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Perma-fists, regrips and ponytail flips: Tennis players’ endearing (?) quirks

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Richard Gasquet

Richard Gasquet can regrip a racket faster than you. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

With tennis players repeatedly performing all alone in front of cameras in a 10-month season year after year, it’s impossible to ignore their quirky little habits. Some eccentricities are endearing, others are annoying and still more are just completely confounding. Here are 10 that stand out.


Rafa being Rafa

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal does a lot of this. (Mike Powell/SI)

The King of Clay is also the King of Quirks. Rafael Nadal is a buffet of eccentricities, from walking on court with a single racket in hand, to rousing the crowd with his sprint to the baseline after the coin toss, to engaging in a lengthy toweling-off routine between points that just begs for a time violation. But his trademark quirks will always be his penchant for picking his shorts and aligning his water bottles just so.

Marinko Matosevic knocks over Nadal’s water bottles

They have to be perfect:


Marion being Marion

Marion Bartoli

Marion Bartoli has a style all her own. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

Marion Bartoli’s myriad quirky routines have fluctuated throughout her career, and sometimes even from match to match. She used to waggle her racket during an opponent’s serve or do full squat jumps between points. But she was actually pretty subdued while rolling to the title at Wimbledon, where she confined most of the wackiness to the practice court. Of course, it’s all relative. Here’s what Alix Ramsay wrote about the “weird, wonderful” Bartoli at Wimbledon:

Then there are the little quirks, a bizarre combination of tics and rituals that would leave the average player exhausted before they had hit a ball. There is the racquet swishing, the practise service swings, the bouncing up and down, the squatting and leaping, the sprinting to her chair – the New Zealand rugby team doing the Haka is only marginally more terrifying.

“I’ve been doing that forever,” she said. “I have some tapes of myself when I was seven years old or six years old, and I was still doing the same. It’s just part of me. It’s just a great way for me to, again, focus on the next point, focus on what I need to do, not thinking about this court, the occasion, the breakpoint, the game point, whatever.  Just trying to be ready for what’s coming. It’s not like I want to annoy my opponent. It’s really me trying to be ready for the point that is coming out.”

When, finally, the preamble is done and she is ready to play, things don’t get any better. Playing double handed off both sides, she is not your natural stylist. As for the serve, that starts with her hands crossed and looks like she is fighting her way out of a pair of handcuffs. And the service return? Short of going around to the other side of the net and picking the ball off her opponent’s racquet strings, she could not take the ball any earlier, no matter what sort of delivery she is facing.

In short, Miss Bartoli looks to be as bonkers as conkers but, as we know, looks can be deceptive. All this faffing and flapping about actually works. Well, it does for her (it is highly unlikely that Bartoli’s technique could be taught to another and even if it was, the poor lass would struggle to get the ball over the net).


John Isner’s between-the-legs bounce before serving

Pre-serve routines are a good opportunity for unique habits, and Isner’s between-the-legs bounce — a nod to his roots in basketball-mad North Carolina — is one of the best. (Marcos Baghdatis is also known for this.)


Dominika Cibulkova sniffing new balls before serving

Dominika Cibulkova

Dominika Cibulkova has a habit of sniffing new balls before they’re put into play. (Getty Images)

Cibulkova says she just loves the smell of new tennis balls. “I don’t need to do it,” Cibulkova explained at last year’s French Open, “but it’s just my habit, what I do on the court when I have new balls. It’s maybe also for the luck. I do it all my life.”


Serena Williams’ changeover

Do you really need a water break after one game? Serena doesn’t. Instead of heading to her chair, she’ll change sides by walking around the opposite net post.


Ernests Gulbis’ funky forehand

Ernests Gulbis

Ernests Gulbis’ placement of his left hand on his forehand is unusual. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Gulbis now shoots his left hand out when hitting a forehand, a stroke he’s changed a lot under coach Gunther Bresnik. “I’m not really thinking about it; it’s something natural,” Gulbis told The New York Times in March. “But the swing itself, I think it’s more relaxed, and I have more power in the shot. So it’s good, but it’s not perfect yet.”


