The era of the lone tennis gladiator is over – it's now a team sport

The champion is now a vivid composite of other people’s time and expertise.

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Thirty Wimbledons ago, Pat Cash celebrated his title win over Ivan Lendl by jumping into the stands and weaving among the sunhats and applause towards his supporters. His pioneering scramble into the player’s box was a Wimbledon first. It was astonishing at the time, a kind of athletic breaking of the fourth wall. The singles tennis player is a historically lonesome operator, partitioned from friends and foes alike, and within minutes Cash had transformed from solitary volleyer into tactile pack animal.

Over the past decade, this old aura of solitude has been steadily dimming. The tennis court has often been likened to a gladiatorial arena, but we seem to have had enough of the gladiator’s self-absorbed glory. At the Miami Open this year, Roger Federer beat Rafael Nadal to win the tournament, and during the trophy ceremony they both congratulated each other’s teams. The champion is now a vivid composite of other people’s time and expertise.

If I think of the old-school players’ box, I think of Heidi Graf, mother to Steffi, sitting impassively with a cardigan around her shoulders, smoking. “She’ll get through a pack today,” the overly familiar commentator Bud Collins once said of her, which was generally the extent of the attention given to peripheral figures. Now the box is packed with squads of men in wraparound sunglasses and with a low threshold for standing ovations.

The very idea of “The Team” mesmerises today’s tennis pundits, especially since the emergence of the “super-coach” tag, awarded when a former champion works with a current top player. See Lendl and Andy Murray, Boris Becker and Novak Djokovic, Stefan Edberg and Federer. The inner thoughts and turmoil of the super-coach are often speculated upon as critical elements of a match’s psychodrama.

This prominence of the modern coach is a new phenomenon. In the 1980s, when individualism warped into grotesque economic shapes, tennis was likewise sceptical of collective efforts. When Martina Navratilova began to work with her trainer Nancy Lieberman and coach Renee Richards in 1981, journalists referred to “Team Navratilova” as though it were almost a sinister idea. In her 1985 autobiography, Navratilova wrote about how Roland Jaeger, the father of one of her frequent opponents, “was convinced we had some huge supernatural edge over his daughter, Andrea”. After Jaeger lost to Navratilova in the 1982 French Open final, she told the press: “It’s difficult to be playing three people at once.”

While ever-intensifying professionalisation has heightened our awareness of a player’s support group, a more profound influence has been the digital revolution’s shift in priorities. The tennis-gladiator has been slowly slayed by the growing traction of online culture, which conceives of an ­individual as a constantly connected being, a node in a network. The kind of solipsistic charisma that often surrounds great tennis champions is increasingly incompatible in a world where identity is constituted of whom we follow and who follows us.

The women’s tennis tour first allowed players to consult their coaches during matches in 2008, the year when Facebook’s monthly users rose to 145 million, up from 58 million the previous year. In that period, when social media became truly mainstream, the once-sealed space of the women’s tennis court was also being linked to the outside world. Since then, the outside world has done a reverse-Cash and come rushing on to the court.

What’s more, the digital revolution’s keenness for cameras has given the behind-the-scenes perspective a paradoxical centrality. When I was a teenager in the 1990s, the drama framing the on-court excitement was built out of silences and obscurity. I loved watching the peak of Monica Seles’s baseball cap bobbing as she shook her opponent’s hand and exchanged unheard words. In early-round matches, when on-court interviews were rare, this gracious act would be one of the few post-match gestures her fans would get before she disappeared around a corner or into a tunnel. For Seles super-fans like me, such quiet vanishings, when she lost, were abuzz with pathos and upset. It was the unseen, undocumented moments that held all the emotional power.

These may be outdated thrills. Today, cameras follow the players off-court and through shady corridors, the winners falling into a circle of high-fives and whooping. On the official Roland-Garros website you can browse “locker room” video clips. Everything, it seems, must now march to the beat of social media’s exhibitionism. Watch along as Stan Wawrinka closes his surprisingly small locker, fist-bumping his coach and heading for the stadium. Or see the French player Caroline Garcia get a cuddle from her team-mate while standing in front of a wall-mounted television; on the screen, Andy Murray stretches his legs, a behind-the-scenes behind-the-scenes.

In this world of banal, un-narrated footage, what happens next won’t amaze you, as the clickbait teaser goes, but the assumption is that it will rivet you. This syndication of the tennis champ reflects how digital culture invites us to experience other people as demystified and diffused, with their populated private lives made public.

Djokovic is always eager to talk about “my team”. And when he lost in the quarter-finals of this year’s French Open to Dominic Thiem, failing to win a game in the last set, he was worried that his new super-coach, Andre Agassi, would be tarnished by association. He had only been working with Agassi for a week but Djokovic felt the burden of the team spirit dominating these times. Out of chivalry, he briefly became the lone knight of yore. “Don’t put Andre in the midst of this,” he told reporters. “This final set, of course, that’s all me.” 

This article appears in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague