choices were otherwise limited to Italian or nothing. I selected the former, and was intrigued to learn that the Italian term for ‘rain delay’ is actually ‘rain delay’. I can attest that Italy does experience rainfall, and that it certainly experiences delays, and that these two phenomena can sometimes converge. Nevertheless, there it was: a rapid and mellifluous torrent of Italian was momentarily impeded by the awkward phrase ‘rain delay’.

Anyway, with time to kill I opted to catch up on some reading, trusting that I’d recognise the Italian phrase for ‘play is resuming’ when I heard it, especially if they said it in English. Foolishly, the reading I opted to catch up on was related to tennis. Specifically: tennis writing, for which, like bad tennis commentary, I maintain a morbid fascination. If nothing else, it confirmed my belief that there is a long article begging to be written about the poor state of tennis writing, and firmed my resolve that I might be the one to write it. One day, perhaps.

I sometimes wonder whether there’s a conspiracy of tolerance among professional tennis writers. It is, after all, difficult to tell a colleague that his or her work is appalling. Some of it really is terrible. However, even in this field it’s rare to encounter prose that manages to be bad in every direction at once. What do other tennis writers say when one among their number produces prose so poor it defies belief? Do they merely shuffle their feet and compliment the writer on his fine choice of font? For example, try this opening:

‘The weeks in between the Australian Open and Indian Wells/Miami are funny ones because there is no clear ending point other than the beginning of the clay court swing, unless you consider the these two American Masters Series to be min-Slams.’

To deride writing like this as amateurish is to insult amateurs, even those who’ve yet to graduate high school. The typos are a serious issue in and of themselves: ‘consider the these’, ‘min-Slams’. Bear in mind that this is the opening sentence, and that first impressions count. Out of the whole piece this is the sentence that matters the most. I’m not sure which explanation is more acceptable: that the writer didn’t proofread his opening before publishing it, or that he did but simply didn’t notice the errors. The first possibility suggests a disdain for standards of professional writing that borders on contempt, with the tacit implication that the readership isn’t worth his trouble. The second possibility is probably more disturbing. Despite his best efforts, this is the best he could manage.

However, even with the typos removed this sentence remains almost unsalvageable, due to its flaccid cadences and near-perfect ignorance of metre. I fear there is no cure for a tin ear. The rest of the piece is no better, and often fails to ascend even to these stylistic valleys. I’ll leave a full analysis for another time. For now I’ll just say it remains a touchstone for truly bad writing.

During the ‘rain delay’ I came across an article about Grigor Dimitrov that ran it close, written by James Masters on the CNN website. There were some inevitable factual inaccuracies – Dimitrov didn’t win Brisbane in January; he was runner-up – but these don’t interest me as much as the prose itself. Whereas many tennis writers are content merely to muddle the basics, Masters is clearly an aspiring stylist, with a special gift for untrammelled metaphor.

His article is entitled: ‘’Baby Federer’ tag weighs on tennis star’s shoulders.’ Often the headline isn’t composed by the writer of the article, but in this case it matches the style of the main body so perfectly that I cannot believe Masters didn’t devise it himself. What kind of tag is he talking about? How much does it weigh, and why would a tennis player wear it on his shoulders? Is it like a mantle?

That Dimitrov’s shoulders wouldn’t be able to support a tag becomes even more confusing upon reading the opening sentence: ‘Built like a wrestler, when Grigor Dimitrov says “don’t call me baby,” you’d be advised to listen.’ That must be some tag, to so encumber a wrestler. Then again, having watched Dimitrov from close range several times, I’d say it’s debatable whether he is actually built like a wrestler, although there are conceivably obscure versions of wrestling that stipulate the proponents must be whippet-thin.

I discussed this opening with a friend, who also happens to be a tennis writer. Her first response was to ask whether wrestlers really do insist on not being called ‘baby’. She thought it more appropriate to Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. I couldn’t help but agree, and realised that despite being the key word in the article’s opening clause, wrestlers weren’t integral to the piece at all. Indeed, no further reference to wrestlers or wrestling proved extant. I presume the point was that Dimitrov, like Jennifer Grey, doesn’t like being called ‘baby’, accompanied by a vague implication that he’ll beat you up if you keep on with it. A less gifted writer might have simply said that, but Mr Masters is no ordinary writer. In any case, CNN clearly doesn’t care what Dimitrov likes or dislikes. Immediately above that opening line is an embedded video clip entitled ‘Can ‘Baby Federer’ become a champion?’

It only got better. Sample this marvellous line from a bit further on: ‘A full-blooded display against the undisputed king of the surface was eventually curtailed by defeat in three sets, but the fruits of his labor were bared for all to see.’ As a devotee of bad writing, I wouldn’t miss that final image for the world, even as I blushingly averted my gaze from Dimitrov’s scandalously bared fruits, especially while they were fully engorged with blood. The article’s remainder was heavily bulked out with quotes by Dimitrov himself. It turned out he actually had very little to say about the ‘Baby Federer’ tag, despite his ongoing struggles beneath its crippling weight.

Thankfully by this time my Italian commentators had reliably informed me that Haas and Gulbis had finally made it onto court. (As far as I could tell, there had been no recourse to purloined English phrases.) The two players immediately set about demonstrating that in this digital age the true story of tennis is told not in words, but on court, and that when allowed to the sport says nearly everything that needs to be said. Haas eventually won, exciting the reduced crowd with his shotmaking, athleticism and multiple shirt-changes. Sadly the fruits of his labours remained modestly concealed. It was, as I said, a fine day for the Germans. There are now four of them in the quarterfinals.


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