tennis and twitter

Lucky 7: Elena Vesnina Finally Gets Her Moment in Hobart

By David Kane

The first time I ever saw Elena Vesnina, she was far from a WTA Tour final. She was 19 and playing in US Open qualifying. I was drawn away from whatever match my family was watching to see her fight off a game opponent with a fiery determination that had clearly ingratiated itself with the small but lively Court 14 crowd.

Not long after, Vesnina became a steady top 100 player, peaking close to the top 20 in 2009. Rarely bringing her best at the Slams, the Russian has been known to sporadically catch fire at Tour events, causing minor but contextually notable upsets and taking that good form all the way to the final.

Here is where the strange tale of Elena Vesnina truly begins.

One look at her resumé and it is clear that Vesnina’s has been a career defined by missed opportunities. In the last four years, the 26 year old reached six Slam finals (three in doubles, three in mixed) and lost all six. The trend was similar in singles, albeit on a smaller scale. The word (quickly the joke) on Vesnina centered on her inability to seal the deal, that she could not win a final to save her life.

Such a reputation seems unfair. Indeed, a team loses together when they play doubles, but more often than not, Vesnina proved the steadier while her partner appeared bent on blowing the entire operation. No better example exists than the time when she had to dry the tears of partner Vera Zvonareva during a Wimbledon doubles final in 2010.

She was equally unsuccessful in singles, but a closer look reminds the reader that it was not as if she was losing to scrubs. In two finals, she had the misfortune of playing Caroline Wozniacki. Another saw her runner-up to Elena Dementieva. Most recently, she reached the final of a clay event in Budapest, only to lose to Sara Errani, who would reach the French Open final a few weeks later.

While she may never be the best closer, Vesnina cannot be accused of facing unworthy opponents.

This made today’s Hobart final all the more pressure-filled. On another hot streak, Vesnina had taken out No. 4 seed Yaroslava Shvedova and an in-form No. 8 seed Sloane Stephens en route to her seventh final, where she faced defending champion Mona Barthel. The German has a game akin to a minefield; at any moment, she is capable of unloading screaming winners from either side, flustering helpless opponents in the process. Barthel impressed many in 2012, but she almost certainly lacks the consistency of a Wozniacki or a Dementieva.

This was a final Elena Vesnina had a reasonable chance of winning, and she knew it.

Throughout the match, Vesnina was constantly pumping herself up, shouting “Otlichno!” (Russian for “Excellent!”) as often as she could. In her defense, she had good reason to, as she was playing as well as I had ever seen her play. In a bizarre switch from that which was expected, Vesnina was dominating Barthel from the back of the court one minute, and throwing in viciously effective dropshots to expose the German’s poor movement the next.

The Vesnina of the alleged “fragile psyche” was nowhere to be found today in Tasmania; when she fell behind an early break in the second set, she immediately broke back. Despite squandering break points for a lead of her own, she remained focused on serve and waited for her opportunity. Against the erratic Barthel, that opportunity came when the German served at 4-5, 30-40. On the first championship point of her singles career, Vesnina played smart, keeping the ball deep and eventually drawing the error from her big hitting opponent.

As emotional in victory as she had been stoic in defeat, Vesnina sunk to her knees and looked like a young woman reborn. The good vibrations were felt across the Twittersphere; everyone seemed glad that the Russian’s Susan Lucci-esque streak of losses had come to close. No one, however was more happy than Vesnina herself:

After years of playing second fiddle, a very deserving Elena Vesnina finally got to have her moment.

The Twitter Echo Chamber or, “How Donna Vekic Became My BFF”

By David Kane

In real life, we don’t (or at least try not to) loudly reference someone when they are within earshot of you. As children, we were taught that such a practice was as impolite as pointing.

So why do we do it on Twitter?

Obviously, talking about a sport requires referencing its athletes, but when opining in real life, we are free from worry over whether the athletes in question can hear you. With that sense of security, we speak frankly: what they are doing right, wrong, their recent results and why would they get that haircut?

This almost always good-natured chatter has seamlessly transitioned onto social media. The practice of “live-tweeting” matches can drum up thousands of point-by-point reactions with commentary that can have as many violent swings as a match’s momentum allows. But there is one problem: among the inhabitants in the big cafeteria known as Twitter can easily be that athlete with the bad haircut. Whether they choose to listen or not, how easily do we forget their ability to hear.

Think that because you aren’t one of the foolhardy souls to use a player’s Twitter handle when referencing them directly, this warning doesn’t apply to you?

Think again.

Every word you tweet can be pulled up via Twitter’s cartoonishly simple search engine. Whether they have a Twitter account or not, players need only search their surnames to open the proverbial Pandora’s box of opinions, positive or negative, about them posted by fans, journalists, and in the rarest of cases, other players.

But I do not mean to write a cautionary tale.

Instead, I would like to point to a case of successful player marketing. When players become known by only one name (the Vikas, Serenas and Carolines of the world), they make the awkward transition from person to brand. With images to maintain and sponsors to please, they do not use social networks in the same way as those who follow their accounts, and as a result the “social” aspect of “social networking” can get lost in the shuffle.

Enter Donna Vekic.

Despite her many sponsors and for all of the strides made in her debut year on the WTA Tour, the young Croatian is not yet a one-named celebrity. At least for now, fans have the privilege of interacting with Donna the person instead of being updated by Donna the brand. Frequently uploading photos and tweeting with a general joie de vivre, @DonnaVekic is a highly recommended add to your “following” list.

