By Glenn Moore:
When a woman's gotta go, she's gotta go. Except that when Serena Williams
was offered the chance to take a "comfort break" in her remarkable
third-round match against Daniela Hantuchova at Wimbledon on Monday night
she suddenly did not need to go after all.
Williams' selective need to visit the bathroom has prompted allegations of
gamesmanship. Some critics have even suggested she also faked the calf
injury that added such a dramatic air to her victory.
The last charge is ludicrous. Williams' yelp of pain, and her collapse to
the turf, was obviously genuine. That she only wanted to go for a toilet
break when her opponent was about to serve (which is no longer permitted),
and not when she was about to serve does seem more Machiavellian.
If so it was hardly a new development, nor even an extreme one. Forget the
strawberries and cream, "oh I say, anyone for tennis?" image of the nation's
most middle-class pastime. At its professional heart, lawn tennis is as
devious as any other sport. This is a sport where many players, of all
levels, keep a copy of Brad Gilbert's Winning Ugly in their kit-bag, a book
which devotes 63 pages to "mind games, psyching out and gamesmanship".
Nick Bollettieri, the legendary coach and Independent columnist, has seen
most of the tricks in his half-century in the game. "There is no way on this
earth that Serena's cramp had anything to do with gamesmanship," he said.
"Her calf was swollen like a grapefruit. As for the toilet break, I don't
know. It's a thin line. I'm sure she needed the bathroom, and I can accept
that as she took control of the match, she wanted to stay on court.
"There was` more obvious gamesmanship in Rafael Nadal's match with Robin
Soderling. Nadal was playing with his pants, pulling up his socks, bouncing
the ball 30 or 40 times or something ridiculous. Then Soderling was
Many in the game feel Nadal's timewasting is gamesmanship. Players are
supposed to play at the speed of the server, but Nadal dictates his own
tempo. So does Maria Sharapova who, between every point, turns to the back
of the court, fiddles with her racquet strings, then deigns to serve or
receive. It would be a bold player who served regardless to someone of the
stature of Nadal or Sharapova.
The men can only take toilet breaks at the end of a set. But that is also
open to abuse. Eyebrows were also raised at the eight-minute break Feliciano
Lopez required after losing the fourth set against Tim Henman. The delay
broke Henman's rhythm and Lopez won the fifth.
The use of Hawk-Eye challenges, and injury time-outs are other potential
sources of gamesmanship but, adds Bollettieri, "in a historical context,
this is Mickey Mouse stuff compared to the great gamesmen. I mean Jimmy
Connors, John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase. Now that was gamesmenship, and the
crowds loved it. McEnroe always questioned the umpire. Connors had rages of
terror. And it was all controlled. Nastase just glared at everybody. These
guys knew what they were doing."
McEnroe has admitted many of his outbursts were calculated to upset his
opponent, while even the joking antics of a Nastase, or Henri Leconte, can
have the same effect. As for Connors, in Winning Ugly Gilbert recalls an
encounter in a Chicago tournament.
In the final set Gilbert, with match-point on Connors' serve, hit a winner.
He recalled Connors was "so mad stuff was coming out of his nose and he was
spitting at the mouth". Indicating a supposed mark he screamed abuse at the
line judge and umpire. To Gilbert's shock and horror the umpire suddenly
announced an overrule. Gilbert, to no avail, protested. He failed to win
another point as Connors won the match.
This appears closer to cheating than gamesmanship, the art of which was
first defined (and labelled) in Stephen Potter's 1947 book, Gamesmanship:
The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating.
Potter describes how to interrupt an opponent's flow, or distract him,
ideally while appearing sporting. Thus, though fidgeting while your opponent
addresses the ball at the tee-box is unsporting, asking loudly for quiet so
your opponent can concentrate appears sporting but achieves the same effect.
But surely golf, the game in which players police themselves, is clean?
Downright cheating is extremely rare but gamesmanship occurs, albeit more
often among club players than pros.
The most notorious incidents have tended to come in the Ryder Cup, perhaps
because players become more emotionally involved. The American stampede
across Jose Maria Olazabal's line at Brookline in 1999 is perhaps the most
infamous event but that could be put down to the heat of the moment. Eight
years prior the animosity between Paul Azinger and Seve Ballesteros included
the American calling the Spaniard, who had coughed throughout the round,
"the King of gamesmanship".
This was gentle compared to the 1969 match at Royal Birkdale. A fourball
pitting Bernhard Gallacher and Brian Huggett against Dave Hill and Ken Still
became confrontational as early as the first green. Huggett told both
opponents off for their movement and positioning. On the next green Still
loudly ordered his caddie not to hold the flag for Gallacher. The quartet
simmered until Hill missed a putt at the seventh and holed out only for
Gallacher to note he had putted out of turn. Still replied: "You can have
the hole and the goddamn Cup."
On the eighth Gallacher, in a brilliant exposition of Potter's dictum about
appearing to be sporting, while actually being unsporting, conceded Still's
putt. This denied Hill, who was in position to win the hole, a chance to
read the line. Eventually Hill allegedly told Gallacher: "If you say one
more word I'm going to wrap this one-iron around your head." The Americans
won on the 17th. Hill refused to shake hands with the referee.
Such behaviour is "just not cricket", except cricket is hardly exempt. If
appealing when the batsman is not out, or claiming a grounded catch, is
really cheating, bowlers going off for a breather after a long spell, or
creating footmarks for their spinners, are more akin to gamesmanship. Then
there is sledging, a technique calculated to break an opponent's
concentration. Even administrators indulge, deliberately creating wickets to
suit their side's attack.
Other sports are similarly affected. Footballers habitually appeal for a
throw-in, or corner, when they know the ball went out of play off
themselves; some "dive" in an attempt to hoodwink referees. Gamesmanship -
or cheating. And what of the dark arts of the rugby scrum?
How, too, do we categorise the more infamous shunts in Formula One? When
Alain Prost drove Ayrton Senna off the track at Suzuka in 1989, and Michael
Schumacher crashed into Damon Hill at Adelaide in 1994, in both cases
ensuring they took the Championship, were they showing gamesmanship, or a
reckless disregard for safety?
Such acts make Serena Williams' request look mild. Besides, Hantchukova
should have had the steel to ignore her.
"In pro sports, small margins matter, so players use any advantage within
the rules, gamesmanship included," Bollettieri concluded. "But the bottom
line for any pro is get the job done. If you're good enough to be out there,
you have to be strong enough, focused enough, to think only of the ball, the
point, the match. Block distractions out and they're not going to hurt you."