Gamesmanship, Set and Match

By The Way - Weekly Columns


'Gamesmanship (noun); the art of winning games by using various ploys and tactics to game a psychological advantage.' Gamesmanship has always had a presence in tennis, but the debate has come to a head during this year's Australian Open. What can be accepted as just a part of the game, and where do we need to draw the line?

Delayed or inconsistent grunting, sketchy medical time outs, or even making your opponent wait longer than they would like to serve. I'm sure every single one of us can think of an example of a time where we've seen something happening on court that we don't necessarily believe to be fair play. Basically, anything that is deliberately breaking the opponent's rhythm can be regarded as gamesmanship, and if it falls within the rules, players won't be reprimanded for it.

Let's start with grunting. Grunting is part and parcel of tennis, and always has been. It's just a *thing* that on physical exertion, some players will make a noise, and that's fine, right? The issue with grunting comes when it is a deliberate attempt to put the opponent off their rhythm, thus affecting their strike of the ball. There is a rule in place which attempts to regulate this, and that is the hindrance rule. Hindrance is defined under ITF Rule 26; "HINDRANCE If a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent(s), the player shall win the point. However, the point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player’s own control (not including a permanent fixture)." Now, taking this into account when looking at grunting, the idea would be that if the grunt comes AFTER the player has hit the ball, and the opponent is ready to hit it, it will be hindrance. It could also be if the player screams during a rally where they think their ball has gone out, but it lands in and their opponent has to play it. Certain players have extended grunts, which last until the opponent is ready to play the shot, and I would argue that this could also fall under hindrance. Delayed or selective grunting are sketchy at best, but it can be hard to prove that a player has an ulterior motive if they're just making a noise. Players such as Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka have all had their grunting scrutinised this week, but it has been Sabalenka who has been the subject of most of the debate. I watched Sabalenka's match against Ashleigh Barty, and of course, I can't sit here and say that she's cheating, but it's definitely an interesting debate. Some of Sabalenka's grunting came a good few seconds after she had hit the ball, almost when it was on Barty's racquet; is that fair? It has also been pointed out that it's incredibly loud and differs between points, but when you look at other players such as Azarenka and Sharapova, who are also very vocal during play, I don't think this is where the problem lies. How could an umpire prove that a player is purposely trying to put their opponent off by screaming? In the post-match interview, Barty (who actually won the match), was asked if the grunting put her off, and she said it didn't. Does this mean that it shouldn't bother us either? A quick search on twitter shows reams of fans who are bothered by the grunting, and calls for something to be done, but will it ever be implemented in the rules? As a point of interest, an unintentional hindrance would be if someone's visor or another piece of their kit falls off during the point, as was the case with Donna Vekic in her first round match.

Now, sketchy medical time outs. We've all seen them. The opponent is ready to serve, often up a break, and suddenly, a very urgent medical time out is necessary. It always hurts when you're losing, right? The rules concerning medical time outs are as follows; -Players can receive ONE medical time out per treatable condition, and the medical time out is limited to THREE minutes, after the initial diagnosis has been made; -Medical time outs may NOT be carried out for manifestations of loss of conditioning, such as muscle cramp. Basically, once those cramps start, you're on your own; - Immediate stops in play may be allowed for acute medical conditions which arise during play, such as a rolled ankle or a cut finger. These are the rules, but how do players bend them to give themselves an advantage? Medical time outs have long been seen to break the rhythm of the match, so if the opponent is flying on ahead, a player might think 'oh, just the thing, a medical time out will stop this momentum.' This is especially true for momentum players, those players who take a while to get settled in to a match, but are very solid once they get there. An example I have just read about is Azarenka receiving a medical time out after missing 5 match points in the 2013 US Open Semi-final against Sloane Stephens. Azarenka received assistance for 'breathing difficulties' and went on to win the match, with Stephens' coach referring to it as 'cheating within the rules.' (Source; After last year's Australian Open semi-final triumph over Stan Wawrinka, Pat Cash called out Roger Federer for talking of how medical time outs were more mental than anything else, after he received one off-court for a groin injury. Cash received backlash for this, especially as Federer had just returned from a 6-month injury break, so niggles weren't exactly inconceivable, but the post still remains available on his blog, which can be found here;

