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Serving-up some bizarre superstitions of your favourite tennis players: Strategy or ‘mental tick’?

By Dr Doug Witherspoon - 11th Jun 2023


The wonderful Roland Garros 2023 tennis tournament is always a sign summer is here and a welcome distraction for tennis fans.

Hopefully you got to enjoy some of your favourite players this year, but even these mentally tough and tenacious athletes often rely on seemingly nonsensical routines and superstitions. You may not have noticed many of these, but they may make an amusing observational side show for Wimbledon next month.

Readers of a certain vintage may remember tennis legend Bjorn Borg, and particularly his whiskers – Borg did not normally sport facial hair, but before each Wimbledon campaign, he’d grow a ‘lucky beard’ in time for the first round. It seemed to work ­– from 1976 to 1980, he won five straight Wimbledon titles.

Serena Williams, one of the greatest ever to play the women’s game, was almost crippled by routines and superstitions. She insisted on tying her laces in exactly the same way, using the same shower before each match, and bouncing the ball five times before the first serve. But only twice before the second. Following her loss in a French Open match in 2007, she commented: “… I’m not losing because I didn’t play well, I lost because I didn’t tie my shoe the right way and it’s totally ridiculous because I have to use the same shower, I have to use the same sandals, I have to travel with the same bags.” In addition, Williams always wore the same pair of socks for a tournament, always crossed the net from the opposite side of the umpire chair after the first game, and as stated, took her shower sandals onto the court.

One of the greatest players ever in the men’s game, Rafael Nadal, is also riddled with superstitions. For example, he always makes sure to walk onto court with a single racket in his hand. He also only crosses the lines on the court by leading with his right foot, and if he can avoid it, he never steps on the lines at all. When he does make it to his seat, he always places his bag on the bench and puts his tournament ID face up every time. The super-attentive will also have noticed that every time he sucks on his pouch of energy gel, he rips off the top, and moves the gel to the opening with exactly one fold and four gentle squeezes.

We could fill a Dorsal View with Nadal’s quirks, but some of the other more obvious ones include the constant hair- and face-wiping and the incessant underwear-picking before serving. However, you may not know that he always takes two bottles of water onto court, one with warm water and one containing cold, and he always makes sure they are  diagonally placed, are facing the court, and that the labels point to his side of the net. He also always jumps every time during the coin toss. Oh, and watch for the sprint back to his line after the coin toss, whether he wins or loses it. In addition, he will always avail of a towel after every point and at a changeover, he will always wait for his opponent to take his seat first before he steps off the court. With his right foot, naturally. And if he wins Wimbledon this year, it’s guaranteed that you will see him bite the trophy, as he does every time.

Then there’s French ace Richard Gasquet, winner of multiple ATP singles titles and scourge of ball boys and girls everywhere. Every time Gasquet wins a point on his serve, he demands that he is given the same ball for his next serve. If he loses his point on the serve, he will sort through the balls thrown at him until he finds the one with which he won his last serve.

Then there’s arguably the greatest of all time, Novak Djokovic. He insists that both his beloved poodles travel with him to Wimbledon and while some players insist on using the same shower, he never uses the same shower twice. And then there’s the ball-bouncing: “My record was in 2007 during the Davis Cup against Australia. I made the ball bounce 38 or 39 times [before serving],” he once said.

Of course, superstitions in medicine are not unknown, apparently among surgeons in particular. This merits a column of its own, but for the moment, apart from Wimbledon, we have the China Open, Paris Masters, European Open, and a plethora of other mouth-watering events to look forward to. Hopefully, this has given you some help in terms of how to win a friendly wager with your viewing companion!

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