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Tears and tantrums on the tennis court

Weekend Team 

From bursting into tears to breaking racquets or turning abusive, tennis greats have been known to give in to emotional outbursts. A Seshan looks back at some such classic moments.

“I want to cry” : Victoria Azarenka, the eventual champion, to (of The Woodies fame) on defeating Kim Clijsters, the defending champion, at the semi-finals of the Australian Open 2012

Tennis is one of the where the players are highly emotional. It may be true in others as well and the difference may be one of degree and not of kind. We have seen members of a cricket team running in the field and embracing a mate on taking a wicket. But one never sees a bowler throwing away a ball in disgust or a batsman breaking his bat on a poor show. But you see on TV every now and then tennis players hitting the racquet on the ground in a murderous rage on a double fault or arguing vehemently with the chair umpire on a disputed line call or talking to themselves.

I feel there was some justification for all this behaviour in the past as the umpire’s decision was sometimes wrong. In tennis, every point counts in the march to victory like every run in cricket. Until the arrival of the challenge system and video of disputed calls on a large screen in the events for everyone to see, there was no way of knowing whether the player or the umpire was right. TV watchers might have observed how the angle of one’s look could distort the judgement on whether the ball was wide or long. Before the advent of the system of challenges (three unsuccessful challenges per set, with an additional challenge if the set reaches a tiebreak), TV channels used to show a close-up of the correct position in the case of a disputed call. One was often horrified to note that the umpire was wrong and could still carry on with the score as decided by him. It was because while viewers around the world could look at the recall of a disputed shot, the umpire could not because he was not provided with a video.

A few years ago, I wrote to IBM, which was in charge of technology at the events, pointing out this anomaly and suggesting that the umpire should be provided with a small video screen to review disputed calls. did not reply but at the next Grand Slam, the video display on a giant screen on disputed calls was introduced and, better still over my suggestion, so was the “challenge” procedure. We know how useful the device has been since then in settling disputes. But still players let off steam on the court due to frustration.

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Following tennis, cricket introduced a new video-replay scheme, viz, the (two unsuccessful reviews per innings), two years ago that has had an impact on the sport since then on decisions about LBW, catches, the manner of play of a batsman against a spinner, team behaviour and umpiring

In my following of tennis over six decades, the earliest memories I have of the tempers and tantrums of players are those of (nasty) Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe (nicknamed ‘Superbrat’) in the 1970s and the 1980s. They set the standards for on-court misbehaviour against which others are judged today! Nastase, a Romanian with several achievements to his credit, was a precursor to McEnroe in being a bad boy on the tennis circuit. He held the record for fines and suspensions until McEnroe took over the mantle! He was reported to have the capacity to abuse opponents and officials in six different languages! In one episode he threw a shoe at a line judge who foot-faulted him. The Code of Conduct (called Nastase Act by some commentators!) and fines for unruly behaviour on the court are reported to have been instituted thanks to him! After questioning a call made by the chair umpire in a tournament in Stockholm, which he eventually won, McEnroe told him “Answer the question, jerk!” He then smashed his racquet. He was suspended for 21 days for exceeding a $7,500 limit on fines. There were many more such episodes in his life. Think of these two players coming together on the opposite sides of a court in the second round of the US Open in 1979. You could easily imagine the fireworks. McEnroe won that match.

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Roger Federer is highly emotional but bottles it up during play. However, in the past, viewers saw him crying like a baby at the end of the finals, whether he won or lost! But since the birth of his twin daughters, Myla and Charlene, he has stopped crying!

The was notable for the episodes of serious misbehaviour involving Marcos Baghdatis, David Nalbandian and Tomas Berdych. Bagdhatis lost his balance after dropping serve in the third set against Stanislas Wavrinka having been defeated in the first two sets. He went to his chair during the short break and smashed four racquets to smithereens. Wavrinka won. But, for the record, we have to take note of the fact that Marat Safin had broken 700 racquets in his career; he claimed that most of them were gifted to him! Nalbandian had called the umpire “stupid” and wanted action to be taken against him in the match he lost to John Isner. In the fourth round match, Nicolas Almagro executed a forehand return that hit his opponent Tomas Berdych in the arm. Almagro apologised but Berdych, despite winning the match, refused to shake hands with him. It was the first of its kind in history.

There are many more players who belong to the league of bad behaviour. A few may be cited in brief. During the prize presentation ceremony at Wimbledon (1993), Jana Novotna burst into tears and cried on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent. She lost the championship when victory was in sight in her final against Steffi Graf.

Martina Hingis objected to a line call at the French Open final in 1999. On being overruled, she sulked throughout the match against Graf and served underhand, unseen and unheard of till then in the history of tennis, while facing match points. She lost, stormed off the court and refused to return for the awards ceremony until her mother Molitor dragged her back, her face contorted and teary. When a WTA official tried to guide her toward the podium, Hingis hit her on the arm.

Greg Rusedski spat out an “audible obscenity” (a four-letter word) on the hallowed courts of Wimbledon in 2003, heard by more than a billion people watching TV.

Perhaps the worst unladylike behaviour was observed in the case of Serena Williams at the US Open 2009. In her final against Kim Clijsters, she was foot-faulted by a lineswoman on a second serve making it a double fault, taking Clijsters to match point. She menacingly moved towards the poor young line judge and used a four-letter word heard around the globe.

The one matter of pride to us is that none of our tennis players has behaved in an unsportsmanlike manner.

First Published: Sat, February 25 2012. 00:34 IST