13 September 2019

Don't step on the lines and fingers crossed you will win!

It's Friday the 13th, so what better time to look at tennis superstitions and the thin line between performance-enhancing ritual and irrational compulsion!

In 1999, at one of the low points in Andre Agassi's career, his coach, Brad Gilbert talked him into playing at the French Open, much against his will.

The longest match in tennis history John Isner still has nightmares about his 2010 Wimbledon epic against Nicolas Mahut, dreaming it goes behond the final score of 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6 (70-68). “It was  a cool match to be part of but it wasn’t any fun for me and Nicolas,” he told the ATP. “It was a war of attrition out there.

Megan Markle in jeans at Wimbledon: Keen to watch her friend, Serena Williams, The Duchess of Sussex went to Wimbledon this year ..wearing jeans. For those who want to sit in the area reserved for members of the All England Club, denim is a real no-no.   “It was a nightmare,” a Wimbledon official told The Times. Worse still Serena lost, and lost again when Megan watched her at the US Open. Jinx or bad luck?

Ugly parent syndrome: Steffi Graf’s late father Peter was an ambitious, controlling, tempestuous, angry, driven and occasionally violent tax cheat who used to be seen by players and coaches stuffing thousands of dollars of tournament money into paper carrier bags. Sent to jail for tax evasion, he reportedly had problems with alcohol and gambling and was nicknamed Papa Merciless. 

In the locker room, Agassi realised he had forgotten his underwear and Gilbert jokingly offered his.

"I will never want to win that badly," says Agassi in his autobiography, Open.

"Then I think: this is perfect. I didn't want to be here anyway, I shouldn't be here, I'm playing the quintessential dirt rat [Franco Squillari,'a beast on clay'] in the first round on centre court. Why shouldn't I go commando?"

Agassi, to enormous suprise, won the match.

"In the second round, I stick with no underwear (I will never don underwear [in a tournament] again. Something works, you don't change it.)

Every tennis player, perhaps every sports player, knows how Agassi feels (he went on to win the Grand Slam). When winning is a matter of tiny margins, you need all the help you can get, even if it involves some magical thinking.

Players are encouraged to develop routines to get themselves into the zone so perhaps it's no surprise that once they start, they can't stop. "I have too many superstitious rituals and it's annoying," Serena Williams has said.

"It's like I have to do it and if I don't then I'll lose...it's totally ridiculous."

But ridiculous or not, she ties her laces in certain way, bounces the ball 5 times before her first serve and twice before her second and wears the same pair of (apparently unwashed) socks all tournament. She has even been known to blame losses on not doing some of these things.

Serena is not alone.  Whether it is having your dog along (Novak Djokovic insists on having his pet pooch Pierre with him), praying when she passed a church (Annabel Croft) or demanding the same 'lucky ball' when he wins a point (Richard Gasquet), tennis players have their quirks.

At Wimbledon, Bjorn Borg used to stop shaving during the championship and Goran Ivanisevic used to eat in the same restaurant every day, at the same table and order the same thing (fish soup, orange juice, lamb and chips and ice cream with chocolate sauce). Dominika Cibulkova from Slovakia believes smelling new balls brings her luck and Jack Sock wants the ball kids to have three balls each.

If some players have a thing about balls, for others it's the showers. 

Like Serena, Tim Henman liked to use the same shower during a tournament.  Djokovic however won't use the same one twice and Rafa Nadal has to have a freezing shower before every match.

"It's the point before the point of no return," he says in his autobiography. "I enter a new space in which I feel my power and resilience grow... nothing else exists but the battle ahead."

Other players have a thing about towels. Agassi wanted towels on both sides of the baseline; Arnaud Clement apparently wouldn't take one unless it was held open wide and Greg Rusedski asked for a towel after almost every point:

“It was my ritual and I have to say it must have been annoying to watch and play against. But we all have our silly rituals," he reasoned.

Don't get us started on the lines. John McEnroe wouldn't walk on the tramlines, while Justine Henin, Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova and Rafa Nadal avoid walking on any of the lines at all. But then Rafa, famously, has rituals down to a fine art, from pulling at his shorts, touching his shoulders before rubbing his nose and putting his hair behind his ears, and arranging his water bottles just so. But if it seems like madness, there is method in it as he says in his autobiography.

"I put the two bottles down at my feet, in front of my chair to my left, one neatly behind the other, diagonally aimed at the court. Some call it superstition, but it’s not. If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose? It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head."

And after 19 Grand Slam wins, who are we to argue?