I’m watching Rafa Nadal play a tennis match on TV, mesmerized by his quirky, yet now familiar on-court rituals: hair tucking, nose pulling, wedgie picking, bottle arranging, jumping, jogging, toweling, line wiping and all-around fidgeting.
While his results have wavered the last couple of years, Rafa’s tics have remained consistent since his arrival on the pro circuit in 2001. He’s won fourteen Grand Slams so I’m compelled to wonder: Do the quirks, superstitions, tics and rituals embraced by pro players help them win? And, if so, which habits should we amateurs incorporate into our own routines?
I embark on a research project, examining pro player quirks as well as those of my tennis girlfriends. In a nutshell, here’s what I learn: Almost everyone, from beginner to world class, admits to habits they link to match success or failure. And there is no limit to eccentricity.
Let’s start with the big guns. Serena Williams reportedly confesses to wearing the same pair of socks for the duration of a tournament — and not washing them until she either loses a match or wins the title.
Andre Agassi forgot to pack his skivvies at the 1999 French Open. After winning his first-round match without them, he decided to play commando throughout the tournament and claimed the coveted title. Rumor has it he never wore undies at a tournament again.
Ivan Lendl, world number one during the 1980s, employed a two-step pre-serve ritual that was unique: He sprinkled sawdust on his grip to keep it dry, then rubbed and pulled at his eyelashes.
Then there’s Dominika Cibulkova. This five-foot-three Slovak dynamo, once ranked number ten in the world, is known for her lightning fast groundstrokes and her proclivity for sniffing tennis balls. Only new tennis balls. She says she loves the way they smell and believes her nose-to-ball ritual brings her luck. Who’s to quibble?
Tennis players aren’t alone in their idiosyncrasies. Legendary Boston Celtic basketball player Bill Russell would work himself into such a pre-game lather that he would almost inevitably throw up. His teammates and coach grew to believe the sound of his retching in the locker room meant a win was in the cards. And baseball’s Babe Ruth, known as the “Home Run King,” consumed prodigious quantities of hot dogs and beer, all the while sporting women’s stockings under his street clothes for good luck.
Sports psychologists theorize that athletes rely on rituals and superstitions to boost their confidence and provide the illusion of control. And, while many of my tennis pals are reluctant to admit it, they display their own spectrum of odd habits before and during league matches.
My informal survey turns up women who will retire an outfit if they lose in it and those who wear the identical outfit to each match until they lose. I have girlfriends who refuse to touch the scorecards and others who buy new clothes immediately after a win. Some players insist on apparel that matches their doubles partners and still others believe that Penn tennis balls imprinted with the number four are lucky. One friend has to hold all three balls when she serves; another must eat a banana and apply fresh lipstick just prior to her warm-up. Then there’s my teammate who confides that “sex can be a little motivator the night before” – or at least her husband insists it’s so.
I reflect on my own pre-match rituals and come up with a short but immutable list: Ingest a Yogurt Honey Peanut Balance Bar two hours before departure; brush my teeth with my turbo-charged electric toothbrush; pack two bottles of Hint flavored water, choose an outfit that is both comfortable and confidence-building – all the better if I’ve won in it before. Finally, leave plenty of time to drive in order to arrive at least twenty minutes early.
I’ve had good results in my league matches this year but there’s always room for improvement. So, as I scanned my closet recently for a critical playoff ensemble, I remembered my friend’s suggestion about pre-match sex and turned back with steely resolve. My husband was still in bed, in a near-coma, as I set upon him. He was stunned. But grateful. After a quick rinse and another energetic electric-tooth-brushing session, I was on my way, wondering if a second protein bar was in order.
Because I’m new on my team, winning felt especially crucial. Careful not to step on any lines (a nod to one of Maria Sharapova’s many quirks), I strutted onto the court, gaining confidence with each stride. I opened the can of match balls with a flourish, making sure to get a good whiff before offering them for the warm-up.
After the obligatory ten minutes and a successful racquet spin, I was ready to serve the first game. I bounced the ball fifteen times (à la Novak Djokovic, whose record thirty-eight bounces at a 2007 Davis Cup match nearly drove his Aussie opponents bonkers). Then, just for good measure, I yanked out a couple of my shaggier eyelashes and lifted the ball above my head with a perfectly placed toss. Game on!