By Patrick Hruby
Page 2

NEW YORK -- Wasteful, infantile, wantonly destructive. All of this is true. Yet to hear Bud Collins tell it, there's an even better reason tennis players are discouraged from smashing their rackets.

"It can be dangerous," the longtime tennis commentator says.

Collins laughs. He speaks from embarrassing experience. Once, while playing in a South African senior tournament, he flubbed an easy shot. Up went his blood pressure. Down went his wooden racket, right into the court.

"I threw it," Collins recalls. "I didn't realize it would have a life of its own. It bounced over the fence. A parking lot was there. A guy was getting out of his car. It hit him."

Mardy Fish
AP
C'mon Mardy ... you know you want to ... do it for the people!

Wait. Hold up. The racket hit a guy in the parking lot?

Sweet.

With apologies to American Express -- which really should be seeking our forgiveness for those annoying Coach K ads -- there's something missing from this year's U.S. Open. And it ain't Andy Roddick's mojo.

Nearly a week into the tournament, we've seen Serena Williams lose a $40,000 earring, defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova lose in the first round and British hope Andrew Murray lose his lunch on the court. Twice.

Which, admittedly, was pretty cool.

So what's missing? Try a first-class meltdown -- the singular, glorious sight of a ticked-off player rearing back, blowing up and sending his or her oversized boom-stick to graphite Valhalla.

Frankly, tennis fans deserve better.

"I haven't seen one [smashed racket] yet this year," says Carl Munnerlyn, a locker room attendant at the National Tennis Center. "Nothing broken. Nothing mangled."

Munnerlyn knows cracked rackets. In over two decades at the U.S. Open, he has handled more splintered grips and bent frames than he can count, professional athletic instruments violently transformed into masterworks of nonrepresentational modern art.

But the last few years? Not so many.

"You definitely see less of it," he says. "I think players are under more control. They come in knowing they can get beat at any time. Losing doesn't bother them as much anymore."

Don't worry, be happy. Sigh. First hockey goons, now this. To paraphrase Pete Seeger: Where have all the smashers gone?

Once, colossi such as John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase roamed the tennis terra firma, striking fear into the hearts of equipment manufacturers everywhere. Racket abuse became open-air theater. No one was immune.

Back in the 1950s, Collins recalls, former American No. 1 and noted tennis good guy Barry MacKay chucked a racket clear across a lake in Adelaide, Australia.

"Well, it was more like a very broad river," Collins says with a chuckle. "Probably 100 yards. Either way, that was an impressive feat."

Sadly, such feats have become the stuff of tennis legend. Today's players are more likely to emulate Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras, stoic craftsmen who never found fault in their tools.

Take Roger Federer, the sport's top talent. A tempestuous racket-mauler in his youth, the defending U.S. Open champ now sports a calm, unflappable demeanor. Asked at Wimbledon when he last smashed a racket, Federer couldn't remember.

His most recent toss? Try this spring, when the frustrated Swiss let his racket fly during a match against Rafael Nadal in Key Biscayne, Fla.

Tellingly, the racket didn't break. No way it would have cleared 100 yards.

"It's more challenging now," Collins says. "Wood was much easier to smash."

Maybe so. But how about a little pride?

Don't get the wrong idea: Tennis still has a few hardy souls willing to put the kibosh on harmless inanimate objects. Injured Aussie Open champ Marat Safin -- a man who once totaled 50-plus rackets in a single season and reportedly played with graphite shards embedded in his arm -- could be the greatest smasher ever. Frenchman Richard Gasquet was tossed from last year's U.S. Open qualifiers after nearly beheading a line judge with a heaved racket.

Players ranging from Andre Agassi to Serena Williams have been known to abuse their equipment, if not always in public. Munnerlyn recalls a well-known player's recent locker room eruption.

"He came in after a match, set his bag down, waited about 10 seconds," says Munnerlyn, who declined to give a name. "He took out one racket. Bam! Bam! Bam! Smashed it against the floor."

