Tennis And The Not-So-Fine Art Of Racket Smashing

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Bill Simons

MELBOURNE

They say a good craftsman doesn’t blame his tools. But don’t tell that to rock stars or sportsmen. The Who gained notoriety for smashing their guitars, and long ago, in a fit of frustration, golfer Tommy Armour threw his entire bag of clubs into a pond. Millions of other golfers have crushed their clubs. Many a hockey player has smashed his stick against the ice, the goal, or the body of an unfortunate foe.

And then there’s tennis’ Mikhail Youzhny, who used his racket to bloody his own forehead with three mighty self-inflicted blows. And at Indian Wells, he smashed his racket nine times.

Today a struggling German, Alexander Zverev, tied that mark, as he bashed his hapless frame time and again. As replays were shown in the press room, playful reporters counted out loud as his blows continued. Zverev later said, “It made me feel better. I was very angry, so I let my anger out.”

Of course, in tennis, racket smashing is a kind of art form. Where to start? We imagine some rogue Duke or Duchess had a crack at their rackets while playing on the courts of their Victorian estate.  John McEnroe broke a frame over his foot in 1981. Vera Zvonereva bit, kicked and broke her racket during a Charleston final. Chilean Fernando Gonzalez snapped his frame in two at the 2009 Italian Open.

Goran Ivanisivec broke so many rackets at a tourney in Brighton, England that he had to default – no racket, no play. Powerful Stan Wawrinka made mighty frames seem like toothpicks, and Grigor Dimitrov conceded a tourney in Istanbul in 2016 when he smashed his racket three times. He was contrite, saying “I let myself down – I let my team down with that behavior.” But few others have broken more rackets at one sitting than Marcus Baghdatis, who bashed four of them at the 2012 Aussie Open.

Many a time we’ve seen Serena break her frame with a sudden intense fury. In particular, we saw that at last year’s US Open, and during her match against Kim Clijsters at a 2009 US Open match. Then again, so many top players have smashed their frames – the list is long: Djokovic, Roddick, Agassi, Murray and many others – including some supposedly benign players like Juan Martin del Potro and Naomi Osaka.

The all-time racket smasher has to be the rather endearing Russian character Marat Safin, who smashed his racket 48 times in 1999. Over his 12-year career he broke some 700 rackets. But even Safin had his limitations. He insisted, “You can’t destroy a racket and a chair in the same match – there has to be a limit − otherwise this is the tennis of a sick person.”

While prohibited by the code of conduct, breaking a racket has a function. In the pressure cooker of pro matches, bashing your tool obviously lets off steam. It’s a handy way to let go – call it a kind of primal scream.

But not everyone’s a fan. Who wants to have their kids see an adult having a temper tantrum? Rafa Nadal’s uncle Toni was emphatically against the indulgence, and said there was many a kid who would have treasured the valuable racket. To some, racket smashing is emblematic of indulgent athletes living in their own bubbles.

All concede that racket-smashing is a waste of a fine athletic tool, but some contend it’s really a no-harm happening that expresses genuine emotion, and certainly can, as it did today, enliven otherwise dreary matches.

Today’s often well-intended tennis culture can go overboard. In the name of propriety, rules and order, it can filter the vitality and spontaneity out of the game. Andy Roddick contended, “If a guy wants to break a [baseball] bat in the dugout, he doesn’t get warned. It’s not hurting anyone. If it’s affecting your opponent, then that’s probably disrespectful, then keep it out of there. But it’s my racket, not anybody else’s.”

Our favorite smashing story in tennis has nothing to do with rackets. Bob Bryan once confided that he and his brother Mike had “a ton of fights and a big one was during the 2006 Wimbledon. We won our match, but were in the back of a car and there were punches and blood…And we carried it all the way into the house and he ended up smashing my $5,000 guitar. But then we were having dinner together five minutes later. Twins are weird. I don’t know how to explain it.” That year the Bryans won Wimbledon.

So is the moral to the story that venting has its place? Maybe – but, then again, Zverev’s nine-strike, feel-good demolition didn’t propel him to victory.  

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