When one follows another person, he or she becomes privy to details of the person’s life that they deem relevant. But real people, especially real professional athletes, can start to wonder what people are saying about them. And when you, the fan, tweet something (however innocently) about a real person, you run the risk of getting a real response. Such was the case when I tweeted rather absent-mindedly about Ms. Vekic two weeks ago:

I will not recant that statement, because at the time it was true. I do not follow many players for the reasons I outlined above; I would rather fill my timeline with fan commentary and links to pertinent articles than engage in the world of tennis twitter celebrity.

I was not, however, prepared for Ms. Vekic’s response:

For all this winding prose, we have reached the crux of my argument. With one tweet from one person to another, a tennis player gained a lifelong fan. Therein lies the beauty of social media; all tweets are not created equal, and a tweet from a direct link to a sport fans devote their lives to can breed nothing if not good vibrations. A player with hundreds of thousands of followers may not feel obligated (or even allowed) to interact with others as if they themselves were real people, yet a personal tweet is truly the cheapest PR one can think of. No lengthy autograph session or trans-Atlantic exhibition necessary.

To be clear, tennis players do not owe anything to fans; this is not a call for professional athletes to take to social media and perform for our amusement. But it cannot be denied that the relationship between player and fan does have a certain symbiosis. If fans felt there was nothing to get invested in, then the sport would not grow, and nothing can endear a fan to a player more than a player breaking the fourth wall. Why else do we tune in to these off-season exhibitions? We like watching our favorite players, these superhuman athletes, acting silly and like, for lack of a better phrase, they are just like us after all.

So to fans, remember that players can hear you. To players, know that fans love to hear from you. As for me, I’ll be tweeting my BFF:

Twitter: A tennis fan’s oasis

By David Kane

Tennis is unique in that it completely lacks the often fraternal team aspect so prevalent in nearly every other popular. One may have their favorite baseball or football player, yet fans of those sports ultimately support the team as a collective entity. When singles players take the court, they do so alone; in doubles, the pairings are typically too heterogeneous for one to look at the two players as a “team,” matching outfits aside. If players take the court alone, then fans take their seats in the stands or in front of their televisions to support them alone.

In tennis, unbreakable bonds can be formed between fan and player, ones that are much more personal than those found in other sports. Fans are knowledgeable about every aspect of their players’ lives, off-court activities, even the outfits they plan to wear next spring as early as last summer. Social media strengthens this connection, as fans can literally “follow” a player around the world, waiting for a new 140-character-or-less update on baited breath. Truly, this bond heightens all the senses that come with athletic fandom. It makes the victories sweeter, and the defeats more painful.

When those defeats invariably occur, it is only human nature for the fan to look for someone to blame. Barring a cataclysmic injury, how could fans ever point the finger at their player? They have watched their practices, stayed up to ungodly hours to watch them play early rounds a world away. They have conferred with the opinions of analysts and journalists, all of whom agreed that victory was assured. Then how did they lose? They can do no wrong. With nowhere else to look but across the net, fans usually place the heavy burden of blame on the unlucky soul who beat their guy or girl.

If a fan’s favorite player is infallible, then the opposite is true of a player that fan dislikes. Observed under equal scrutiny as a favorite, a disliked player can do nothing right, least of all win tennis matches. Their shrieks become more piercing, their fist-pumps become more obnoxious, and their attempts at humor only seem to bely their cruel, calculated nature. They even seem to lose matches when fans don’t want them too. Indeed, the hierarchies of a fan’s favorite and least favorite players can be as rigid as a caste system.

These extreme opinions of people fans don’t actually know were all well and good in the comfort of home (or locked inside the mind) until social media arrived and everyone jumped into the same proverbial ball pit. On twitter, Sharapova fans are suddenly confronted with her “haters,” fans who actively campaign to “save the grunt” are forced to resist the urge to enter typographical combat with those who think all on-court noise ought to be abolished. Sometimes, a fan’s opinion of a player can be completely influenced by his or her fan group (for better or worse).

One would be shocked, then, to see the apparent symbiosis that occurs on nearly every tennis fan’s Twitter timeline. It goes without saying that a tennis fan cannot join Twitter and expect an echo chamber of like-minded fans. The lines between fandoms are instead blurred as Sharapova fans follow Azarenka fans, Kvitova fans follow Wozniacki fans, and everyone follows at least twenty Ivanovic fans (in sheer numbers, Ana Ivanovic is the tennis twitter equivalent to Justin Bieber). The bonds tennis fans have formed with each other is arguably as strong as the bonds they’ve already formed with their favorite players. The average Serena Williams fan can expect congratulatory tweets when she wins, and condolences when she loses. Despite often strict party allegiances, tennis fans have realized that, no matter the player, they as fans have all experienced the same emotions at one moment or another. The only thing that differs is the player for whom the emotions are felt.

This is not to say that feelings aren’t sometimes hurt, the #equalprizemoney debate can grate, and that unless you’re a fan, logging off is encouraged during Novak Djokovic matches. But by and large, social media (Twitter in particular) does so much to unite tennis fans around the world, share information at lightning-fast speed and, most importantly, give what sometimes feels like a live-or-die tennis match some much needed perspective.