I remember being at a wedding reception talking to someone who was 70 odd. I asked them whether in their day it was normal for the bride and groom to put the tip of the knife in the cake and then beam at the cameras for two or three minutes – celebrities on their special day. Sure enough, back in the day, the camera was at the service of life, or was most of the time, not vice versa.
Today I’ve noticed a similar, subtle but profound difference in the zeitgeist. Listening to the Australian Open commentary it’s extraordinary how much psychologising goes on. Now filling in all those hours with chat is probably quite difficult, but the current formula (or perhaps it’s just a formula built around Jim Courier’s style) is endless speculation on what the players are thinking/feeling.
“Take us inside Novak’s mind Leyton” says Jim, and sure enough Leyton does his best in the role play. Roger Rasheed is on hand in hushed tones in the stands telling us what it’s like. He’s right there you see. Well so are Jim and Leyton, but he’s so close he has to speak quietly – and of course that means he can get even further inside the players’ minds. (Quiet – Roger is trying to hear the players thinking.)
And it turns out that whoever is asked to take us inside a player’s mind really can! They just say what they reckon the player is thinking – though it seems pretty likely they have no more idea than anyone else. Bruce McAvaney is into this schtick like a rat up a drainpipe of course and is endlessly asking Jim “So what would he be thinking as they change ends”.
Is this a terrible thing? Well no it’s not. It’s a ‘manner of speaking’. I guess we are all able to insert the implied “my guess is that he’s thinking . . . ” at the beginning of each of Roger Rasheed’s speculations. And culture makes these kinds of shortcuts all the time. “How do you do?” must have begun as a question but today is a routine, polite greeting.
But I would like to say that I don’t like it either.
It is banality masquerading as expertise. And one of the reasons I’m particularly aware of it is that I get asked clairvoyant questions all the time in media interviews. Not just within what might be claimed as my domain of expertise “how will the economy be in a year’s time?” which in my opinion is silly enough. Often radio journalists will ask me to say how the average Australian will react or a politician or God knows what. Just pretty much anything that’s coursing through their brain at the time.
It is the cult of the expert in the box together with the cult of the amazing super athlete. Often it turns out that what goes on in the mind of one of these athletes is related to their being a true champion. Well some of these guys are amazing there’s no doubt, but if I’m to have my awe inspired, I need a little variety a little insight, not the same endlessly banal psycho-dreck. There is also something pathetic about the way in which it elevates both the expert and the celebrity (the athlete) above the rest of us who look on adoring, and waiting for guidance.
The whole thing is an exercise in aggrandisement. It’s ill-suited to what is, or used to be our national culture which fancies itself as egalitarian. John Newcome was in this mould. Corny and folksy, he was nevertheless quite insightful about both tennis technique and the match temperament of the players. He’d often point out why a shot did or didn’t work out – the player didn’t get down to the volley properly, tended to toss the ball too high on their serve or whatever.
Last night Pat Rafter played Roger Rasheed’s role in the stands and didn’t seem to play along with the psycho-babble script. On one occasion he asked the question from the stand rather than the other way round – asking Hewitt in the box whether it was particularly difficult to serve to Nadal and why – and what he’d do in Federer’s position. They then had a chat about how Nadal was in nappies when Pat was playing which was funny, and then we learned how Hewitt finds it serving to Nadal (he said it wasn’t too bad, particularly where one could serve to his backhand in the deuce court).
It was a lot more interesting than the umpteenth inane speculation about what Nadal was thinking at the time. In the post match interview Jim Courier asked Nadal what he asks all of the players in his post-match interview. “What were you thinking when you were down a break in the third? Take us through that.”. Rafa told him he was thinking that he really really wanted to win the point.