Games People Play

TENNIS WEEK MAGAZINE – Richard Pagliaro – October 22, 2008 – Gulping deep gasps of air between points, a drained Novak Djokovic seemed to suffer from an assortment of ailments: an upset stomach, hip pain, breathing issues, a sore ankle and the suffocating play from Tommy Robredo who dragged the third-seeded Serbian into a fifth-set duel at last month’s US Open.

The man with the Broadway build spent the 2007 Flushing Meadows fortnight taking the USTA’s “Showtime” tag line to heart in producing the most crowd-pleasing performances of the tournament while relishing his roles as a mid-point improviser and post-match impersonator. But as he prepared to play the fifth set, Djokovic looked like a man in dire need of a stunt double.

Instead, he took a bathroom break, received treatment from the trainer then dug in to subdue the 15th-seeded Spaniard, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3, and advance to his seventh major quarterfinal in a performance of a player persevering through the pain to prevail in a gritty win.

Or was it?

Scratching beneath the surface of the score line immediately after the match, Robredo raised an interesting question: was Djokovic’s comeback inspired by competitive will or a con man’s skill? Did the master of showmanship resort to gamesmanship to pull out the match?

“Novak was doing the show that he couldn’t run,” Robredo said. “It’s not that I don’t believe him, but I have pain as well. I was running like hell and my feet were burning, but I say nothing. I think if you’re not fit enough, then don’t play. But after every time he was asking for a trainer, he was running like hell and he was making the shot, but he does what he does a lot of times. Did I trust him? No. I think he took his time because he was a little bit more tired and that’s part of his game. It helped him a lot.”
Djokovic, who survived a grueling four-hour battle with Marin Cilic, 6-7(7), 7-5, 6-4, 7-6(7), in a demanding third-round night match that took a toll on his body, countered he was merely doing what was necessary to survive.

“I know that what I’m doing is right, that I have all the rights to take the medical time out, that I’m doing it just for the purpose to make my physical condition better,” Djokovic said. “I never made medical timeout because I wanted to distract the opponent or make the result look worse. I just took the medicals to help me out.”

It’s not the first time Djokovic has resorted to injury timeouts in major matches. At the 2005 Open, Djokovic beat Gael Monfils, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(5), 0-6, 7-5 in a match that spanned four hours and two minutes and featured four stoppages of play from Djokovic, who requested the trainer to treat his respiratory and cramping issues. At 4-4 in the fifth set of that match, the seemingly spent Serbian climbed off the court and took an injury timeout that spanned nearly 13 minutes then won three of the final four games.

Confronted with questions of whether he resorted to gamesmanship to pull out that victory, Djokovic said he could not have completed the match without receiving treatment.

“I cannot describe how I was feeling; you just have to be on court feeling it,” Djokovic said. “I’m not used to hard five-set matches. I know for people watching it (taking the breaks) is really irritating, but this is the only way I could win and continue. I am not thinking this would be nice for the people watching, I am thinking and trying to win.”

Monfils did not accuse Djokovic of gamesmanship, but said the frequent stops stalled his momentum.
“The first time, it was OK,” Monfils said. “In the fifth set, I was so close to breaking him; it was very difficult at 40-all then he stopped. If he can beat me without stopping like this it would be very fair, but he won this match.”

In his latest use of the injury timeout, Djokovic won the battle with Robredo and conquered Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals, but lost the public relations war in process. Roddick, jokingly questioned Djokovic’s “16 injuries� in an on-court interview prior to their quarterfinal match, but the comment clearly touched a nerve.

Djokovic was jeered by some members of the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium after beating Roddick then defiantly dug himself a deeper hole in the process by disputing Roddick’s remarks and suggesting the American was resorting to verbal gamesmanship in an effort to incite the crowd against him.
“That’s not nice, anyhow, to say in front of this crowd that I have 16 injuries and I am faking it,” Djokovic said. “I have nothing against anybody. Andy was saying that I have 16 injuries in the last match, so obviously I don’t, right? Like it or not, it’s like that. They (the crowd) are already against me because they think I am faking everything, so sorry.”

The apology was as effective as attempting to patch a blown tire with a Band-Aid: in the semifinals the New York crowd overwhelmingly supported Roger Federer against Djokovic, who played timid tennis at times as if apprehensive about rousing the crowd.

John McEnroe, who has first-hand experience in inciting crowds, said Djokovic may still be feeling the impact of his US Open experience.

