Thanks to the digital age, fans have unprecedented access to players. I loved the sport growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s but rarely knew where my favorite players were in the world on any given day let alone whether they were trying to decide whether to eat at Chipotle or Cheesecake Factory in [insert any American city].
If I wanted to send notes of appreciation or condemnation to someone I had to, you know, actually have an envelope and a stamp. Now, all I need is an Internet connection. As I write this I can tell you that based on social media I know that Croatian phenom Donna Vekic, 16, is sitting in the Bernabeu watching Real Madrid, Jurgen Melzer is being berated with some hateful messages on Twitter after losing to Gael Monfils in Munich and Andrea Petkovic is scheduled for a 7 a.m. flight from Frankfurt to Munich on Wednesday.
This access has been a tremendous benefit to those with an insatiable appetite for even the tiniest minutiae of insight into players’ lives. As a daily tennis beat writer, the digital age has been an absolute godsend when it comes to keeping tabs on such an international sport.
Yet despite the positives I can never shake my initial shudder when I see tweets and Facebook posts that provide so much detailed information as to leave a player vulnerable. You can trace my paranoia back 20 years ago Tuesday when my innocence as it came to the social contract between fan and player — you play, we watch, we clap, we both go our separate ways — was shattered.
There were no illegal streams of tennis matches on other continents in 1993. There was no YouTube to immediately post viral video of the event and the 24-hour news cycle hadn’t morphed into the sensationalism-fed beast that it is today.
Back then I actually read newspapers. That’s how I learned that on April 30, 1993, Gunther Parche ran down from the middle of the stands and stabbed Monica Seles between the shoulder blades with a seven-inch boning knife while she sat on the bench on a changeover during her quarterfinal match against Magdalena Maleeva in Hamburg. (Video)
The fullest account I read of what happened that day in Hamburg was from Sally Jenkins in Sports Illustrated. Reading back on the piece now, one quote struck a chord:
“We’ve had threats to Monica before, and to other players as well,” said Gerard Smith, executive director of the Women’s Tennis Association. “But this is bizarre. You can’t imagine someone who would take a sport to such an absurd level.”
Really? I don’t have a hard time imagining it at all.
I remember the first tennis tournament I attended, the Pacific Life Open in 2008 at Indian Wells. Before that all I ever saw of tennis was on TV, generally just the four Slams and a few occasional American tournaments. So I had never seen just how close fans and players interact around the tournament grounds and just how close — so close — you can get to your idols.
Back then you could run up to players as they crossed from the player area to the practice field to ask for autographs. Kids would run screaming to crowd around players, thrusting their gigantic flourescent yellow tennis balls up above their heads, straining to both get a peek at Roger Federer’s tousled hair and hope for an autograph.
Taking pictures with players? Rarely a problem. They happily stop what they’re doing and sidle up to fans for an Instagrammable memory. Practice schedules were posted and again, back in 2008 there was minimal security. I remember sitting on the steps of an outer court watching Ana Ivanovic practice with no barriers holding back any fans who wanted to just walk onto the court with her.
The good news is security has indeed tightened. As Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams transcended the sport to become celebrity icons, a more robust system of background checks, bodyguards and watch lists developed. And for all the concerns about how social media can put an athlete at risk, it also has allowed players and security personnel to identify potential threats and red flag individuals.
And yet there have been security breaches since the Seles incident. Thankfully they’ve fallen on the humorous rather than horrific side of the spectrum. Wimbledon has attracted its share of streakers, such as the time a naked man ran on court during Anna Kournikova’s doubles match. Federer and Rafael Nadal have had fans come down on court mid-match, during a Slam no less, and get close enough to make physical contact.
I get absolutely livid when I see incidents like these. In a sport that has seen the most horrific attack on a star player rewrite the course of tennis history, these security breaches — again, I repeat, these are happening at the Slams — are shocking.
I still get nervous when I see adults stop players for pictures, or when fans sprint feverishly to mob players. I get nervous, my heart is in my throat, and then, when nothing happens, I exhale and smile as I hear those ecstatic fans excitedly proclaiming tennis is the best because in no other sport could you get this close to the players. And therein lies the dangerous balance tour officials and tournament organizers have tried to walk.