8/5/2009 12:00:00 AM
LaRosa's Sweet Spot Main Page
Aug 5, 2009
"Why can't we be friends?
Why can't we be friends?
Why can't we be friends?
Why can't we be friends?"
It may be the little 13-year-old girl inside me, but I'm obsessed with friendship. I want to believe that all my favorite players meet up after a hard day's play, pop open some beers (I'm a progressive 13-year-old girl) and play poker and braid each other's hair all night long. So imagine my shock and horror when Ana Ivanovic told the Daily Mail last month there were "no real friendships on tour." What? I had to investigate.
I caught up with several WTA-ers at the L.A. Women's Tennis Championships in Carson, where former champ Ivanovic is also in the draw. I had to know. Did they agree with her sentiment?
How do you like my serve, friend?
"Of course it's very difficult," says Vera Zvonareva. "Each of us, we have our own schedule. I like to practice at that time, then I need to get treatment, then I need to do some fitness, then I need to do another practice, then I need to prepare myself for the match... You really don't have time to make friends." Not that the Russian is a loner. "There are a couple players I'm more close with, but you can't be close with everybody."
Some players make the time. "I think it's possible," Agnieszka Radwanska contends. "Caroline Wozniacki is one of my best friends. It depends on the person. Some people say, 'yeah, we're opponents all the time.' I think this is kind of crazy. That's too much pressure."
"Of course some players, they like to be alone and not talk to anybody," says Dominika Cibulkova. But she's not one of them. "I'm pretty friendly. I like to talk a lot."
That kind of camaraderie is necessary, Radwanska believes. Especially on a tour that travels the world 14 months a year. "It's better to have some relationships with the girls. You need friends."
Caroline Wozniacki agrees. "It's about enjoying when you're playing and not being cut out of everything. I think it can be pretty lonely if you don't have [them]." Among the Dane's closest friends are the Radwanska sisters, Victoria Azarenka and Sorana Cirstea.
"I had a birthday party in Coppenhagen July 11," says Wozniacki. "I had some of the players from the tour come over and celebrate with me."
Of course, the big roadblock to having real friends on tour is being able to negotiate that relationship when you get on the court. At the end of the day, you're there to win. It's something they all agree can be tricky. After all, it felled even the greatest of champions, driving a wedge between famed friends Navratilova and Evert at the height of their rivalry with the advent of "Kill Chris."
"Sometimes it's really tough," says Cibulkova. "Like at Roland Garros, I played against Agnes Szavay to go into the quarterfinals. We're great friends, and to be against her on this very important match, it was tough. But I handled it. At first she was pissed. We didn't actually look for each other in the locker room. A few days after she was fine, she said well done."
"It makes it a bit difficult sometimes on the court because you're still the same person," says Zvonareva. "You're not a machine. But you learn how to put it away."
It's that inability to separate the professional from the personal that motivated Ivanovic's original statement. One she stands by. "Obviously there are friends [on tour]," Ivanovic elaborates for the Sweet Spot. "You chat with all the girls here. [But] it's very hard to build a close friendship. A friendship that would last after a tennis career. It's very hard because of [that] competition."
Lest we think this is all just a chick thing, Marat Safin chimed in last week declaring the ATP tour too is full of loners in the locker room. "Nobody is friends with anybody," said Safin. "Everyone travels with his group, there is no more friendship like when I could hang out with [Patrick] Rafter or [Mark] Philippoussis. I don't have any friends on the tour."
The Russian put it more in a context of dollars and cents. "Tennis is now just a huge business, and everyone is hungry for money."
That might just be the manly way of spinning it. In the dog eat dog world of professional tennis, you eat what you kill. The hungrier you are for that big meal, the nastier you can get. And in today's game, that meal is worth millions.
Radwanska doesn't see a problem. "It's different if it's playing my sister [Urszula], that's different. But if I play Caroline, after tomorrow it'll be normal." She may put that to the test this week, with both women lurking in the same quarter in Carson. But first, Wozniacki needs to get past her other BFF, Sorana Cirstea, in tonight's match.
Let's keep it friendly.
P.S. Inspired by my awesomely bad tennis sites column from a few weeks back, I bit the bullet and have joined Justin Gimelstob and Serena Williams on Twitter. If you need a 140-character dose of the Sweet Spot and you can't wait till Wednesday, have I got a twit for you. Follow me at www.twitter.com/JamesLaRosa. It should be a trainwreck.