FRENCH OPEN: Tales of a Towel, a Howl and a Foul

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 22: Nick Kyrgios of Australia hits a backhand during the Mens Singles first round match against Marco Cecchinato of Italy on day one of the 2016 French Open at Roland Garros on May 22, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)


Bill Simons

PARIS – Decades ago a famous writer wrote a poem called “Howl.”

Today, this is a tennis article about an object – the lowly towel.

Bearded beatnik Allen Ginsberg complained that he saw the destruction of the best minds of his generation.

Here in Paris, glum tennis fans haven’t seen many of the best shots of our current generation of stars. Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Gael Monfils won’t even be showing up to play and drizzles have meant there haven’t been many hefty story lines at the French Open.

Enter Aussie bad boy Nick Kyrgios to save the day. The infinitely entertaining enfant terrible rather rudely shouted “towel” to a ball boy and was issued a code violation warning by the ump. OMG – how could this be? Kyrgios immediately took on his familiar “woe is me” persona and griped, “Now I’ve seen everything.” 

Not really. The lowly towel has long been the subject of highbrow analysis. In “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” writer Douglas Adams informs us that the most important item for space travelers is a really good towel. The very definition of a wise and well-organized type is, “One who really knows where his towel is.”

Writer Andrew Baker claimed that the once-famous star Greg Rusedski “always knew where his towel was. No one watching him in the Samsung Open at Bournemouth can have missed the routine. At the start of every game…the strapping British hero hands a towel and a racket-adjusting implement to a ball boy. Between each point, he requests the towel and/or the implement.”

Over the years towels in tennis have been used in every possible way. At Wimbledon caring ball girls held a string of them up to provide proper privacy for American Barbara Potter as she changed shirts in front of the throng.

Towels can be used as an inventive excuse. Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga complained he lost a Shanghai match because the ball boys didn’t bring him his towel and he “lost a bit of energy” because he had to walk and get it. Oui monsieur, that explains it all.

Tennis players use “toweling off” to cleverly gain time to catch their breath and critics have responded with many a creative ideas to curb the “OMG – the sky is falling” abuse. More than this, athletes from Steph Curry to tennis great Li Na use towels as handy devices to hide their emotions. In her biography, the beloved Chinese icon tells us that, “The greatest gift that [retirement] brought was peace of mind. … [Now] I didn’t need to cover my face with a towel…when I weep. I no longer need to hate myself for every little mistake. I do not have to continue torturing myself…My internal referee has let me off the hook.”

Years ago, Novak Djokovic was let off the hook when he blasted a Madrid ball girl in the head with a fierce return of serve. But he did get a warning in Miami in April, when he was right in the face of a ball boy and started shouting at his coaches and then fiercely grabbed a towel from the kid. The boy was stunned. 

So was Kyrgios when ump Carlos Ramos issued that code violation for barking for his towel. The often out-of-control yet likable hothead claimed he was just raising his voice because the crowd was loud and suggested to the ump that had showed  “incredible bias,” or better yet, “f—ing bias.” Some called Kyrgios arrogant. One tweet said it was  “unacceptable behavior to talk to someone [that way] and expect them be a slave.” Others claimed ump Ramos overreacted.

Kyrgios is young, just 21, so he doesn’t know of the integral, but often obscure role the humble towel has played in tennis history. No, we won’t tell any tales of tail whippings in the locker room. And towels hardly play the same foundational role in tennis as with the Pittsburgh Steelers and their legendary “terrible towel.” Still, let us note that of the 5,000 towels issued at Wimbledon, half of them go missing.

Our favorite reference to the role of towels in tennis came when writer Sue Mott tried to put in context the loss of a little-known British player. She explained that, “At moments of crisis, [Briton’s] Laurie Lattimore’s manifold faith in her own inadequacy, backed up by almost 20 years of abysmal British failure, took its torrid grip on her mind. Her confidence drained away like a Yorkshire reservoir…After all, the back view of receding British women with towels around their hunched shoulders is a familiar sight to regular Wimbledon watchers.”

Here in Paris, the most familiar sight for French Open watchers were nasty raindrops. Players were reduced to killing time by listening to their iPods, diving into a good book or, God forbid, dissecting a considerable piece of poetry. After all, early at Roland Garros, everybody just wanted to throw in the towel and howl.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic smiles with a towel embroidered with his name after cutting his birthday cake at the Roland Garros 2016 French Tennis Open in Paris on May 22, 2016. / AFP / Philippe LOPEZ (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo by PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)