“He doesn’t want to dig in on these points against the best guys. He can get away with it against most guys any way but when it really got to the nitty gritty against Federer   — he had a chance at a set-all 5-all against Federer — but it seemed like he was still bothered by what happened a few days earlier (against Roddick),” McEnroe said. “Mentally, what happened in that match is probably going to affect him for a little bit. Well see how he can shrug it off because he sort of dug himself this huge hole. I knew exactly what he was doing — I’ve been there myself — talk about putting your foot in your mouth and just digging it in deeper and deeper and watching him do that it was part of why I think he’s not so happy go lucky anymore. He’s not having a lot of fun out there at the moment.”
Gamesmanship is not always fun and games even for those who appear to benefit from it.

The most common forms of gamesmanship occur when players manipulate injury timeouts and bathroom breaks for rest, recovery or merely to stall an opponent’s momentum — and several coaches and players believe such acts are premeditated by the players who subvert the rules as an escape clause from on-court predicaments.

“The habits and behaviors that we ultimately see on the battle ground of match play is, in my view, usually well practiced and honed long before the match even begins,” sports psychologist and coach Dr. John F. Murray said. “It makes up the temperament and personality of a particular player. It is not always pretty when a player seems to engage in gamesmanship, but the player quite easily can justify this by thinking of times when that player was wronged through gamesmanship. If the player feels that it adds an advantage and is still within the strict bounds of the rules or cannot be detected than it opens the door to these shenanigans. I believe it usually is premeditated but it can also fall into that grey area where the behavior is rare for a player, but is triggered by huge amounts of stress or distress.”

Djokovic, whose ball-bouncing antics before serving are often cited as another source of gamesmanship, may be the highest-profile player accused of gamesmanship, but he’s hardly alone. Some players engage in mind games during big games.

Former World No. 1 Martina Hingis’ mind was one of her biggest weapons, but her bladder became a useful tennis tool as the five-time Grand Slam champ was notorious for taking well-timed bathroom breaks to disrupt the rhythm and momentum of an opponent prior to an important game.
Mary Pierce took a controversial — and legal — 12-minute injury timeout to receive treatment for her lower back and strained right thigh in the 2005 US Open semifinal against Elena Dementieva.
Commencing the time out by applying eye drops, Pierce placed a towel on the court and stretched out on her stomach. As the trainer worked on her lower back, Piece looked like she was engaged in a Pilates class stretching and turning to loosen her back.

While play resumed, a rejuvenated Pierce recovered. Dementieva did not. Playing with purpose and running faster than she had prior to the injury time-out, Pierce reeled off 12 of the final 15 games to score a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory over the sixth-seeded Dementieva and surge into the U.S. Open final for the first time in her career.

Dementieva did not accuse Pierce of gamesmanship in her post-match press conference, but said the extended break stretched beyond the boundaries of sportsmanship in declaring the delay was not fair.
“I think you can change the game around by winning an unbelievable point or by changing the rhythm,” Dementieva said. “I mean, that’s the fair point. But by taking like a 12-minutes time out, I don’t think it was fair play. She could do it, I mean by the rules. And she did it. If that’s the only way she can beat me, I mean it’s up to her.”

In a contentious clash at Charleston in 2004, Patty Schnyder retaliated for what she believed was Conchita Martinez’s deliberate effort to frustrate her in controlling the pace of play when she snatched the Spaniard’s preferred ball and smacked it into the stands.

“With all other players you can have really good sportsmanship, and with her it’s nasty play, and I don’t think it should be on the court,” said Schnyder, who finished the match with a Swiss diss in offering her hand to Martinez then withdrawing it to turn the post-match hand shake into a hand fake.
In the 2007 L.A. final, Radek Stepanek took timeout for treatment on his back after the first set. By the end of the match, Stepanek’s back was strong enough to not only win the match but withstand the rigors of his trademark worm dance he performed in celebration.

About a month later, Fabrice Santoro faced Blake in the US Open and appeared to be cramping. The Frenchman tugged at the bottom of his shorts at one point to show his quads tightening and began deliberately taking more time between points in a ploy McEnroe pointed out was an effort to incur a stall warning from the chair umpire against himself.

“It’s brilliant in a way — he was actually baiting the chair umpire to hit him for stalling because he knows that would get some of the crowd sympathy on his side,” McEnroe said.

There are no time-outs in tennis, but players have long used the injury timeout the way some soccer players flop to the field in the apparent agony as if subject to a spinal tap without anesthetic — as a means to slow an opponent’s momentum or to stop the action and provide a chance for rest and recovery.

The issue raised by Robredo raises a larger question: has gamesmanship become a legitimate part of the game?

