Etiquette and tennis: an uneasy partnership

Tennis is a gentlemanly sport. Don’t get this confused with gentility, which it used to embody. Novak Djokovic just violated a cardinal rule of the sport by not admitting he was in the wrong in his quarterfinal match against Andy Murray at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami.

Tennis once embodied the kind of old money, bourgeois privilege and attitude that is really not fashionable in this day and age and would doubtless hurt tennis’s popularity rather than help it. Tennis can’t help where it came from, however: it was once the game of the rich, and the less fortunate were unable to afford the equipment or the country club membership required to actually get on a court. We were a long way away from public courts and broad acceptance and popularity of the game. This is what I mean by gentility: exclusivity both in terms of who could play (integration was a long way off) and where they could play.

That all changed in the 20th century. Integration took tennis by storm, and tennis had its first black champion in Arthur Ashe. Public courts and wide acceptance of the game flourished, but it never lost that gentlemanly (or ladylike) feel. There was, and has been, unspoken etiquette in the game. It isn’t polite to complain too much or sulk during a changeover or (gasp) go to your opponent’s side of the court to point something out. This is tennis. Your side is your side to defend, and nothing but the ball you struck should ever touch your opponent’s side. Your racket can’t even cross the plane of the net and peek over into your opponent’s territory. Marching over and violating the sovereignty of your opponent’s kingdom is a major faux pas. Call it crazy if you like, but this is tennis etiquette.

Guys like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors got us going on the road of petulance and lack of etiquette, though they were great players. McEnroe complained, whined, screamed, and served-and-volleyed his way to the top of the game. Connors, while less overt about his complaining, shrugged off the genteel attitude even more forcefully, beginning to give tennis its “modern” air with his haircuts and style of play that always bore undertones (or overtones) of “I will destroy you.”

Since the 1970s and 1980s, tennis has had gentlemen like Patrick Rafter and it has had petulant children like early Andre Agassi. It has had regal ladies like Steffi Graf and it has had precocious, unschooled teenagers like Martina Hingis, all of whom were great champions. Hingis gets this distinction for walking onto Graf’s half of the court during the 1999 French Open final to dispute a call. It did her no favors in terms of the match (losing a point) or in the court of public opinion (painting her as a whiny teenager who couldn’t bear losing or calls going against her).

Martina Hingis had a well-deserved reputation for petulance and poor attitude in her younger days.

Martina Hingis had a well-deserved reputation for petulance and poor attitude in her younger days.

I wasn’t a fan of Novak Djokovic for a really long time. I thought he had a disturbing tendency to quit when it mattered most. I thought he was manipulative, calling for a trainer at a strategically important time to throw his opponent out of rhythm. I thought he was unobservant for not understanding how the crowd didn’t love him and preferred Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, despite the fact that since 2008, he was also a Grand Slam champion and a perennial contender. That all changed in 2011, when Djokovic won three of the four Slams, snared the number one ranking, and blew me away with his tennis. His shotmaking ability, agility, fight, and raw power were just unmatched that year. He’d been in my good graces since then. Until this past week.

In a quarterfinal match against Andy Murray, who is still working his way back from surgery, and who was perhaps not in the best mental place as a result of this and of losing his coach, Ivan Lendl (with whom he had his major breakthrough, winning the Olympics and two Grand Slams), Djokovic broke the etiquette embedded in the game. First, however, he reinforced it. He donated a point to Tommy Robredo, to whom he was in no danger of losing, in the fourth round, and followed it up with this quote: “For me, it’s something that is part of the sport and fair play.” “I expect everybody else to do the same.”

Strong words that apparently meant very little. In his next match, Djokovic hit a forehand volley, with his racket extending over the net in the process of hitting it, which calls for the point to be awarded to his opponent. The umpire didn’t want to intervene, later demurring by saying, “He was in line with the net,” whatever that means. Here’s the best part: Djokovic admitted to Murray after that yes, he was over the net. Djokovic claimed ignorance by saying he thought you were allowed to cross the net without touching it. Pardon the idiom, but that’s a load of crap that nobody believes. Murray lost the point, his composure, and the match shortly after, and Djokovic rolled through the semis and ended up winning the tournament by beating Rafa in the final.

It’s those kind of bush league antics that got him on notice for me in the first place and made the crowd very anti-Djokovic. It seems Djokovic is a practitioner of the philosophy of “do as I say, not as I do,” which would be fine if he wasn’t a public figure and didn’t make so much about being magnanimous in sportsmanship. It just goes to show that etiquette and fair play have their limits.

So welcome back to my notice list, Novak. I hope your seat didn’t get too cold.

  • Mark

    I agree with Adam’s rebuke of Djoker. Even if Djoker was not clear on the rule (a long shot), he had a duty to inform the umpire at the time of the point of what he had done and then the ump could have (and presumably would have) corrected the call. Recall the great Bobby Jones imposing a one shot penalty on himself for his infraction of Rule 18 at the1925 U.S.Open. He acted in spite of the fact that Walter Hagen, playing along side, and the tourney refs tried to talk him out of it. He acted in spite of the fact that it cost him the U.S. Open that year (the round ended in a tie as a result of the one stroke penalty and Jones lost the playoff). When he was later congratulated for his “sportsmanship,” he simply said, “You might as well praise me for not robbing banks.” That is the standard that Mssr. Djoker fell short of. That’s why Bobby Jones is still remembered and adored and a measure of greatness in his sport, whilst in 50 years (and probably less than that), Djoker will be an obscure footnote in his sports’s history.

  • boris

    Djokovic admitted that he crossed the net but told the umpire that he didn’t know what the rule was. That call is on the umpire.

    • Adam

      Definitely, and the umpire is culpable here in a big way, too. I’m just not buying that Djoker didn’t know the rule. If he knew he was over but really didn’t know the rule, then Murray making a huge deal out of it should have tipped him off that he’d broken a rule. Then he could have abided by the the high standards he set for himself in the Robredo match and admitted his mistake and given him the point or agreed to a replay or something. For some reason the umpire didn’t want to act, but Djokovic could have been more sportsmanlike and forced the issue.