Strange Habits of Highly Successful Tennis Players
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
Published: June 21, 2008
LONDON — Men’s tennis is in a golden age for talent with the greats Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and their fast-emerging rival Novak Djokovic all winning Grand Slam singles titles in the past year and now preparing for a grass-court summit at Wimbledon.
But this is also the golden age of the quirk, with Djokovic and Nadal elevating tennis idiosyncrasy to an Olympian level and sometimes irking the opposition along the way.
Djokovic’s cardinal trait, sometimes viewed as his cardinal sin, is the ball bounce, a psychological need that can occupy large blocks of his and his opponent’s time before he serves, particularly before big points. Wayne Odesnik, his American opponent in the third round of the French Open this year, was distracted enough at one stage that he turned his back as the bouncing continued and forced the Serb to reboot.
Djokovic typically starts by bouncing the ball on the ground with his racket strings before shifting the ball to his left hand, leaning forward and continuing his routine by bouncing the ball eight, nine, 10, sometimes 25 more times before tossing it into the air, arching his back and slamming an often marvelous serve.
“He does impressions of all the other players and has their quirks down pat, but he’s got his own that are just about as detailed and elongated; he’s calling the kettle black,” said Jim Loehr, the prominent sports psychologist who is chief executive officer of the Human Performance Institute in Lake Nona, Florida.
Nadal has his own, more elaborate set of behaviors that have nothing to do with that wicked, left-handed hook of a forehand. There will be kangaroo jumps in the locker room, ultra-precise drink bottle positioning on changeovers, obsessive toweling off between points and equally obsessive wiping of the lines between points with a sneaker sole even when those lines are already clean. Above all, there is his backwards grab at the seat of his tennis shorts that one imagines has not helped sales of the clam diggers that he has otherwise popularized.
When reporters once tried to get to the bottom of the habit, Nadal said the problem was actually his own bottom. “A little bigger than usual,” the Spaniard explained.
In the middle of a testy five-set match at Wimbledon last year, Robin Soderling of Sweden mocked Nadal’s signature move by doing it himself. Nadal still came out the winner, but such complex rituals clearly require time, which is why both Nadal and Djokovic have received warnings for code violations before serving and why Djokovic is making efforts to minimize his bouncing.
“My worst habit,” he said after winning the Australian Open. “I don’t know how many times I do it and sometimes I don’t want to do it at all.”
Perhaps it would help him to know that he is not the first of his kind. “Sylvia Hanika, a left handed German player in the 1980s bounced the ball more than anyone I can remember, as many as into the 30s,” said tennis historian Bud Collins. “If she faulted on the first, it was awful, another 30 or so bounces.”
Current Grand Slam rules, clearly not strictly enforced, stipulate that players have 20 seconds to put the ball in play after the previous point has ended. With Djokovic’s ball bouncing and Nadal’s towel-grabbing and pant-adjusting the gap can often extend to 30 seconds or beyond.
It is all enough to make someone like Federer seem tic-free despite his occasional and superfluous shakes of the head and his racket twirling before receiving serve.
Still, the quirk is more the rule than the exception for professional tennis players in their pressurized profession. That is appropriate considering that the game itself is full of quirks, such as the oddity that winning one point gets you to 15-love, winning the next gets you to 30-love and winning a third — mathematicians should be mystified — gets you to only 40-love.
And just why do players feel compelled to bounce the ball before they serve anyway?
Loehr has answers for that one, and he should after spending the better part of six years collecting data on what top players did to kill time and nerves between points.
“What I concluded was that the between-point time was a very fertile opportunity to get completely distracted and off course,” Loehr said. “The more time you have that you’re not doing something constructive, the more time you have to do things that absolutely allow you to drift and what the better players do is learn how to fill that time with things that sequentially help them deal. It’s their countdown to launch.”
The countdown is sometimes fraught with angst, however. Conchita Martinez, a former Wimbledon women’s champion, used to expend plenty of time and energy securing the ball with which she had just won the previous point so she could serve it again. Her Swiss opponent, Patty Schnyder, got so exasperated by this during a semifinal at the Family Circle Cup in 2004 that she resorted to keeping the ball in question tucked away in a pocket in order to thwart her increasingly vexed opponent (Martinez ended up winning and Schnyder ended up walking to net, extending her hand and then jerking it away before Martinez could shake it).
“I just wanted to look at her; I just wanted to stare into her eyes,” Schnyder said.
Martinez, it should be noted, was hardly the first to become dependent on a ball that had done her right. Collins said that Ron Holmberg, an American player in the 1970s, had the same habit. Goran Ivanisevic was also intent on re-using the same ball after firing an ace, which was hardly infrequent in his huge-serving case in the 1990s. And Luis Horna, the Peruvian who just won the French Open doubles title, is keeping the superstition alive on tour now.
But there are no shortage of other rituals. Shahar Peer of Israel turns her back to her opponent between points, faces the back of the court, closes her eyes and tries to wipe the mental slate clean. Maria Sharapova daintily tucks her hair behind her ear before each serve even if, as usual with the well-groomed Russian, there is not a hair out of place.
“If you tell her she can’t do it, she might not play as well,” Loehr said. “You have to redo the whole readying response, getting that balance and chemistry right.”
Back in the superstition department, Sharapova also avoids walking on lines between points, as does her new rival at the top, Ana Ivanovic. Meanwhile, intersecting lines are more of concern to Germany’s Nicolas Kiefer, who likes to lightly tap the corner of the court with his racket before returning serve. “One day the time will come when I will put the racket away and can stop with all these tics,” Kiefer said in Halle earlier this month. “That would be nice.”
But when it comes to tapping things, Kiefer has a way to go to match Art Larsen, an American left-hander who won the United States Open in 1950 and was nicknamed “Tappy”.
“He made a habit of tapping everything with his racket: a light touch for the umpire, the ball boy, his opponent, the net,” Collins said. “Good naturedly but a lot.”
Ivan Lendl, during his reign as number one, used to sprinkle sawdust on his grip to help dry it before serving but it was tougher to see the utility of another part of Lendl’s pre-serve routine: he would pluck his eyebrows. Andre Agassi, the now-retired eight-time Grand Slam champion, could get positively dictatorial if a ballkid was out of standard position before a point started: refusing to play ball until his feng shui standards had been met.
Agassi also made use of the ballkids to pioneer the art of removing a freshly strung racket from its plastic bag. He would loosen the bag, expose the grip and then extend the racket to a ballkid who would be left holding nothing but clear plastic as Agassi hustled off, pigeon-toed as usual, with his new weapon already in hand. Other players have now followed his lead..
“Andre was the best at managing the between-point time of any athlete I’d seen to that stage,” Loehr said. “If you go back and look, no matter whether he hit a winner or missed three balls in a row, if you literally isolated the cameraman on him over and over again, you honestly couldn’t tell if he had lost the point or won it. He would follow his routine 100 percent: the walk, the movement of the eyes, it was absolutely the best.”
Extracting names from Loehr about bad habits and bizarre quirks of the past is more complicated. “The problem is I worked with a lot of these people,” he said. “If I mention them, they’ll come back and want to shoot me. We had to work hard to eliminate a lot of that stuff.”
But neither Loehr nor anyone else has succeeded in eliminating all of it from tennis, which means that Djokovic, if he chooses to re-launch his act, still has plenty of fodder for his impressions. And he is still providing plenty of fodder himself as he bounces his way from point to point.