Ideally, tennis subscribes to core values of sportsmanship. But when you’re fighting for a Grand Slam championship, a $1 million pay day and a rise in the rankings does the ends justify the means?
“Let’s be honest: it’s a dog-eat-dog world at this level,” said Nick Bollettieri, who has coached 10 World No. 1 players. “When you’re playing for major titles, hundreds of thousands of dollars and ranking points there’s a lot on the line. This isn’t Sunday afternoon tennis at the country club; this is the pro game and some guys are going to do whatever it takes to win and sometimes that means testing you physically, psychologically, emotionally and mentally. As a player, especially younger players, you’ve got to be tough enough to stand up to it. And as a coach, you’ve got to prepare your player for these things because the veterans will try to chew them up anyway they can to get an edge.”

At the peak of his powers, John McEnroe was to gamesmanship was Marlon Brando was to method acting: an emotive, explosive tour de force of talent, will and skill. While many players play the ball, McEnroe operated on multiple levels: playing the ball, the opponent, the officials, and the crowd.
In a moment Bill Scanlon says “still blows my mind,” he recalls McEnroe summoning him to the net during a 1981 quarterfinal in San Francisco and very calmly explaining why Scanlon had no business beating him. It was, according to Scanlon, trash talk as a persuasive tutorial.

“Think about it: this is a one-on-one sport so when you win it’s because you ended up better than the other guy. If you have a certain level you can try to bring your level above his or bring his level down to yours,” Scanlon said. “It’s like the old joke when two kids are being chased by a bear through the woods and one kid says: ‘How are we going to outrun the bear?’ and the other kid replies: ‘I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.’ Part of what John could do was to make me worse and trying to get inside my head and do whatever worked to accomplish that goal was a way to do it. And I always thought it was fair game, so you won’t ever find me complaining about his tactics.”

Those tactics can sometimes carry over into multiple matches, prompting some players to fight gamesmanship with gamesmanship.

“It reminds me of playing Becker and he used to cough incessantly and virtually every time when he had a break point or big point or just annoying time and it seemed to be deliberate and I remember deciding before a match every time he would cough I would cough back,” McEnroe recalled. “And I started to do that playing Boris before a big crowd of about 12,000 in Paris and he coughed and I coughed and he coughed and I coughed and it became comical. I was trying to point out how ridiculous the entire thing was. Boris said to me ‘Hey John give me a break, I’ve got a cold.’ I said ‘You’ve had a cold for years now!’ And the guy still does it so it’s a tick on some level. The irony is everyone booed me when I did that to Becker and he was the guy doing it in the first place yet I get booed. I suppose people thought I was being the bad guy whereas they didn’t understand he had been doing this for years.” 

While McEnroe does not advocate faking injury, he does argue that some forms of gamesmanship are an inherent part of sports: baseball players trying to steal signs from the catcher, offensive lineman taping their hands in an effort to camouflage holding and players at the bottom of a scramble for a fumble actually punching and biting each other in an effort to get the ball, hockey players hooking opponents with the tip of their sticks while a referee’s back is turned or basketball players yanking at the jersey of an opponent to pull him out of position and grab a rebound.

One of the greatest upsets in heavyweight history came when Muhammad Ali pulled the rope-a-dope, reclining on the ropes and absorbing George Foreman’s blows on his arms, bluffing the heavy hitter into believing he was absorbing a beating until Ali spun off the ropes and knocked out Foreman.

Do you view those acts as gamesmanship or simply athletes trying to gain an edge? Is there a fine line between being a gamer and resorting to gamesmanship?

Tennis is a turf war and players are territorial. US Open champions Serena Williams and Andy Roddick are both willing to administer body blows to opponents who dare infringe on their turf. Roddick, who has been known to hit serves and overheads directly at opponents, seemed to try to hit Santoro with a body serve during the US Open.

“I don’t know if it’s intimidation,” said Roddick during last December’s Davis Cup final. “If there’s 12,000 fans behind you and you feel like you can use them to help win a tennis match, you’d be stupid not to, right? With the exception of cheating, I’ll do what I can to win a tennis match.” 

Williams tried to drill Dinara Safina in the head with a shot during the Open semifinals that buzzed her blond braid then later succeeded in driving the ball right into her bulls-eye: Safina’s chest. 

In a single shot, Williams smacked a clear message to Safina that nearly struck her right between the eyes: crowd the net and I may be tempted to tattoo the word “Wilson” on your forehead. It was a purpose pitch: the tennis equivalent of a pitcher brushing back a batter leaning too close to the plate, a linebacker pounding a stretched-out wide receiver running a route over the middle or a center delivering a hard foul to a guard who dares to drive the lane.

