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By Chris Oddo | Wednesday May 10, 2017

It’s a thin line between love and hate. Or envy and respect. Or whatever you want to call what it is that Eugenie Bouchard was feeling—and expressing—about Maria Sharapova this week at the Mutua Madrid Open.

More: Djokovic Denies Almagro, Wins Opening Match in Three

I’ve always personally been of the opinion that tennis doesn’t need a sideshow to check all the boxes of being a compelling sporting event. One that entertains, titillates, satisfies and leaves you coming back for more.

It’s done that for me forever, and I have always preferred the silent changeovers of Wimbledon to the hip-hoppy ones at the U.S. Open.

Antics, histrionics, bad energy, anger? They’re all necessary evils, a subtle, integral part of a sport that demands an impossible perfection from its participants and chastises them when they show the slightest bit of frustration. I can deal with that but I don’t crave it.

Tennis players are like caged lions at a zoo. They’re plucked from the wild domain of the practice courts where they grew up loving the sport and living in harmony with their emotions, both bad and good, and thrown onto center courts beneath spotlights, spider cams and jeering, mimosa-gulping spectators who have no time for bad behavior (especially by the player they aren’t rooting for or didn’t bet on).

I’ve always felt I understood that and always strived to understand the plight of the modern tennis player. Let them transgress and let’s get on with it.

Typically, I’ve leaned towards good behavior and prefer those who act like they’ve been there before (though I could not and never have resisted the charms of Marat Safin and never looked away from a Johnny Mac car crash). I have never needed a WWF intro—LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!—or a war of words in the press to get excited about two incredibly gifted tennis players battling for prestigious points and prize money.

But this week I saw the other side of the equation and, much to my surprise, I kind of liked it. I saw real, genuine contempt, displayed unabashedly, and I kind of respected it. Suddenly, like when you start liking a certain David Bowie record after 17 years of being nonplussed by it, I’m feeling a shift in my preferences.

Last week Eugenie Bouchard came out publicly to denigrate Maria Sharapova’s place in tennis, reaffirming that she feels that the Russian is a cheater who should not allowed back in tennis, and I barely gave it much thought. Sure, I blogged about it, but it was a cursory blog written in cursory fashion. The world probably wants to see this interview of the Canadian spouting off, I thought, but not me. Let it move the needle, but it won’t move mine.

But this week, when Bouchard backed up her comments and then used them to fuel her motivation for her Monday night tussle against Sharapova, I began to come around.

I, my friends, began to see the light of anger.

Whether Bouchard was motivated by a desire for the spotlight (savvy PR that I would not put past her) or a true, hard-line supporter of 100 percent integrity (I believe she is) does not matter to me. In fact, I don’t agree with her about Sharapova not deserving to return to tennis (the Russian has done the time, it’s over, I’m all about redemption as a human) but I do absolutely love that Bouchard was so vocal with her criticism and so willing to back it up.

Bouchard’s comments added Sriracha sauce to an already popcorn session, and for that I was thankful. While watching Bouchard and Sharapova battle on Monday night in Madrid—and battle they did, the match was not antagonistic on the surface, but it was played at a crisp, unloving tempo and with a fierce tone—I couldn’t help but recognize the fact that that my enjoyment of the match was heightened significantly because of the sideshow. The controversial element of Sharapova’s return, the adamant notions of Bouchard, the buzz on Twitter, the cryptic hatred (Real or perceived? Does not matter) embedded in every ball toss, backhand and drop shot during Bouchard’s two-hour and 51-minute slugfest win, all added to the drama and color of the contest.

Fans were engaged, the combatants were engaged, and when it was over they shook hands and looked each other in the eye as if to say: “I love hating you.”

Call it an initiation. As someone whose tastes have always tended to the milquetoast-y and reverential, I feel myself being slowly converted to the dark side.

As PIL’s John Lydon famously said, anger is an energy.

This week tennis fans got a nice dose of what kind of energy comes from that anger. It was complicated. It was fervent. It did not disappoint.

I was surprised to find that I like Sriracha on my popcorn. Don’t dumb the game down, tennis is a shrine and miles above that. But if you’ve got something to say and you want to get it off your chest, by all means tell it to the press and let’s up the ante.

The moral of the story? Sometimes it’s nice to dangle our toes over the threshold, and see what lies on the other side of that thin line.


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