Douglas Robson, USA TODAY Sports
NEW YORK — Delays. Distractions. Fist pumps in the direction of the opponent. Crowding service lines. Trash talk. Strategic bathroom breaks. Suspect medical timeouts.
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These tactics will all be on display, as much as big serves and hard groundstrokes, at the U.S. Open beginning Monday in New York.
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Some will be subtle. Some bold. Some might even be called “cheating within the rules.”
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Tennis isn’t the invective-spewing, crotch-grabbing, play-disrupting Wild West it was in the early decades of the professional era. Rules, and enforcement, have tamped down on the occasional barroom-brawl atmosphere that undermined (or perhaps enlivened) the genteel game.
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But don’t think for a second that players have given up looking for ways to burrow into opponents’ heads. Gamesmanship, in all its forms, is alive and well.
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“It’s rampant,” says 16th-ranked Maria Kirilenko of Russia.
Some tactics are more controversial than others.
After squandering five match points in the semifinals at the Australian Open, Victoria Azarenka opted for one of tennis’ go-to moves. She called for medical assistance.
For 10 minutes her opponent, American youngster Sloane Stephens, sat and waited as she prepared to serve for survival at 1-6, 4-5.
When play resumed, Azarenka broke Stephens to seal the match and then offered some ill-timed comments about breathing problems and avoiding “the choke of the year.”
Azarenka was within her rights to call for a medical timeout. But warranted or not, many felt the second-ranked Belarusian had gamed the system.
Stephens’ coach, David Nainkin, called it “cheating within the rules.”
The New York Times splashed it on the front page under the headline “A Timeout Jeered Round the World.”
Today’s high jinks fall mostly under the umbrella of tempo control — breaking rhythm, causing distractions and stalling.
Players ask for a towel between points. They feign un-readiness before an opponent serves when they are supposed to play at the server’s pace. They tie their shoelaces. They saunter over to their changeover chair to grab a different racket.
“It’s people trying to take advantage of the system,” says veteran doubles player Lisa Raymond of the USA. “And it’s unfortunate. I don’t see that ever changing. I’ve played against girls that are dancing in the service box, that are taking bathroom breaks after losing a set 6-0 or taking medical timeouts when you’re about to serve for the set. It happens every day.”
Most would recognize the most egregiously mistreated rule of modern times: the bathroom break, which is commonly understood to be a tactic players use to collect themselves or impede momentum.
Don’t count on the U.S. Open fortnight passing without plenty of toilet timeouts. Grand Slam rules permit two restroom visits per match, which must be taken on a set break.
For some, that’s two too many. Former top-five player Brad Gilbert says that he contested more than 800 matches on tour and never once left the court to relieve himself.
“If you have to go to bathroom,” says Gilbert, an ESPN commentator and coach, “it’d better be because of the runs.”
What really gets under players’ skin is the time it takes for players to do their business and return to the court.
“You get cool,” complains former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic of Serbia. “You get stiff. Then you can’t put the ball in. It’s like another match. I need another warm up.”
Jankovic, who says she has been kept waiting for up to 20 minutes, is in favor of a time limit.
“You’re going to pee for 10 or 20 minutes?” she says. “Who does that?”
And don’t get Tom Gullikson started on excessive towel use.
“I understand the physical points,” says former U.S. Davis Cup captain Gullikson, who played 11 years on tour. “I get it in places like Cincinnati. But going to the towel at Wimbledon when it’s 65 degrees and you’ve just hit an ace? It’s like a pacifier.”
Subtle to shameful
Earlier this year in a match against Serena Williams, Spain’s Anabel Medina Garrigues was caught on TV rubbing new balls against her racket in an effort, presumably, to fluff them up and slow them down before they were in play.
There is no written rule against this, but the WTA said in a statement that had the umpire seen her scuffing balls it could have triggered a code violation.
The USA’s Tim Smyczek witnessed a player he declines to name purposely lean into a ball that his opponent had smacked across the court in a fit of anger.
“He hit me! He hit me! You have to default him!” the player protested to the umpire, who didn’t fall for the ploy.
Still, the incident so rattled the victim of that bit of gamesmanship that when the two played later that year “he’d lost the match before he walked on the court,” Smyczek says.