But both Roddick and Williams’ efforts to brand opponents with the ball are legal, aggressive plays and not acts of gamesmanship.

“Serena’s play against Safina is not something I consider to be gamesmanship — in fact the Williams sisters play more fairly than any two competitors I know,” tennis television analyst Mary Carillo said. “They don’t stall, they don’t whine over calls, they don’t get illegally coached, they don’t cheat when using the challenge system by looking to their box. Hitting at an opponent is an intimidating play, but also a legitimate one. I find no fault with that. Nor do I find fault with standing tight to the service box when returning — it is an act of intimidation, and a perfectly legal one as well.”

McEnroe points to Robin Soderling angering Rafael Nadal during their 2007 Wimbledon third round by complaining about the Mallorcan’s methodical pace of play and mocking his pre-serve ritual of tugging at the seat of his shorts as an example of real, raw friction between players ratcheting up the intensity and dramatic tension tennis can offer.

“Obviously, I maybe had a shorter fuse, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with Soderling and Nadal getting into it at Wimbledon,” McEnroe says. “In a no-contact sport like tennis where you’re not hitting each other like setting a pick in basketball or a check in hockey then you need some sort of release on some level. So remember last year at Wimbledon when they had all the rain and players started melting down mentally? From a fan’s point of view, I enjoyed what happened when all that rain happened and players were getting annoyed: basically it got to them and it would have got to me too. It made for some memorable events and I think that’s interesting for tennis.”

Grand Slam finalist Todd Martin, widely respected as one of the best sportsmen of his generation, suggests a rule change may be the only way to deter rampant gamesmanship.

“Rafael Nadal frequently takes longer than the allotted time between points. That is against the ‘rule’ (that is rarely enforced), but a VERY far cry from gamesmanship,” Martin said. “Rafael is obviously idiosyncratic and is the best at not playing a point until he is ready to play. However, the trainer visit rules and such can be abused ad nauseum. As much as I like to advocate professional and personal responsibility there might be no other recourse than to create stiffer rules and punishments for bending or breaking of those rules. Despite the blurring of the etiquette, decency, honor lines over these many decades of open tennis, I will always contend that each player has the responsibility to call ‘touches’ and ‘not-ups’ on themselves. Frankly, these are not calls that umpires can make easily rather they are instances when most often the player knows what the correct call is.”

The advent of the Hawk-Eye replay system has greatly reduced on-court arguments over line calls. Has tennis has been transformed from grand theater featuring a compelling cast of characters — Connors, McEnroe, Nastase, Becker — into bland, big business with commerce supplanting creativity in players and a tennis Renaissance replaced with a paint-by-numbers product ruled by agents and administrators, who admonish players for straying slightly outside the lines? Does gamesmaship add an additional element to the game and should the players be left to police it themselves?
Carillo, who grew up with McEnroe partnered him to win the 1977 French Open mixed doubles championship and debated the topic of gamesmanship with him in the CBS broadcast booth during the Open, emphatically rejects the notion that gamesmanship adds entertainment value and drama to tennis and argues all the fake injuries turns tennis into theater of the absurd.

Carillo asserts that stall tactics can not only disrupt a match for players and fans such actions can also undermine the core values the game aspires to embrace.

“Gamesmanship in the form of stalling is rampant, whether for phony bathroom breaks, phony injury time-outs, excessive time between points,” Carillo said. “There is not one bit of good in any of that, and the rally cry years ago — that there was too little real action in tennis, too much time in between points to sustain the viewer — all that has just gotten worse with the bending, twisting and breaking of rules meant to keep a match moving along. If playing tennis is supposed to teach independence of thought, problem solving, confidence, self awareness and self reliance, what goes on in the pro game is also teaching — and, from many voices in the game, endorsing — deception, obfuscation, blame shifting and both winning and losing without honor.”

In an effort to flush the bathroom break as a gamesmanship tool, the WTA Tour will permit players whose opponents take breaks to consult with their coach during those timeouts.

“There’s obviously a fine line to balance between medical timeouts and toilet breaks and fair competition and avoiding gamesmanship,” WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott said. “What we’ve actually found and we’re quite hopeful about is with on-court coaching for any player that does take a medical break, the other player is going to be allowed access to their coach during that period of time. What we’ve found is that’s sort of a disincentive and keeping players a little more honest about their toilet breaks.”

But with Grand Slam titles at stake and massive pay days on the line it seems inevitable that the games some players play will not be confined to action between the lines.

“There will always be people who feel that rules weren’t made to be followed; they were made to be broken,” Carillo said. “It’s up to us as caretakers of the game to come out on the right side of this issue. I hope people do that.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.