Commentary

Gamesmanship is name of the game in tennis

Cheating is hard to pull off in tennis. However, whether it's coaching from the stands or bathroom breaks, players can -- and do -- get away with various forms of gamesmanship, writes Greg Garber.

Updated: August 9, 2007, 12:22 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

As Maria Sharapova began her service motion, Patty Schnyder, not quite ready across the net, raised her hand to call time. Sharapova, who later said she didn't see Schnyder's signal until her follow-through, hit the serve, which a flat-footed Schnyder did not attempt to return.

The chair umpire ruled it an ace. Schnyder complained, and the crowd watching the fourth-round match at this year's French Open whistled their collective disapproval in the European fashion. For the rest of the match -- won by Sharapova 9-7 in the third set -- the spectators rooted strongly against the comely Russian.

"It's tough playing tennis and being Mother Teresa at the same time," said Sharapova, sulking after the match.

The incident recalled a similar conflict between Serena Williams and Justine Henin in the semifinals of the 2003 French Open. Henin raised her hand for a timeout -- a signal that eluded the chair umpire -- and Williams, assuming she would get two fresh serves, hit a soft-serve into the net. When Henin didn't acknowledge the sign, Williams was furious. She was charged with a fault and eventually lost her composure -- and the match.

Amelie Mauresmo and Loic Courteau
Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty ImagesThe WTA Tour does allow on-court coaching at non-Grand Slam events, an experiment the tour implemented in 2006.
The genteel sport of tennis, in which the majority of the world's players make their own line calls, is not often associated with the crass art of cheating. Still, there is a vast gray area in the professional game known as gamesmanship that Schnyder would argue Sharapova entered in their match at Roland Garros. Clearly, players are willing to bend the rules to their advantage.

In recent years, four Argentines -- Juan Ignacio Chela and Guillermo Coria (2001), Mariano Puerta (2004) and Guillermo Canas (2005) -- have been suspended for doping, among others. Still, these are the rare exceptions to the rule. Currently, tennis officials are investigating why a British online gambling company received about $7 million in wagers -- 10 times the usual amount -- for an Aug. 2 match between world No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko and No. 87 Martin Vassallo Arguello at the Orange Prokom Open in Poland. Most of the money was placed on Arguello, who won when Davydenko retired in the third set with a foot injury. ATP executive chairman Etienne de Villiers said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that "independent, external resources" would be used to look into the suspicious betting patterns.

The transgression cited most often by those in the game is in-match coaching. This is an accepted practice in Davis Cup, Fed Cup and selected WTA tournaments, but it is against the rules in most professional tennis events, including the Grand Slams.

"Happens all the time, definitely," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. "If you're coaching a player and they hit their first kick serve of the match, you yell, 'That's the way to do it.'"

In other words: Do it again.
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For years, coaches have taken it even further, developing a series of signals that can direct a player to change strategy during a match. At last year's U.S. Open, Sharapova defeated Tatiana Golovin in back-to-back tiebreakers to advance to the semifinals. The USA Network later ran a feature that showed Sharapova's father, Yuri, blatantly coaching from the stands. He was seen openly gesturing for her to eat a banana and drink from a specific container.

In the 1993 U.S. Open, Todd Martin faced Spanish player Jordi Burillo in a first-round match. After losing the first two sets, an irate Martin -- convinced that Burillo was getting help from coach Pato Alvarez -- asked the tournament referee to sit next to Alvarez for the rest of the match. He did, and Martin said the coaching stopped.

"I won the next three sets," Martin said. "When he was down 4-love in the fifth set, Burillo screamed something in Spanish. Later, a friend translated it: 'Give me back my hands!' He just couldn't play without coaching."

"I've gone back and forth on this," McEnroe said. "It's probably time we legalize some form of coaching. Maybe at the end of a set the player can call for a consultation. Maybe a 30-second timeout before a player serves for a little strategy. The reality is it goes on anyway."

There was a distant, more innocent time -- when the stakes were far lower -- that players actually exhibited sportsmanship.

Steve Flink, the senior correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine, remembers the 1967 U.S. national semifinals, when Clark Graebner, leaping for an overhead, swung and missed -- almost. Graebner immediately admitted that the ball had nicked the frame of his racket and conceded the point to Jan Leschly.

"Can you see that happening today?" Flink asked, almost rhetorically.

As if to answer, Flink referenced this U.S. Open incident, some 18 years later:

It's tough playing tennis and being Mother Teresa at the same time.

Maria Sharapova

It was the 1985 doubles final, pitting Americans Ken Flach and Robert Seguso against Frenchmen Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte. At one point, a ball struck by the French team seemed to graze Flach's (ample) hair. Flach did not concede the point, and the Frenchmen were furious. Flach never denied the ball touched him but essentially maintained that it was the chair umpire's call, which was not forthcoming. Flach and Seguso ultimately prevailed.

McEnroe remembers a match against Greg Rusedski indoors at Memphis, Tenn., Rusedski, whose serve was a huge weapon, was wiping the ball on his sweat-soaked shirt before serving.

"I asked the chair umpire if it was legal, and he said there was no rule," McEnroe said. "I wasn't sure he was doing it on purpose, but with Greg, you're thinking he just might try to pull that. I think it added a little skid, an extra slide to the ball."

Today, gamesmanship is widely prevalent in tennis. Remember that five-set, third-round Wimbledon match between Rafael Nadal and Robin Soderling? It required five rainy days to finish and escalated into something more of a battle of attrition. Soderling, unhappy with Nadal's typically slow play, started waiting him out in a game of changeover chicken. Then, at the beginning of the fifth set, Soderling did a spot-on impression of Nadal's notorious crease (shorts) adjustment after each point.

"It just made me think of the victory," Nadal said.

Responded Soderling, "It was more of a fun thing. I had to wait for him, I mean, more than 200 times. Every point, I had to wait for him. He had to wait for me one time, and then he started shaking his head and saying things.

"I think most of the players, I think all players, play faster than him."

Nadal and Novak Djokovic -- who typically bounces the ball 15-20 times before each serve -- regularly violate the rules that call for a maximum of 20 seconds between the end of a point and the next serve.

"It's an individual sport, which brings out individual quirks," McEnroe said. "You're out there on your own, so I think you develop rituals to control your environment. That's just how Nadal plays, and it works for him."

Bathroom breaks, particularly on the women's side, often seem to be used primarily as psychological weapons, rather than springing from physiological necessity.

In the fourth round at Wimbledon this year, Venus Williams and Sharapova resumed their match that rain had cut short after three points the day before. When Sharapova walked out onto the court, Williams asked for a bathroom break -- technically legal -- and kept her waiting for nearly five minutes.

Williams won the opening game with two quick points and, in the fourth game, Sharapova hit four double-faults, sending her on the way to an ugly straight-sets loss.

Gamesmanship, slow play and bathroom breaks are considered part of the game. That doesn't make them right, Martin insists.

"If there are rules in place, enforce them," said Martin, who has discovered a successful second career on the senior Outback Champions Series. "It's like gambling and anti-doping rules. If they're not worth enforcing, they're not worth writing.

"Tennis is a game of etiquette and sportsmanship. The more we accept and allow untoward behavior on the tennis court -- and it is just behavior -- the more our future generations will abuse it. If Nadal takes more than the allotted 20 seconds, warn him. Enforce the rules -- or change the rules to accommodate the players so it's not perceived as abuse or gamesmanship."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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