Wednesday, August 5, 2015

CITI OPEN PRESSER IMPRESSIONS

I always wondered why press conferences always seem to be such tense affairs - sometimes you feel like you could cut the tension with a very blunt knife, and the resulting communications (or what turns out to be the lack thereof) are often as informative as they are distinctive.  But after sitting for a press conference with Andy Murray - his first at the Citi Open (though he's been here since at least Saturday, when about 100 fans got to watch him working out with Jonas Bjorkman), I sort of get the feeling that the format has as much to do with it as the questions asked, or the answers given.

The first question was about the differences between the current, modern, $1.5M+, ATP 500 tournament, and the lower key event he played in almost 10 years ago in 2006.  A younger man then, burdened with less to concern himself with now as an imminent father, an Olympic gold medalist and a major champion, Murray immediately veered off into his appreciation for the city and the changes he had made to where he stayed.  He also mentioned that the courts had remained more or less the same, which would seem to conflict with some of the rumblings in the blogosphere about additional sand used in the composition of either the court or the paint used to adorn it, and the impact that's had on slowing down the game to a pace more palatable to the average fan for whom an ace or service winner is an anti-climax.

The second question came from a fellow blogger, who asked about his love of boxing, and before she could finish her question, he immediately offered how he enjoys watching boxing, watches a great deal of it, but curiously when he is emotionally attached to a bout (such as when he knows or has met one of the combatants) he actually finds it difficult to watch, and will frequently move away and essentially hide until the match is over, at which point he won't approach his friend until he has foreknowledge that he is, in fact, okay.  I thought that was endearing.

When the blogger had a chance to cut in, she continued by putting forward a premise that I found to be a little surprising:  she said that some people considered Serena Williams to be the "Muhammad Ali" of tennis, and asked him to give his impression of the comparison.  To his credit, he answered that he thought it was an interesting comparison, but he wasn't sure of what the basis of the comparison was aside from the their high level of achievement in their respective sports.  He went on to point out (very astutely, in my opinion) that times are different today, than they were in Ali's day, therefore their accomplishments are not necessarily comparable.

When I had my chance to ask him a question, I followed up on an answer he gave to a previous question, where he reminded us that this was the first time he'd hit on a hard court since Miami.  This brought to mind a piece at gamesetmap.com, where it is reported that he is not only one of the only players on tour that consistently requests hawkeye statistics on his and his opponents matches, but that he actually requested hawkeye statistics on a practice session in Miami with Kei Nishikori.

Murray responded that when he did it in Miami he was doing it to test the speed of his movement, which he thought was a better way of determining whether the training (and more importantly the evaluation thereof) is effective and accurate.  With a wry smile he intimated that his physical trainer would be under pressure to be more observant or at least more accurate with his observations, as to the effort he was exerting in training, almost as if he suspects some measure of sycophancy or stinginess with praise from some in his entourage.

As to the data and statistics in tennis, he distanced himself from the remainder of his response - he mentioned that some players may not want to become too robotic about their tactics, and that too much data may introduce too many things to consider.  He also mentioned that some coaches may not be ready to use data in their match analysis and preparation because it simply wasn't available to them when they played.  Ultimately, it's up to the player and the coach to find the right balance.

To be fair, Murray may have known that the gamesetmap piece actually accused him of some measure of espionage, pointing out that Nishikori was not aware that Murray had requested hawkeye data on their practice.  In Murray's defense, when you ask for hawkeye data, they give the data for both players without being asked, so the request wouldn't have been specifically made for Nishikori's data.  He may have been aware of the NHK documentary which made extensive analysis of hawkeye data on Nishikori, and floated the idea that Murray was using their practice data to his advantage.

Overall, I felt that the press conference with Murray was subdued.  Perhaps because the air conditioning hadn't been turned on yet, and we were all (not the least of which, it seemed, Murray) ready for the Q&A to end so that we could guzzle a bottle of cold water. There was a distinct air of anticipation and excitement when Nishikori came in for his press conference.  First of all, the photographers were going nuts - you almost couldn't hear the questions over the flash and shutters, and the answers he gave frankly did not do the atmosphere justice.


When I had my chance to ask my question, another member of the press had asked Nishikori about the documentary made of him, and I followed up on that, pointing out the extensive use of data analysis in the documentary, and asked Nishikori whether he had used match data to analyze his matches and prepare for his opponents.  I don't believe he understood the question, because he responded by saying that generally, he felt his preparation for the summer hard court season, and this tournament in particular, was very good.

And then something interesting happened at the end of the English portion of the press conference.  The moderator hadn't noticed that there were a couple of Japanese journalists who had patiently waited for an opportunity to put questions to Kei in Japanese (obviously) so she ended the press conference, and the English speaking media, en masse, got up and left.  Though she had ended the conference, Nishikori shot her a couple of expressionless looks without getting up from his seat - apparently he noticed that the japanese journalists had been overlooked, and without saying anything, silently protested her overzealous ending, by not moving an inch.  The journalists did exactly the same, staying put without pointing out that they had been overlooked.  To be fair to her, the moderator immediately apologized and allowed for Japanese questions, but I thought it was fascinating that both the journalists and Nishikori found a way to make their displeasure known without saying a word.

When the questions started, I noticed something else:  although Nishikori's expression didn't change one iota as the questions were asked in his native tongue, I noticed that his eyes weren't open as wide, and he started yawning mid-question, something he hadn't done in English.  I don't believe he was more interested in the English questions, but I'm certain he was more attentive because English is not his first language, and although he speaks very well (as do all these professionals from non-English speaking countries), there are moments (like with my question) where he reminds us that this is a second language for him, and none of us could do the same in his. 

But nothing says you're relaxed and no longer on the edge, like yawning in the middle of a question!
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