The Art of the Non-Answer

Here’s something interesting I noticed during this year’s U.S. Open. When the younger pros walk down the stadium corridor and stop for the pre-match interview, they listen to the question and respond appropriately. The more experienced player? Not so much.

Take this pre-match exchange between Pam Shriver and tour veteran Maria Sharapova.

Pam Shriver: It’s been over fifteen years of playing night matches here. What do you love most about the atmosphere at night?

Maria Sharapova: I’ve loved my experiences. I’ve had such incredible memories of playing on Arthur Ashe, and every time you go on here, it almost feels like the first time.

And this relates to playing at night…how? Of course, Shriver knows better than to press the issue and instead proceeds to question number two.

Pam Shriver: You had an awkward first-round opponent in Patty Schnyder, a lefty with a lot of spins. What are some of the parts of your game tonight against a righty, more traditional player that you’d like to see improve?

Maria Sharapova: Every match is an opportunity to get better. That’s what we all hope, and as the tournament gets on, the competition gets only tougher.

Hello, Maria? Anyone in there?

Obviously Sharapova memorizes a few pat comments that she’ll trot out no matter what gets asked. Does she sound like a moron? Kind of. But she’s not. She’s already in the zone, and she’s not going to allow any part of her brain out of that zone to actively engage with Shriver.

These pre-match non-answers can be entertaining–seems like there’s a drinking game in there somewhere. (One shot for a vacuous generality, two shots for every mention of “opportunity.”) (You want to come watch tennis at my house now, don’t you?)

But listening to these corridor interviews this year started me wondering if the art of the non-answer could be instructive for the rest of us.

How often do I show up at a match with my brain filled with a dozen things other than what I want to achieve? I spend my pre-match time making sure my team has match balls and warm-up balls. I’m filling out the scorecard. I’m celebrating or commiserating with my teammates who have already played, or silently urging on those still playing. I’m setting out the drinks. I’m explaining the rules of timed matches or giving directions to the bathroom or generally trying to be a gracious hostess to the visiting team.

Rarely am I using those valuable pre-match minutes to just be in my own head, thinking about how I want to play.

I’ve seen players act a bit frosty, both at their home courts as well as at away matches. They’ve got their game face on from the moment they arrive at the courts, and they refuse to engage in pleasantries. Only after the match do their real selves emerge, chatty and joking and at ease.

It’s a smart move, although I’m not sure how comfortable I’d feel shutting down an opponent’s attempt to socialize. I think I’d end up stressing myself out, worried about hurting someone else’s feelings. And as captain of the team, I can’t ignore the logistical and administrative issues that go with the role.

Or can I? Maybe I could take a page from Sharapova and memorize some meaningless blather for those pre-match questions.

Opponent: Where are the locker rooms?
Me: I’ve really loved my experiences. I have such incredible memories changing in the locker room. Every time I walk in there, it’s almost like the first time.

Opponent: Is your line 1 team here?
Me: Whatever line we play, it’s an opportunity to get better. That’s what we all hope. As we move up, the competition only gets tougher.

Not a bad strategy. Not only would I be able to maintain my focus, my demented answers would almost certainly unsettle the opponents!

Okay, I couldn’t really do that. But I could carve out five minutes for myself to walk away from the pre-match hubbub. I could arrive early enough to set everything up and trust that my teammates are capable of locating the game balls without my handing them the can. I could assume they already know I wish them good luck, or that I congratulate them.

I could take five minutes to simply re-establish and protect my zone. Of course, that presupposes I know how to find my zone in the first place. A topic for another week!

Do you try to get in a zone before you take the court? How do you protect it once you find it?

Also, am I the only one who finds Pam Shriver supremely annoying?

2 thoughts on “The Art of the Non-Answer

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  1. I am definitely in favor of demented answers! Go for it. And clearly you need an assistant — someone to whom you can designate the banal tasks such as setting out water, giving directions to the locker room and offering condolences/congratulations.

    But more seriously, your idea of arriving early sounds promising. Also, maybe there are ways to reduce the work — game balls are always in X location, here’s a map to the bathroom, whatever.

    As for getting in the zone, I don’t do it in tennis, but I have a decent pre-game routine for important work meetings. It’s all about doing what I need to do to feel great, as invincible as possible — from physical prep to re-reading my notes. The steps aren’t the same each time, but the goal is. And it starts the night before with prepping my schedule, writing down the address, checking the time I need to leave, partly packing my bag, printing out documents I’ll need, checking the weather, choosing clothes. I imagine some of those steps could translate to pre-game prep. And I love how top athletes use visualization (good topic for a post?)

  2. You are very organized! I’m not–at all. No doubt that’s a big part of the problem!

    Yes, one of these days I’ll be doing a post about visualization. I definitely need to add that to my pre-match routine!!

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