Sporting Habits I’d Like to See Hit For Six

Ball boys bring towels to Nadal of Spain during his men's singles match against Klizan of Slovakia at the French Open tennis tournament in Paris

It’s been a few days since I have been able to write an entry, largely because I have been fortunate enough to spend a few days in Paris on a mother-daughter jolly. In addition to some sightseeing, I managed to get us tickets for a bit of French Open action at Roland Garros. As well as the excitement of seeing some Grand Slam tennis, this gave me the chance to do some firsthand research on the players themselves. I love tennis, but some of the players have a few rather irritating habits which crop up rather more than seems necessary.

First of all, there’s the grunting. This has been a matter of debate in recent years, with a number of the female players reaching quite astounding volumes and pitches in the yelps and screams that accompany their shots. If, for some strange reason, you want to remind yourself of this awful noise, click here. Annoyingly, my research did yield some videos of Sharapova, Azarenka and Serena screeching even during practice, but I’m absolutely convinced that there is no need for this assault on our eardrums. I have no doubt that hitting the ball hard under extreme fatigue requires considerable physical effort, but it seems to be too strange a coincidence that the screams get louder when there is more pressure on a point. Players should disrupt their opponents’ rhythm and win points through what they do with their racquets, not the amount of noise that they can make. As far as I’m concerned, “Quiet please” isn’t just a request that should be directed at the crowd.

Then there is the irritating towel request. I appreciate things can get sweaty out there. I understand that sometimes players use little routines to help refocus their minds after a point. But the ‘towel wiping face’ sign or simply a point towards the chair at the back of the court is a bit annoying. It can also cause fashion trouble: Pete Sampras regularly used to end up with bits of white fluff stuck in the stubble he had miraculously managed to grow in the space of one tennis match. In all honesty I’m not sure if towel provision and umbrella holding should fall within the ball-kids’ remit anyway. Before we know it Rafa will be asking the poor little kid throwing him balls to pop over and actually wipe his face for him too.

Is there any need to bounce the ball before a service in tennis? Novak Djokovic has been known to bounce the ball more than 20 times before hitting a serve. I’m sure at times he is doing it to catch his breath, but it has clearly become over the top. This is also one of those interesting routines that has been taken up by Joe Bloggs playing Tuesday league at his local tennis club. I bet that anyone reading this who plays tennis has picked up this habit from watching top-level players and bounces the ball at least three or four times before serving. I know I do. That’s the thing with all these habits – it’s very easy to pick them up, even if it’s subconscious. I remember when I used to do athletics as a kid, my Dad told me not to bother doing a unnecessary little footwork routine at the beginning of my long jump run up. All this could do is increase the margin of error for my run up. Of course, I’d only started doing it because I’d seen top jumpers do it on TV. Incidentally, I also used to rub a cricket ball on my trousers despite having no idea why ‘proper’ cricketers did this, and raise both of my arms before taking a corner in football when it definitely wasn’t a tactical signal for my teammates waiting in the box. If you are pretending to take a rugby penalty, can you do it without assuming the ‘Jonny Wilkinson’ pose? What about shouting out random numbers before throwing an American football? Sometimes our imitations of these habits are done tongue in cheek or for a bit of fun, but often we include them without thinking. Many habits started out for good reason, but it’s amazing how easily they are copied by others (both elite and amateur) and even become ingrained into the nuts and bolts of the action itself.

“HOWZAT!”… A catch is nearly always followed by the cricket ball being thrown up in the air. Basketball players and curlers hold their pose after shooting a free throw or releasing the stone. Golfers (and the fans watching them) shout vainly at the ball to “get up!”, “bite!” or “get in the hole!” long after it has been struck. I still don’t really get why synchronised swimmers and gymnasts are expected to smile at the end of their routines: to me, their apparent level of happiness should have no bearing on how their performances are judged. I can’t even smile that widely, never mind do the splits.

Strange habits and expectations have also influenced the physical actions and interactions of players (and officials) in sport. Usain Bolt has done amazing things for athletics, but for some reason every other male sprinter now feels that they must develop a pose for their fleeting moment in front of the cameras before the race. Meanwhile, before a football or hockey match, there is now an unprecedented number of handshakes required: The captains must shake hands with each other and all of the officials… the coin is tossed… all of the handshakes are then repeated. Batsmen in cricket seem to be physically incapable of having a tactical chat halfway up the wicket without touching gloves. Sportspeople simply can’t get enough of high fiving. In the tennis I watched at Roland Garros, I honestly don’t think any of the doubles pairs played two consecutive points without a high five (or a quick bum tap). The Bryan brothers have taken this to new levels by celebrating victories with a chest bump: Ridiculous.

Considering that even fully grown adults across the world who play sport for fun have integrated the idiosyncrasies of famous sports stars into their routines, it’s no surprise that kids do the same thing. Therefore, whilst most of the examples above are a bit of fun, there is a serious side to this too. Footballers diving and rolling around on the floor, feigning injury, are seen and probably subsequently imitated by millions of kids. This isn’t a good thing. Lots of sportspeople have habits that are probably irrelevant in terms of the execution of skills, but have somehow become a deeply ingrained part of their routines. I’m certain that some of them have surfaced as mild(ish) forms of gamesmanship. Other habits are genuinely unnecessary, irritating and even damaging, and I wouldn’t miss them if I never saw them again.

Finally, let’s return to tennis (weak pun, in case you didn’t spot it yourself). It is an unwritten rule that before serving, tennis players absolutely must inspect at least five balls before they choose which one to smack up to the other end of the court. These tennis balls are basically all the same. They are replaced every seven games. They are all a brighter yellow than any tennis ball I have ever played with. Just take two, put one in your pocket and get on with it. And by get on with it, I mean bounce the ball once if you absolutely must. Throw it up. Hit it.

Follow me on Twitter @inkingfeeling
Have I missed anything? Which sporting habits annoy you? Feel free to comment!

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