Interestingly, bathroom breaks are often grouped together with medical time outs as being open to manipulation. You can argue whether or not that's the case, because if the player has to go to the bathroom, surely they can't be denied that? Grand Slam rules allow 2 toilet breaks per match, which need to be taken during set breaks, unless of course, there's an urgent need. However, a pattern is seen with players losing the first set, and then going off for a bathroom break, no matter whether the set has lasted 20 minutes, or an hour. Players may be using the bathroom breaks to clear their heads, and to regroup, but surely this would be even more difficult to police than the grunting? You can't exactly ask them to prove they have to use the bathroom! This was highlighted in Venus Williams' first round defeat at the hands of Belinda Bencic. Williams lost the first set, and went off for a bathroom break, which commentators pointed out is a recurring theme for her. Is it fair to assume that people don't genuinely need the bathroom though? In Frances Tiafoe's defeat to Juan-Martin del Potro, he took a break after losing the second set, presumably to change his kit, as he took a fresh one off with him. When Tiafoe came back on, he hadn't tied his shoes properly, and he still had to fix his shorts, leaving commentators to discuss why this hadn't been done during the break, and why he was still allowed to hold up play? I don't believe that he was doing it on purpose, but it did leave del Potro waiting longer than he would've expected.

Sometimes players will employ what may seem like insignificant tactics, but nonetheless, they can still put the opponent off their rhythm. Tactics such as saying they're not ready to return serve, when the player has already started their service preparation, or even halting points to have discussions with the umpire, such as what happened in the Djokovic v Ramos match, when Ramos was terribly annoyed about a call that had lead to the point being replayed. It has also been argued that players asking for a towel or tying their shoes when it's not strictly necessary is a form of gamemanship. Time violations may be viewed separately to gamesmanship, as a player who receives a warning and subsequently loses a first serve is disadvantaging no one but themselves, but what about players taking advantage of the fact that time violation warnings are at the disgression of the umpire. Nadal has his pre-service routine, which is a part of him and I don't think can be argued as being gamesmanship, but what about players such as Djokovic who seems to bounce the ball about 10 times more on crucial points, or Sharapova walking to the back of the court between points? Are those tactics to put opponents off?

How could we forget the subtle tactics of Lukas Rosol whilst playing Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, who manoeuvred Nadal's water bottles, when this is a part of his routine and would've potentially put him off his focus. Marinko Matosevic employed the same tactics at the Monte Carlo Masters tournament, but he went one further by knocking the bottles over. Interestingly, in 2011, before starting her match against Serena Williams, Anabel Medina Garrigues was caught by the TV cameras rubbing the tennis balls against her racquet, and it was speculated that she was trying to *fluff them up* so they wouldn't be new balls by the time the match was starting. Retired US player Robby Ginepri stated that during warm-ups, some players would purposely hit away from their opponent's preferred sequence of shots so that they could get a mental one-up on them before play started. (Source;

Rather shockingly, some players have been even more direct with their gamesmanship tactics, with Radek Stepanek making no apologies for his. Max Mirnyi talked of how Stepanek actually elbowed him on a changeover, which he thinks, was in an attempt to get retaliation. Whilst he didn't get retaliation, Mirnyi, along with Daniel Nestor, lost the lead in the match, and went on to lose the match itself. Read more;

At the end of the day, we can complain about gamesmanship in tennis all we like, but it's up to the governing bodies to do something about it. Since some of these tactics are so difficult to prove, and even more difficult to police, it's not going to be easy to put concrete rules in place to stop them. However, discussions with players and officials would be a good place to start. What are your views? Do you think gamesmanship has a place in tennis, or do you have any ideas about what could be done to clamp down on it?

Mel - @MissMelanie_H

The problem as you say is that some if it is very hard to prove. You can't deny a player a bathroom break as they may genuinely need to go. The same with a medical time out - you can't risk a players health. I do think that umpires need to take a firmer stand on obvious tactics and not be scared to tell off top players which they seem to be.

Anna Logue

It is very difficult! I can see where they’ve tried to implement rules to stop people taking advantage, such as limiting the number of breaks, or the trainer checking the injury before the medical time out starts, but it’s really not easy to introduce anything other than that. Although I did hear some great suggestions about dealing with grunting, such as having an informal chat with the players involved first, before any further action would be taken.

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