Wimbledon: Gamesmanship takes new forms in tennis

It may not be possible to eliminate gamesmanship and mind games altogether, but tennis can certainly do without the Kyrgios tactic of sledging, writes Sumit Chakraberty



Nick Kyrgios reacts during his third round match against Stefanos Tsitsipas. (AP)
Nick Kyrgios reacts during his third round match against Stefanos Tsitsipas. (AP)

By Sumit Chakraberty

Published: Mon 4 Jul 2022, 1:05 AM

The ill-tempered third round match between Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrgios was a hark back to Wimbledon in the seventies and eighties when ‘Nasty’ Ilie Nastase and ‘Mac the Brat’ John McEnroe used to get away with profanities and arguments on court. Tennis cracked down on bad behaviour on court to make that sort of thing too costly for players in fines or docked points and even disqualification.

What we usually see in the modern era is a professional game with none of the antics players used in the past to either gee themselves up or distract their opponents. So the Kyrgios-Tsitsipas acrimony was something new for most spectators.

It certainly spiced up the atmosphere. And even the tennis between two tall hard-hitting players reached an engrossing level. But most observers would rather not have toxic drama of that kind, however good the tennis and captivating the confrontation. So now again it’s up to organisers to give players enough leeway to express their emotions without letting them cross the line into boorishness and gamesmanship.

As always, players find new ways to get around the code of conduct in any sport. Racquet or verbal abuse is covered easily enough by the code, and penalties are straightforward. But how do you deal with the constant chuntering of Kyrgios, who can find any number of things to complain about and keep verbalising his feelings to the crowd or getting into one argument after another with the umpire?

Tsitsipas held his temper through the first set, which he won in a tiebreaker. Then he lost his cool and the remaining three sets. He slammed a ball out of court which almost struck a spectator flush in the front row, and also smashed two volleys in anger directly at his opponent. He attributed that to frustration over the umpire not clamping down on constant distraction from Kyrgios.

But if he can blame ill-temper on the provocation, how can you conclude that Kyrgios had no reason to get frustrated with poor line calls or the umpire’s decision not to disqualify Tsitsipas for slamming the ball into the crowd? Defending champion Novak Djokovic got disqualified after hitting a linesman with a ball at the 2020 US Open, and Kyrgios argued that Tsitsipas could not be condoned just because his action did not cause an injury.

Clearly, it’s a matter of the umpire and officials deciding what is unacceptable behaviour — such as continuing to argue with an umpire as Kyrgios did — and adopting a zero tolerance policy. In football, a yellow card quickly escalates into a red card if a player argues with the referee or tries to intimidate him. In cricket, the Australians under Steve Waugh adopted a deliberate ploy of sledging batsmen constantly to distract them until umpires began to intervene and public tolerance towards such behaviour wore thin.

But even though Tsitsipas characterized Kyrgios as “evil” and most commentators have targeted his behaviour, gamesmanship takes more subtle forms in tennis these days, and organisers should not overlook those.

Former Wimbledon champion Andy Murray accused Tsitsipas last year of taking long bathroom breaks to break up the rhythm of his opponent whenever he fell behind. That’s a tactic a number of players have used, and the film King Richard showed Arantxa Sanchez Vicario using it against Venus Williams when she first entered the professional scene.

All said and done, tennis is much more watchable today because gamesmanship and bad behaviour is rare. The three dominant players of this millennium, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic deserve a lot of credit for that, with their usually impeccable behaviour, apart from the stricter conduct norms set by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). But even Nadal has attracted some criticism from time to time over his tendency to put up his hand to make the server wait, which can be off-putting.

It may not be possible to eliminate gamesmanship and mind games altogether, but tennis can certainly do without the Kyrgios tactic of sledging. It’s better to watch a game without those antics, however dramatic they make the atmosphere.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com


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