Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Break those racquets

- Ruchi Junnarkar

The crowd is roaring. The air is electric. Spectators in every row, yelling. Some shout words of motivation, others just want to see blood. The warriors prepare for battle. They roar with the crowd as each takes guard on his side of the arena. Both egging the crowd on. Their eyes lock on each other. Focus, is absolute. “Time,” calls the referee, and it begins.
A boxing bout? A bad blood wrestling match? The beginning of a bad martial arts movie? Gladiators à la Russell Crowe in, well, Gladiator?
If Andy Roddick has his way, then this could well be the opening description of a tennis match. Or at least that’s how the purists put it.
At the US Open earlier this year, Roddick voiced an opinion he has held for a while, that tennis players should be allowed more leeway to express their emotions on court. Or rather, when players are self-destructing (breaking racquets, yelling abuses at themselves and the like), they should be allowed to do so without the code violation and point penalties that referees grant today. “Tennis is the only sport I know,” says Roddick, “where you can break your own stuff and get penalized for it.  I mean, if you take your shoe and throw it and break it, what happens to you? You're out of a shoe, but it doesn't really affect anyone else. If you're hurting someone, or someone is in harm's way, it’s a different matter.” He does manage to make a point there. That is of course, till he goes on to make a statement like – “there's a reason that the WWE Monday Night Raw gets better ratings than we (tennis) do.” 
The statement about Monday Night Raw aside, Andy Roddick may have a point. The beauty of sport, the element that inspires eloquent prose to be written about it, is nothing but the most basic, raw emotion. Yes, athletic genius is inspiring to watch. But it’s only for so long that you can marvel at Federer’s exquisite shot-making as he completely dismantles one opponent after another. It is only when the underdog at the other end digs deep into his soul and draws on the very human qualities of perseverance, belief, and dogged determination to pull off a sporting miracle, that the sport truly comes alive. The drama of a rivalry, the flood of emotions after an underdog’s unlikely victory, the searing triumph of a successful comeback – these are the elements that make sport go beyond being merely a game.
And it is these very emotions that tennis audiences, compared to audiences in other sports, lose out on because of the strict Code of Conduct that tennis players have to adhere to. There is still plenty of drama on court of course, but would it hurt to allow a player to express his or her frustration if the only person being affected is the player himself? Like Roddick said, if a player smashes his racquet, it’s him who’s out of a racquet. There can be no arguing the fact that the crowd loves it too. John McEnroe, famous for his on court explosions, remains one of the most popular players of all time.
Apart from the players, tennis is one of the very few sports that enforce a strict Code of Conduct on audiences too. Play doesn’t proceed unless there is absolutely pin-drop silence in the crowd. You can yell all you want before and after points, but you stand to be unceremoniously thrown out of the stadium for so much as a peep in the middle of the point. Compare that with soccer audiences, who chant and sing besides shouting themselves hoarse in the course of a 90 minute match. Or cricket audiences for that matter, where “the crowds are dancing in the aisles” is a favourite refrain of commentators. And let’s not even get into American sports.
To sum up what Roddick meant, tennis needs the emotion. Having said that however, let’s not turn tennis into the American NFL. I don’t believe rants against officials should go unpunished. If Serena’s yelling “I’m going to kill you” at the lineswoman, well that’s just not admissible. But it wouldn’t hurt to allow players a little more breathing space either. Let them break those racquets, unleash that emotion. Tennis, after all, is sport, not just a game. 

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