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“Trash-Talk” Tuesday, Part I: A WTA Compendium

It’s Tactics Tuesday with a double-twist: is trash talking behavior a genuine tactic in tennis? If so, when did it work, and how did it backfire?

All this and more in this two-part special.

Emotions were running high this weekend when someone (allegedly) said something during the semifinals of London’s World Tour Finals – and Stan Wawrinka wasn’t having any of it. The 2014 Australian Open champion audibly complained to chair umpire Cedric Mourier about “what she said” late in the final set and. The man in the chair urged the Swiss to ignore it.

While the circumstances are still shrouded in London fog, it’s hardly the first time that trash-talking/acting played a decisive part in the outcome of a big match. The past few decades have seen this particular aspect of sport manifest in a several different scenarios. Occasionally shots are fired well in advance of a tournament. Sometimes snide remarks creep through in post-match press conferences.

But the most regularly-seen approach is to haul out the big guns on the court, ensuring a battle over a yellow ball becomes a war of nerves.

What makes tennis trash talk so idiosyncratic in the world of sports is its generally individual nature. Any form of successful distraction is almost guaranteed to unsettle the other side of the net. After a week in the spotlight, the #men must yield the floor to the ladies. Fear not, for they will have their turn later this week.

Ready? Play (dirty).


Martina Hingis had all sorts of thoughts and opinions on how her presumptive Career Slam would unfold in the spring of 1999. Strolling into the French Open final, the Swiss Miss drew a revitalized Steffi Graf, who had taken out two of the Top 4 seeds en route. Never one to mince words, Hingis had predicted a grim end for the former No. 1 only a few months earlier:

“Steffi has had some results in the past, but it’s a faster, more athletic game now than when she played. She is old now. Her time has passed.”

Unfortunately for her, a very stubborn German, an opinionated French crowd and a dubious line call proved her downfall. Hingis audaciously went to Graf’s side of the court to debate a ball mark with the umpire and line judge. Having trailed by a set and a break, the resulting point penalty spurred the crowd firmly behind the veteran, who went on to level the match and find herself within a point of a 22nd Grand Slam title. One the brink, the teenaged Hingis unleashed the WTA’s most memorable underhand serve in history. It was just the kind of thing you’d do when you’re 18 years old and have a whole crowd against you – only to boomerang spectacularly.

PS: Watch Mama Graf smoke like all of this is no big deal.


After her painful French Open loss and early Wimbledon exit, Hingis returned to the US Open reinvigorated, and it wasn’t long into the final slam of the century that things got rather verbal in the press conferences. Serena got involved, Lindsay Davenport played a part, Venus got roped in, Martina tried to pull the strings in the background. In the end it was the younger Williams sister who won her first of many slams. But the trash-talk in-between? Oh, it was glorious.


It is quite probably one of the most infamous hand gestures in tennis. Ostensibly irritated by top-seeded Williams calling the umpire down to check a mark, Belgium’s Justine Henin held her hand up during the 2003 French Open semifinals, interrupting the American’s serve. The exchange went unnoticed by the umpire, and though it might have appeared small on the surface, it was a power play that would rattle players, fans and not least Williams herself for years to come. Henin went on to win four of the next five games, ensuring a place in the finals of a tournament she went on to win. Henin eventually admitted that raising her hand was pure gamesmanshipeight years later.

It might have been the opposite of classy, but in terms of efficiency, Henin’s hand was a solid 10/10.


It wasn’t until 2010 that the public realized how much of a lasting effect the incident had on the 18-time Grand Slam champion. In a Rome encounter between Williams and Serbia’s Jelena Jankovic, the American raised a hand of her own at a critical point of the match. The notoriously arrhythmic Jankovic railed against the umpire for Williams’ perceived refusal to play at her pace, but she went on to win the match. Williams had things to say at the net:


Three years later Jankovic and Williams faced off again in the Charleston finals, and the issue of quick-serving rose up again, but this time Jankovic drew the shorter straw as Williams made no qualms about who she thought was right in this situation. The Serb complaining to chair umpire Kader Nouni all the same, but she lost 12 of the following 14 games.


That same year Jankovic, annoyed by Williams’ erratic play in Istanbul, insinuated that the exhausted and physically spent world No. 1 was using gamesmanship in their semifinal. Earlier this year Williams asked Jankovic whether “(they’re) gonna do this again, Jelena,” when Jankovic was serving to stay in the match in Dubai.

It’s just always #dramz with these two.


Jankovic and compatriot Ana Ivanovic have had, historically, a difficult past. It didn’t help that Jelena’s mother, Snezana, basically said that her daughter was risking her life for Serbia in Fed Cup while Ivanovic was off drinking coffee. Their relationship seems to have improved over the years, but after one of the former No. 1’s few wins over Ivanovic in 2010, she was quick to convey how she felt about the 2008 French Open Champion’s signature celebration.


Remember when an 18-year-old Agnieszka Radwanska upset defending US Open champion Maria Sharapova in 2007? Remember how she crept up to the service line to drawing out double fault after double fault? It all lead to a pretty intriguing bust up between Tracy Austin and Jim Courier about the respect and gamesmanship that led to some trash-talk in the booth.


But trash talk and gamesmanship isn’t just common in the upper echelon of the WTA. In the final round of Brussels 2013 qualifying, Coco Vandeweghe alleged that a victorious Yulia Putintseva shut her down after the match, calling her a servebot without groundstrokes. Well-known as the Tour’s premier enfant terrible, it wasn’t a stretch to believe something like this went down, though it hardly sounded like words that were unprovoked. First appearing to cop to the smack talk, Putintseva later dialed it back, accusing the American of insulting her first. Kids, these days.


At last year’s Wimbledon Championships, Maria Sharapova was asked about a recent interview Serena Williams gave. The usually composed five-time major champion didn’t exactly take any prisoners when it came to the American’s alleged declaration that “she [Sharapova] is not going to be invited to the cool parties” and that she “wants to be with the guy with a black heart”. Sniperpova, if you must:

Neither Williams nor Sharapova had a particularly successful Wimbledon that year, and these off-court exchanges were of little help to their on-court endeavors.


In the most poignant trash-talk/action moment on the WTA in 2014, Ana Ivanovic took a seemingly out-of-nowhere medical time-out during her service game, in Cincinnati, claiming to feel dizzy early in the third set. After an up-and-down affair, the Russian shouted, “Check her blood pressure!” and gestured to her arm after losing serve late in the match. Ivanovic might not have picked the best moment for a time-out, it seemed as though the Russian managed to irritate herself more than anyone else with her impulsive smack talk, going on to lose 7-5 in the third.

It wasn’t the first time the Sharapova claws came out, particularly if you aren’t back in Poland already, your last name’s Jankovic or if you’re extremely injured.

There are many more examples of these bust-ups, off-court and on-court incidents and shoulder bumps, we shall leave it here for today. In Part II, we’ll be taking a closer look at ATP exploits of unwritten rules, and a final resumé of the grand effect trash-talk and behavior had on the ATP and WTA in 2014.

About René Denfeld (202 Articles)
Weather is my business. Tennis is my playground. Born in the year of the Golden Slam. Just give me all the bacon and eggs you have.

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  1. Trash-Talk Thursday, Part II: Putting the #men in Mental | The Tennis Island

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