There are two paths you can take when you become a tennis writer.

Path A: enjoy the gravy, accept the freebies, travel the world
and never write anything that upsets anybody so that all the players
see you as a natural extension of their management team and PR outfits.
There are plenty of Path A journos around (and my favourites used to
actually wear tracksuits, presumably in the hope that they’d be
mistaken by the rest of the tennis world as true insiders, instead of
one of the heathen press.)

Path B: this is the harder
road, where you remember that you’re carrying the job description of
“journalist,” a role which means occasionally writing truths that are
unpalatable for the players, as well as reporting enthusiastically when
they’re going well.

Fairfax journo Linda Pearce has always been
solidly on Path B, whether covering tennis, AFL or her other sporting
beats. Which means she was always going to run into trouble with the
Lleyton Hewitts of the world, not to mention his entourage.

Linda was alluded to in piece in Sunday Life magazine in the Sun-Herald and Sunday Age
yesterday – a piece that Pearce wouldn’t be thrilled with, I’m tipping,
as it opened up mostly buried wounds on the eve of the Australian Open
– as the reporter who was kicked out of a Hewitt press conference in
2002.

The circumstances should be explained here. The interview
in question was not an all-in presser. Linda wasn’t led by security
from the main interview room at Wimbledon or anything like that. It was
a “by invitation” interview opportunity set up by Hewitt’s management,
and so it was that Pearce, who had dared to write the occasional piece
that was not dripping in admiration for all things Hewitt, was told
that she was not in the gang.

In one sense, this is past
history. But it is also a window on the kind of personalities and
politics in play in the bowels of Melbourne Park this week, and at a
tennis venue somewhere around the globe every week.

During
an
event, all players are obligated by the ATP Tour (men’s tour), WTA Tour
(women) or the ITF (which runs the Grand Slams) to attend press
conferences as requested. Even if a journo in that audience is writing
slanderous untruths (eg UK tabloids) or sleeping with a player’s spouse
(hey, could happen), the player would risk a major fine by not showing
up.

However, getting one-on-one interviews, or insights away
from the main press pack – a lot of whom are enjoying Path A, by the
way, and therefore are not jostling for inside stories – gets trickier.

The problem is that tennis is such a closed little biosphere,
unrelated to the wider world. Star players are (often, not always)
20-something athletes who have been told since they were roughly 8-10
years old that they are God’s gift to the world because they hit a
tennis ball so sweetly. Now at the height of their powers, stunningly
wealthy and having been told repeatedly how fantastic they are, by
everybody from coaches to parents to fans to the ever-lurking
management lackies, they usually believe it.

For every player
like the former top Australian who once pondered aloud to me whether he
was actually making the world a better place through his profession or
just entertaining folk while the real work went on elsewhere, there are
a lot of players who never question their centre-stage role in this
international sport.

They are also surrounded by “management,” whose job is to keep the player happy and wearing logos on court.

All of which comes back to the reaction you’re likely to get if you do
write something they don’t like. Write that a player really wasn’t
behaving well when he or she wrapped their racquet around a ballboy’s
head en route to a 6-1 6-0 loss and life changes. Parents, management,
etc, have been telling the player it’s okay, they just had a bad day,
everybody understands, have some Milo baby, maybe a foot massage … and
then, gasp! Out of absolutely nowhere, some reporter bags them. It’s an
outrage.

The gravy train suddenly gets awfully frosty, and
probably more so for Australian reporters as the Aussie contingent is a
tightly-packed group as it travels the world. Once the walls go up, it
can be lonely on the outside, especially when you know that your home
audience wants to know about Australian players, not the latest kid
from Venezuela, and your access has become limited.

Since that
2002 hiccup, Linda Pearce has continued to cover the tennis with
credibility and respect from just about everyone. Good on her for
remembering she’s a journo, not a lackey.

Peter Fray

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