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American tennis players often hit the language barrier

Serbia's Novak Djokovic returns to Switzerland's Roger Federer

Serbia's Novak Djokovic returns to Switzerland's Roger Federer during their men's singles final match on day thirteen of the 2014 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 6, 2014. Credit: Getty / Carl Court

Actions speak loudest in professional tennis. But words certainly come into play and, given the polyglot nature of such a global sport, American players find their comfort level sometimes challenged by the sort of language flexibility more familiar to Europeans and Asians on the tour.

"Every time I come back from a different country, no matter where I land first, I'm just, like: Yes! I'm home!" said Madison Keys, a fifth-year pro at 19 who was born in Illinois and based in Florida since she was 9. "I mean, no matter where you are in the States, it feels like home. When you're in Europe, it's always different. You're not familiar with, really, anything.

"Even going from France to England, we're, like: Yes! It's English. We know what they're saying!"

"They" -- citizens of the world from dozens of nations -- often can embarrass the Yanks with their casual grasp of English and their linguistic dexterity. Switzerland's Roger Federer speaks four languages fluently. Spain's Rafael Nadal, though he sometimes brought a Spanish translator as a backup during interviews early in his career, quickly polished his English with the same determination he expends on his topspin.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic, after conducting an extensive interview in English during the tour's stop in suburban Cincinnati, finished with a sly, "No questions in Serbian?"

Reigning Wimbledon women's champion Petra Kvitova, a Czech, speaks Czech, English "and a little Russian," she said. Maria Sharapova, when she gathers herself between points by turning her back on the court, said she talks to herself both in her native Russian and English, which she began picking up as a 9-year old at the Bollettieri tennis academy in Florida. "It depends whatever is quickest to say," she said. "some words are faster to say in Russian."

Old champion John McEnroe, an expert in badinage in his native tongue, acknowledged a regret that, during his days on tour, he had not done more to "embrace a willingness to speak other languages."

Keys is among the young Americans who marvel at the non-Americans' verbal versatility. "I mean, the Europeans players, I feel like they all speak, like, 12 languages," Keys said, "and I struggle with English sometimes. I mean, you hear [veteran Russian Svetlana] Kuznetsova, she speaks Russian, Spanish, English, probably French and Dutch and whatever else . . .

"I took seven years of Spanish," she said, "and I can conjugate a verb, but I can't speak it."

Keys cited an American exception to their generally limited communication abilities. "I know Christina McHale speaks Spanish fluently," Keys said, "and she also knows some Chinese. So I strive to be like Christina, but it probably won't happen. I'd want to learn Chinese so Christina and I can start speaking Chinese in front of another person and just totally confuse them."

McHale, a 22-year-old fourth-year pro born in New Jersey, lived in Hong Kong for five years as a child, and it is a fact that living abroad tends to promote new language skills. And that Europeans, with so many countries so physically close to each other, regularly are confronted with a need to understand and practice other tongues.

"It's not the case with me," France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga offered with a grin. "I speak French and sometimes something that looks like English. But English is the main language all over the world, or the main language in Europe and the United States. Of course it's easier for [Americans] because they don't have to learn another language."

Tsonga, it should be noted, said all of that in clear English.


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