Out came a second racket. And a third. Munnerlyn shakes his head, eyes wide at the memory.

"Three rackets, trashed," he says. "I'm thinking, 'Stop! Stop! Don't break that!' Throw a pillow underneath or something."

More common, however, is the pillowy sportsmanship exhibited by Kevin Kim during his Wednesday afternoon loss to Switzerland's Michael Lammer.

Marat Safin
AP
Marat Safin's racket tantrums are legendary.

Tempted to crush his racket, the 27-year-old Californian held back. The reason?

"I didn't need the extra attention," said Kim, ranked No. 70 in the world. "And I don't want to get fined."

Racket smashing isn't cheap. Kim once was fined $1,050 for tossing his stick at a minor-league tournament in Tennessee -- more than double the $500 Safin was docked for racket abuse at last year's French Open, and a far cry from the $15 Collins says it took to replace a splintered wooden racket.

Smashing also is against the rules. Five years ago, Goran Ivanisevic was disqualified from a match after he smashed three rackets and had nothing left to play with. More commonly, a cracked racket results in a code violation -- and a point penalty, if the offending player immediately switches to a new stick.

As a result, Kim explains, racket-breakers often will play a point with a busted frame.

"Sometimes you might win those points," he says with a smile. "Sometimes if you crack it, it's still playable."

To avoid the above indignities, Kim adds, he limits his smashing to practice. Good for his temper. Bad for our amusement.

No matter the cause, the decline in public racket pulverizing is a shame. And probably unhealthy. Frustrated tennis players can't vent to their teammates. Or scream at their coach. Tackling isn't allowed, and haranguing the chair umpire only goes so far. So they steam and stew, each one a pressure cooker in wristbands.

Angry player. Highly breakable object. Something has to give. Playing in San Diego, Taylor Dent once lost to someone named Maurice Ruah. Not good.

"I walk off the court, line up all my rackets on a tree," recalls Dent, pantomiming a baseball swing. "One after another, six in a row, until there was nothing left. I just left them there. See you later. See you tomorrow."

Did Dent feel better? Absolutely. Always does. During a March tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., he dropped a 6-1 first set to Cyril Saulnier.

Dent blamed his racket. Forcefully. Racket wrecked and spleen vented, he rallied to win the match.

"It can help you play better," he says. "John McEnroe was the perfect example. He would throw the racket sometimes, throw a tantrum, and it would help him out."

More help: While most junked rackets end up in the trash, Dent signs his, then donates them to charity. All's well that ends well.

"That's why I do it," he says with a laugh.

In another sense, crumpled frames bring fans and pros together, physical manifestations of our common immaturity. The average club player can't relate to Roddick's Teutonic serves, Agassi's whiplash reflexes, Federer's otherworldly touch.

But racket smashing? That's as natural as throwing a golf club. When Borg broke a racket as a boy, his parents kept him off the court for six months. He never cracked one again. His famed temperament? It was learned.

"I play tennis, and I've broken some rackets," Munnerlyn says. "Sometimes, I'm about to and I catch myself. I think, 'Hey, I don't get free rackets like [the pros].'"

None of us does. Which is part of what makes their newfangled restraint so infuriating. Psychic Uri Geller bent a racket with his mind. Nadal can't crush one with his pumped-up arms?

Thankfully, the U.S. Open junior tournament starts next week. So there's hope. In the meantime, though, we're still waiting for a handle-shattering, shard-scattering eruption. Because when the best racket-smashing story from this year's tournament belongs to Collins -- well, it's enough to make a fan want to break something.

"What I'd like to see is somebody tear one apart with their bare hands," Collins says. "With wood, you'd have a chance."

Wait. Hold up. Tear a racket to pieces? By hand?

Now that would be pretty sweet.

Patrick Hruby is a Page 2 columnist.



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