Some players will intentionally hit away from a player’s preferred sequence of shots during a warm-up to mess with their head, said 2005 U.S. Open semifinalist Robby Ginepri.
If there is a rub when it comes to unsporting tactics, it’s this: Every player sees it; nobody admits to it.
“So everybody is lying then,” laughs Germany’s Andrea Petkovic.
Petkovic, a former top-10 player, is one of the few who owns up to the fact that she was told by coaches as a junior to employ disruptive psychological tactics.
For her, mind games didn’t work.
“I got out of rhythm and lost even worse,” Petkovic says.
Sometimes it happens well before a ball is struck.
According to Gullikson, Ivan Lendl, notorious for his psychological warfare, once dressed down Gilbert in the locker room before they took the court with a speech something like this: “Bradley, I’m not going to even make one winner today. I’m going to run you left, right, left, right, until you cramp. That’s my goal today.”
And he did, Gullikson says of Lendl, who was 16-0 vs. Gilbert in his career.
And of course there are medical timeouts, tennis’ version of icing the kicker. The WTA, for one, has tried to limit their abuse by forcing players to pay for any on-court medical attention that exeeds six visits per year.
Some simply play dirty, brazenly so.
Nicknamed “the worm” for his on-court celebrations as much as slimy antics, Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic is renowned for getting in players’ faces and bending the rules.
Doubles specialist Max Mirnyi of Belarus says Stepanek elbowed him “like a hockey player” during a changeover in last year’s doubles final at Miami.
“He’s good at it,” said six-time Grand Slam doubles winner Mirnyi, explaining that Stepanek managed to do it in a way that the umpire didn’t notice. “He probably wanted me to retaliate. But we’re not in a contact sport here.”
Whether it worked or not, Mirnyi and his partner lost the lead and the match.
Stepanek doesn’t apologize for his gnarly tactics.
“At the end of the day in every fight everyone is trying to use everything which is possible,” says Stepanek, who has reached the top-10 in both singles and doubles. “If you can get your opponent thinking more, getting distracted, it’s only benefiting you.”
Though he says that his actions are “instinctive” and done in the heat of competition, he isn’t always proud.
“Definitely you do things in life, not only on the court, which are not the best ones,” he concedes.
Rife for mental games
Quirky players are particularly rife for mental razzing.
Perhaps no one is more vulnerable than Rafael Nadal, who is not only the King of Clay but also the crown prince of obsessive-compulsive habits.
At the Monte Carlo Masters in April, Marinko Matosevic of Australia intentionally knocked over the No. 2 Spaniard’s meticulously placed water bottles on a changeover.
Nadal laughed and shrugged toward his box.
Less amusing to Nadal was the time Robin Soderling refused to leave the locker room first for one of their matches, another of Nadal’s tics.
Soderling — no shrinking violet, and the only player to beat the eight-time French Open champion in Paris — sat and stared down Nadal until he was forced to exit ahead of Soderling.
Winning Ugly author Gilbert recalls the time that, annoyed by an opponent that kept asking for the same ball after every point, he hid it in his pocket. When the umpire told him to return it, he whacked it out of the court.
“The guy got so rattled I turned the match around from down a set and a break and won the last 10 or 11 games,” says Gilbert. “I got fined $500 but it was worth it.”
Players acknowledge that umpires are in a tough spot.
While the tours have cracked down on between-point time violations with stricter enforcement, refusing a player an injury timeout or bathroom break is a nuanced and potentially dangerous call.
“If a guy is tired or cramping, as a spectator you’re like, no way should he get a break,” says doubles specialist and ATP Player Council member Eric Butorac. “But for a medical professional, if you say you’re not injured and you actually are, you’re liable to get sued.”
Thankfully, many players said, the days when bad boys like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors would intimidate officials, berate opponents and cause major disturbances are mostly in the past.
That comes in part, they say, from classy comportment at the top of the sport. Players like Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Murray and Nadal have set an example for the rest of the tour that has a trickle-down effect.
The other best options? Ignore it or take it with a grain of salt.
“Most times if you let something like that affect you, it’s your fault,” says Ryan Harrison of the USA.
“Sometimes it’s just funny,” Russia’s Nadia Petrova says. “They try to pull this thing. I’m like, sorry, not going to work.”