Victoria Azarenka’s ponytail flip

It’s a unique tic. Before Azarenka serves, she swings her ponytail around so it rests in front of her left shoulder.


Richard Gasquet’s regripping

If your primary source of tennis coverage is American television, where commercials run during the changeovers, you probably haven’t noticed how often Gasquet changes his racket grips. I’ve watched matches where he seemingly does it on every changeover. As well-practiced as he is, I’d think he’s the fastest regripper on tour.


Novak Djokovic’s ball bouncing in high-pressure moments

To his credit, Djokovic has worked to phase out his habit of incessantly bouncing the ball before serving. But it can still creep up, especially on crucial points.


Maria Sharapova’s “perma-fist”

Sharapova’s pre-serve routine used to be the easiest thing to pinpoint, the basis of many an impression from the likes of Andy Roddick, Djokovic and her boyfriend, Grigor Dimitrov. But Sharapova has actually cleaned up her routine and no longer pauses to push her hair behind her ear, one of the most recognizable tics in tennis for years. Now, her most amusing habit is a constantly clenched left fist.


What quirks have caught your eye? Let us know in the comments.

  • Published On Aug 01, 2013
  • 12 comments
    MCB
    MCB

    Sharapova may indeed have some endearing qualities, but they are seldom evident on the court.

    rafannie
    rafannie

    Gulbis does a little one-handed juggle with the balls  before he serves. I love that!

    eagle19891998
    eagle19891998

    how about gasquet always requesting the ball he won the point with?

    bridgepea1
    bridgepea1

    What about Federer pushing his curls to the side and using 1 finger to wipe his eyebrows

    usable.thought
    usable.thought

    Courtney, I'm not sure it's a quirk, but how about Federer's career-long penchant for bumping loose balls directly to the ball kids? You featured that once in a post, as I remember. It's like Fed's playing a separate game with the ball kids, unrelated to the match, just to amuse himself.

    tennisnakama
    tennisnakama

    I always enjoyed your articles.  However, I'd like to suggest about links. When we click a link on an article, the new page should be open so that we don't have to go back to your article each time.  

    You can add HTML after the link's URL  "target="_blank">


    dj13e29
    dj13e29

    Everyone listed here is a mere peasant if this is a "who's the biggest head case" contest. That title goes to the Spanish Walking Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, The King Of Quirks...Rafael Nadal. This guy has quirks within quirks. It's never ending. He used to pick his crack. Then he picked his crack imediately followed by wiping his nose (sniff). Now he picks his crack, then grabs his wiener, then wipes his nose. I'm worried the next step will be to insert his thumb. A normal person would have cut this routine before it started simply out of embarrassment. Rafa, however, obviously doesn't care if everyone knows he's a head case.

    spystud
    spystud

    I absolutely love Vika's hair flip.  Wonder if she even consciously realizes she's doing it, or if it's just an ingrained habit by now? 

    dayo1026_2000
    dayo1026_2000

    @dj13e29 You are right.  But don't forget the hair flip over each ear before each serve and the patting of both shoulders, too.  This guy takes OCD to a new level.  But he is one helluva tennis player, quirks notwithstanding.

    msbhavur
    msbhavur

    @spystud It's deliberate. She said that she once got her ponytail caught in her racket strings during her service motion (the take back I think) and rather painfully pulled her hair. So she flicks her ponytail to avoid repeating.

    jess28
    jess28

    @dayo1026_2000 @dj13e29 yes, great tennis player but honestly being ocd shouldn't allow him the absurd time violations. there are rules and it seems every other player has to abide by them ---except nadal. it's especially disturbing to see him slow other players' momentum when they are on serve. at this point, beyond his neuroses, it's clearly a tactical engagement.