Anabel Medina Garrigues became just the seventh player to deal a bagel set to Serena Williams, but the Spaniard lost 6-3, 0-6, 7-5 in the Madrid Open quarterfinals on Friday. If only that was the only notable thing she did.
During the first set, Medina Garrigues took new tennis balls about to be swapped in and rubbed them against her racket to fluff them up, thus slowing them down. New balls are faster than used balls because the felt surrounding the ball is still tight and intact. They slow down with each rally as the ball begins to fluff. Medina-Garrigues is a clay-court specialist who owns the Guinness World Record for most WTA clay titles by an active player with 10. Slowing down the balls would mitigate Williams' big serve and heavy hitting off the ground. Medina Garrigues' move didn't work. Williams broke her ensuing service game.
“The match went pretty well until 3-3 when they changed the balls," Medina Garrigues told reporters in Madrid, according to Tennis.com. "Afterwards in the 5-all [in the third set] I was serving with new balls, which I hated. It’s an error. For her the ball moves faster; you have less control.”
So is tampering with the ball legal? I've never seen anyone do this before, but there's no written rule preventing it.
Is it a dirty form of gamesmanship? Absolutely. Players aren't even allowed to hit match balls for practice, such as when a player wants to hit a few serves to stay warm during an opponent's extended medical timeout. In those situations the player is given used balls, if any, so as to not affect the natural wear of the ball. That concept applies here. Imagine the slippery (fluffy?) slope if more players start trying this. If I'm a journeyman playing Roger Federer, I'm bringing sandpaper to slow them down. I'd need all the help I could get.
A WTA official was not immediately available to comment. I'll update the post if I hear back.
Update: In a statement to SI.com, the WTA Tour acknowledged that Media Garrigues could have been issued a code violation. "Had the umpire witnessed the scuffing of the balls, the umpire would have instructed the player to stop," the WTA said. "If the player did not stop, it could have led to a code violation." Video via YouTube user dyadyaBOB.