Friday, March 16, 2007

When does gameswomanship go over the line?

Many people have complained about Maria Sharapova's unauthorized bathroom breaks, which always seem to occur when she is losing (in all fairness, her anxiety could actually cause the need for a bathroom break). But taking bathroom breaks is nothing compared to the stunt that Daniela Hantuchova has been pulling during the Pacific Life tournament in Indian Wells, California.

It is an unwritten law in tennis that people play at the server's pleasure. The server dictates the speed, no matter how slow, a la Mary Pierce, or how fast--for example, Steffi Graf and Jelena Jankovic (whose speedy service game has won her the nickname "JJ Express").

Pierce has a long-time habit of going beyond the 25-second time allowed for service preparation, yet few umpires have called her on it (though one chose championship point of the French Open to do so). What Hantuchova has going on, though, is something else again. She is turning her back on her opponent, in an elaborate ritual, before her opponent's serve. This is way out of line because it takes away the server's implicit authority to dictate the serve. The chair umpire should be telling her to stop, but this isn't happening. Her opponents have the right to ask that she be told to stop, but so far, they have not done so. This could be because it does not bother them, but it could also be because America's cultural climate--nowhere more on parade than in sports--dictates that complaining that someone is breaking a rule is somehow wimpy.

Hantuchova has come a long way. Once number 5 in the world, she has won only one singles tournament (she is a doubles expert, with a career Grand Slam in mixed doubles)--the 2000 Pacific Life Open--in her career. Family problems caused her to disintegrate, and only recently has she shown she can control her emotions on the court. She is a very gifted player and a good athlete, despite her relative slowness on the court. I want to cheer for her comeback. But her current court behavior motivates me to do just the opposite.

What I want is for her next opponent to serve to her back, and let the chair umpire deal with it.


It's (if you'll pardon the sexist language) "gamesmanship" (not my word, but the 'accepted' word), pure and simple. Technically, if she doesn't cause a breech in the 25-second continuum, I don't think she can be penalized. She can be vilified, scorned, disrespected by her peers and/or the audience, etc., but I'm not convinced that the chair has the authority to change her habits. Just my opinion...

By Blogger Bubba, at 10:26 PM  

The 25-second limit is irrelevant, Bob--that is for serves. Hantuchova did get a time warning for that in the quarterfinal. What she is doing is obstructing someone else's serve, and that is way out of line and should indeed be stopped by a chair umpire. I'm sure the umpires are waiting for the opponents to complain, however.

By Blogger Diane, at 10:34 AM  

That's kinda my point, Diane. If every little gesture, every little disruption is penalized, I think "the powers that be" think it tends to take away some of the personal animosities that fuel rivalries, at least in the minds of fans who buy tickets. Let's face it, very few of us buy tickets just to watch the tennis (or the basketball, baseball, football, etc.). Like it or not, many 'fans' buy tickets precisely because they love the prospect of seeing a professional athlete go ballistic. If the product is sanitized to ameliorate the sensitivities of tennis purists, they'll be playing to less-than-packed stadiums, and the promoters can't afford to be putting up guaranteed purses without the prospect of making money. John McEnroe and Elia Nastase made careers of just the sort of quirky behavior that Ms. Hantuchova is exhibiting, in fact, their behavior was far worse. If 'pushing the envelope' can help a competitor gain an advantage, unless it is so blatant that it causes ongoing problems for the officials, right or wrong I think you'll see them continue to take a back seat as long as people are making the turnstiles spin.

By Blogger Bubba, at 4:25 PM  

Your point is well made, though I agree that what McEnroe in particular did was beyond the beyond. Personally, I think he should have been banned from professional tennis, and a shame that he wasn't.

It is going to be up to an opponent to complain about Hantuchova. At that point, the umpire will have to make her stop. A service obstruction claimed by an opponent cannot be ignored.

Oddly, players have complained about Jankovic's speed, but as the serveer, she gets to set the pace. That is a case in which the opponents need to shut up and get on with it.

By Blogger Diane, at 4:37 PM  

Agreed. Baseball, my first love as a sports fan, has watched its attendance wane as shamefully-high-paid babies slow the already-slow game into a debacle of gamesmanship between the pitcher and hitters. Hitters step out of the batter's box after every pitch, straighten their batter's gloves, nervously go through superstitous rituals, and generally act like the primadonnas they are. Of course, this prompts the pitcher to step off the mound, etc., etc., ... all in the name of maintaining 'an edge'. When it takes three and a half hours to play a nine-inning game, the game is broken. Honestly, if it weren't for some of the cable deals that the richer teams have brokered, baseball would find itself in the same dire straits hockey is experiencing.

By Blogger Bubba, at 7:35 PM  

Sorry about the long comments, Diane, I'll shut up now. It just pains me to see what's happened to pro sports. For the last 40 years I've watched the product get worse and worse as the athletic ability of the players got better and better. Pro athletes are now performers first and athletes second, complete with the primadonna attitudes... makes me sick.

By Blogger Bubba, at 7:39 PM  

I hear you. I see that when I watch baseball games. Baseball is so ritualistic anyway (as is tennis) that adding all these gamey flourishes and one-ups would be funny if it weren't detracting from why the players are there.

By Blogger Diane, at 9:36 PM  

Ah, the server/readiness rule has always been a tough one. According to the USTA Code the receiver "shall play to the reasonable pace of the server." Reasonable becomes the point of contention. If the receiver is not ready and a ball is served and the receiver does not make a play on it it does not count.
I did not see what Hantuchova did and how flagrant it was but I know I have taken reasonable time to get back to the baseline to receive serve when I have felt the pace of the game was going too fast. I think many players have a routine that they go through (not as elaborate as some of the ones I have seen in baseball) but that certainly can be seen as reasonable. Peer faces the back of the court, closes her eyes, and takes a deep breath. Probably around 10-15 seconds. I find it not entirely dissimilar to changing the pace of rally by throwing in a high loopy ball. Changing pace is part of the strategy of the game.
But I do agree that sometimes it gets out of hand.

By Blogger ken, at 12:52 PM  

In her quarterfinal match with Hantuchova, Peer did not do that ritual--she served plain and simple. Only Hantuchova, as the receiver, was doing a long ritual (and in fairness to Peer, when she does do that, it is always well within the time limit--she is not Mary Pierce). In the semifinal, Li did a straightforward serve, and you know Hingis always does. But all of them had to wait and wait for Hantuchova to complete her routine before they could serve.

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