Contemplating the ethics of being hit by an opponent's shot

Tuesday August 13th, 2013

Novak Djokovic recoils after being hit in the chin by Rafael Nadal's shot in the Rogers Cup semifinals.
Minas Panagiotakis/Icon SMI

Bud Collins calls it "boxing without bloodshed," and in Billie Jean King's words, "Tennis is a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility." Set aside the elements of fan behavior and parental abuse, and you have a well-characterized sport -- most of the time.

Whatever mayhem took place in their youth, such fiery competitors as Pancho Gonzalez, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe never disgraced the tour with outright fisticuffs on court. There was an alarming incident three years ago in Austria when Stefan Koubek, insulted by his opponent's words, grabbed Daniel Koellerer by the throat during a changeover. American standout Clark Graebner became so incensed by Ilie Nastase's gamesmanship during a 1972 indoor match in London that he charged around the net and became such a threatening presence that Nastase actually fled the court.

For the most part, though, tennis' tranquil climate masks the elements of anger and resentment. Body blows are exchanged, but only in the form of punishing groundstrokes. Every so often, we are left to ponder the ethics of being hit by an opponent's shot -- and that was a lively issue during Rafael Nadal's stirring victory over Novak Djokovic in the Rogers Cup semifinals in Montreal last Saturday.

At 2-2, 30-all in the third set, Nadal raced forward in pursuit of a drop shot, answering with a cross-court backhand that struck Djokovic on the chin. An apologetic Nadal held up his right hand, but Djokovic wasn't hearing of it, turning away with a look of disgust.

This was hardly the most sporting response. It was, frankly, reminiscent of Djokovic's early years on tour, when opponents considered him fragile and a little bit precious. Those days are long gone, but Djokovic at least could have acknowledged what clearly was an unintentional beaning.

"In no way, shape or form was Nadal trying to hit him," Brad Gilbert, who called the match for ESPN, said as he arrived in Cincinnati for this week's Western & Southern Open. "This was like trying to out-guess the goalie in soccer, whether he's going to go left or right. Just a bang-bang play and a perfectly good decision by Nadal. And you could see after the match that those guys had made their peace.

"Where this really becomes an issue," Gilbert said, "is in doubles. At close range like that, it's simply good strategy to hit the ball directly at someone. The Bryan twins [Bob and Mike] do that pretty often; you'd better be ready. Leander Paes [the accomplished doubles specialist from India] is a genius at it."

As another top doubles player, Max Mirnyi, recently told The Tennis Space, "Playing on the tour is not like playing at a country club. In doubles, we try to win the point whichever way possible. But if you try to take someone's head off, and your ball was going to be out by a mile, it's not going to be taken nicely; it's going to haunt you somewhere down the road. You get a bad reputation for doing that."

When Andy Murray enlisted Ivan Lendl as his coach two years ago, he quickly became aware of Lendl's penchant for targeting the opposition.

"All he wants to do is hit people he's practicing with," Murray said last year. "He's been trying to get me to do it. He says: 'As soon as this guy comes to the net, just try and hit him.' That's his sense of humor. If he gets hit with the ball, his reaction is to laugh. That's what gets him going.

"I've hit a few guys, but not like the way he hits them. ... If a ball pops up on top of the net, [his aim] is to just absolutely nail them. I'm sure you've seen the videos of him hitting Vitas Gerulaitis on the forehead in matches. That's what he loved doing."

NGUYEN: Murray celebrates after nailing Lendl with a shot at a charity exhibition

"Interesting, too, that after Nadal's shot hit Djokovic on Saturday, Murray tweeted: "Nole just took one in the face! This could get tasty now!" It seems that Murray has developed his own thirst for the well-placed bullet.

In June, at the Rally Against Cancer fundraising exhibition held after the Queen's Club grass-court event, Murray took the court with Tim Henman for a doubles match against Lendl and Tomas Berdych. Murray and Lendl had joked all week about taking shots at each other -- all for the sake a of a few good laughs -- and Murray managed to nail his coach with a wicked swinging forehand volley. The famously steely Scot broke into a joyous celebration, saying later, "Drilling my coach at the net after trying for a year and a half rounded off pretty much the perfect day."

It's unlikely that Berdych would have enjoyed playing Lendl. In the fourth round of the 2012 Australian Open, Nicolas Almagro ended a crucial rally with a perfectly legitimate shot that struck Berdych in the arm. Acting as if he'd been shot, Berdych collapsed to the ground, perhaps not realizing the utter absurdity of the image. And when the match was over, the victorious Berdych refused to shake Almagro's hand.

"That was one of the most childish things I've ever seen," Gilbert recalled. "I mean, it's 5-all in the fourth set, love-30 and Almagro's trying to get a break point. He's not out there head-hunting. Are you kiddin' me? He went straight at Berdych, who couldn't get out of the way, then takes a dive. That was pathetic."

Some players feel the so-called "body shot" is bad form under any circumstances. During the Murray-Roger Federer final at the 2012 Olympics, Murray came in for a short ball and Federer opted for a backhand lob that was ineffective. "If I were Federer, I would have gone right at him," McEnroe said on the NBC telecast. "Just rifled it at him, as hard as I possibly could. Then again, Roger's a cooler customer. He doesn't look at the sport quite that way."

It's a shame Gonzalez' prime unfolded during the infancy of television. Film evidence shows him primarily in the twilight years -- as graceful and ill-tempered as always, but not quite the real thing. I've heard it said that when Gonzalez played Barry MacKay, he'd hit bullet-like shots to the body during warm-ups, just to establish the intimidation factor.

Then there's that rare case when tension spills into the locker room, about to overflow. In his book The Tennis Set, Rex Bellamy described how England's Roger Taylor, never fond of the cantankerous Bob Hewitt, took matters into his own hands.

"Two days before the 1969 French championships, in a Berlin dressing room, Taylor's left fist had collided with Hewitt's left eye," Bellamy wrote. "Taylor had to scratch. Bruised knuckles and a swollen hand would not allow him to grip a racket. But Hewitt played and won a couple of matches. It seemed that Taylor had won the war but lost the peace."

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