Etiquette hits the net as Gentlemen’s Singles turn ugly

I’ve got a confession to make about etiquette. It involves Stefanos Tsitsipas but none of it was his fault. The Greek framed a ball high into the stands in his first-round match against Swiss Alexander Ritschard on Tuesday. I saw the trajectory of the ball coming towards me and switched into kerching mode, my mind primed as if this was the 1k crowd catch in Twenty20 cricket.

It was like shelling peas. I even did the Nick Kyrgios “I don’t care look” while casually putting the souvenir in my jacket pocket. Not sure if there’s video evidence out there. You probably don’t care that I didn’t care. But I should have.

Unlike, say, the U.S. Open, in which spectators are permitted to keep balls hit into the stands, most tennis events follow the International Tennis Federation (ITF) rules. Namely, if one of those balls goes into the stands, it is expected that the spectator who retrieves it throws it back. That’s the done thing. It also ties into a very British manner.

A very nice steward in ever so smart gear – a military man but without the big guns – came towards my person with a friendly but firm smile. The smiling assassin reminded me that the item should have been returned to the court. No other words or strong actions were necessary. I felt suitably shamed. An American, more liberal than some of the uptight BBC commentary team, said out loud: “We saw what you did there but we won’t tell anyone.”

So what is happening at this year’s Wimbledon? Etiquette appears to have been eaten up by the stresses of sporting bloodlust. Earlier in the week, Andy Murray exploded with emotion after winning the third set to stay alive against John Isner while the ball boy casually caught the American’s shot before it bounced. Technically, the point should have been replayed. It didn’t even come up in conversation. Modern life makes such banalities and technicalities far harder to enforce.

Nick Kyrgios
Nick Kyrgios

When Kyrgios and Tsitsipas stepped on court for a prime time slot last evening it got Vindaloo hot before the main course had been served. The Australian’s £8,200 fine for spitting in the direction of a spectator was like a little stone skimming the water compared to the rocks of wrath that were traded in this feisty UFC match on Court One.

The BEEB’s stiff trio of Andrew Cotter, John Lloyd and Pat Cash performed their synchronised tutting as the 27-year-old had racked up enough demerit points to be expelled within the first two acts of the match. Cotter tried jocularity when a spider invaded the camera, suggesting this would have been the wrong type of arachnid for the Aussie. Stick to the Olive and Mable deadpan dog humour, Andrew.

Wild Thing was in full wind-up mode by now, even saying “good shot” to a Greek mishit that bounced miles out. Tournament referee Gerry Armstrong turned up like a muted headmaster to keep a keen eye on proceedings from the side, as events played into the hands of Naughty Nick’s circus.

That was the problem for the fourth seed who was doing his darndest to play tennis fair and square. Or so he claimed. When the Athenian Adonis was defaulted a point for smashing the ball near the crowd, he became the bad guy. Cotter suggested that some fans might gravitate towards the Greek. Lloyd scoffed at the idea. Kyrgios was the ringmaster with full control of the freak show.

Tsitsipas had previously punted the ball into the front row after losing the second set, just missing a direct hit on a spectator. His former doubles partner was onto the umpire and the rulebook: “ So you can hit a ball into the crowd, hit someone and not get defaulted? Are you dumb?” Gets straight to the point, does Nick.

When it comes to “defaults”, the referee in consultation with the grand slam supervisor “may declare a default for either a single violation of this code (of conduct). Damien Dumusois could have applied the rule. He didn’t. It was the one grey area as the language and drama became ever more colourful. Tsitsipas was reduced to smashing balls at his opponent legally during games.

The bigger game was mental and he was losing it.

The pair at least entered into the most cursory of handshakes, but the world number six insisted that was only an acknowledgement of Kyrgios’ tennis: “Attitude-wise, if there was a handshake for that, I would definitely be walking away from it, and that’s how it is.” Never mind. Nick still loves you.

All of this overshadowed the more civil fallout on Centre where Rafa Nadal was heading towards a highly routine win over Lorenzo Sonego.

Already triggered by the roof closure at 4-2 and two sets up, Nadal was further irritated over a noise Sonego had made during a point as the Italian set up his first break points of the match.

Nadal spoke to the umpire but then called Sonego to the net to speak to him. The awkward exchange of views even carried on after the match.

“I didn’t make it in a negative way. I feel sorry if I bothered him but I did it in a right way,” Nadal said in his on-court interview. Later, he changed his tune. “I should not call him [to] the net,” Nadal, 36, told a news conference. “I have to say that I was wrong. So apologise for that. My mistake in that. No problem. I recognise that.”
Surely, Super Sunday will be a little bit more sanguine? Watch this space.