Tennis players take pride in their games. Big serves, flashy footwork, a wicked backhand slice, but at crunch time our sportsmanship says more about our character than our shots. How we conduct ourselves on court can make a lasting impression on our friends, rivals and whoever else we share the court with. Sportsmanship connects us and makes tennis unique - it’s something we aim for as players ourselves at Sigrún.
As we've watched Wimbledon these past two weeks, we see the pinnacle of the sport and class on display. Eight-time champion Roger Federer chased more Wimbledon hardware (will it be the last time?) on his return from surgery, five-time champion Novak Djokovic is bidding to keep his Calendar Slam hopes alive and a cast of challengers have been burning to take a taste of Grand Slam glory from the big three. The greats of the game, from Roger Federer to Rafael Nadal to Arthur Ashe and even John McEnroe, are all known for far more than wins and losses. These legends have forged their reputations with sportsmanship and nowhere is that more evident than at Wimbledon.
Losing with dignity, winning with grace, respecting the competition and honoring our sport - these are all key components of the ironclad standard that we tennis players are held to, for better or for worse. If you could boil it down to one common denominator it would have to be respect.
Case in point: Tim Smyczek vs. Rafael Nadal, 2015 Australian Open
Back in 2015, American Tim Smyczek found himself with an opportunity of a lifetime. He had reached the second round at the Australian Open and found himself in a five-set tussle with the great Rafael Nadal. The American, a Milwaukee native, never defeated a player ranked higher than 73 at the majors, so you can imagine his excitement when he was suddenly two games away from taking out one of the greatest players to ever pick up a racquet. Smyczek was hungry for victory, but he wasn’t hungry enough to let it cloud his moral compass. Here’s what happened.
With Nadal serving at 6-5, 30-0 in the fifth and deciding set, a rowdy fan hollered out as the Spaniard tossed the ball to hit his first serve. Nadal’s serve sailed long and as the crowd began to boo Smyczek delayed play to catch the attention of the umpire.
What did the American want? To complain? Argue? Buy time so he could catch his breath? No, he told the umpire to give Nadal two serves, because his first serve was hindered by that belligerent hooligan in the crowd. It was a classic gesture that did not go unnoticed.
Nadal finished off the victory, and moments later took to praising Smyczek.
“I want to congratulate Tim — he’s a real gentleman for what he did in that last game,” Nadal said in his on-court interview. “Not a lot of people will do this at 6-5 in the fifth.”
Later in the evening, Nadal still had Smyczek’s benevolent gesture on his mind.
“What he did at the end of the fifth is just amazing,” Nadal added during his post-match press conference. “He’s a great example, what he did today.”
Smyczek’s sportsmanship deserves recognition. But Nadal’s reaction to the American’s gesture is informative in other ways. It indicates that the legendary Spaniard was surprised by what he saw, and that he didn’t expect it.
In other words: Not all players would behave like Smyczek did in that situation, and some behave far worse. We could – and should – be better.
As we think about Smyczek’s example and watch Wimbledon, below are some ideas to think about the next time you’re on the court (or even off the court):
1. Calling Lines – with integrity!
If you are lucky to play tennis with an umpire and a full set of linesmen - or Hawk-Eye - then this doesn’t pertain to you. But to the other 99.99 percent of players, this is EVERYTHING. Call the lines like you’d want them to be called on your shots. If you are going to call your opponent’s shot out, be sure about it. Otherwise, it’s not your point. Better to win it fair and square. Integrity in life, integrity in tennis, words to live by.
2. Lose with dignity
Why do we fall hook, line and sinker for a warm embrace at net after a hard-fought battle? Because it exemplifies the spirit of competition and the ability to appreciate that you’ve been beaten by the better player.
Novak Djokovic may be best known for a bit of bad sportsmanship, committed at the 2020 US Open, when he was defaulted for hitting a lineswoman with a ball, but Djokovic has always been one of the best at congratulating his opponent after a particularly heartbreaking loss. Think back to his loss to Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros in 2015. The Serbian knocked off King of Clay Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals and was one win from the title that had eluded him up until that point in his career. But when Stan Wawrinka took him down in four sets in the final he swallowed his disappointment and properly congratulated his opponent for what was a magical victory. One year later, with good Karma in his pocket, he was back in Paris to claim the title. The crowd went wild for him.
3. Don’t let Anger Kill the Fun
At the professional level there are codes which require players to treat on-court officials with respect. Though athletes often cross the line (fortunately their transgressions are often seen as part of the show), it’s not okay to berate an official, smash racquets, or constantly berate yourself while you play. At the professional level it’s tolerated - these athletes are playing for millions of dollars and are under great pressure - but let’s leave the temper tantrums to the pros. Tennis is an uplifting sport. Keep it positive and watch your game improve!
4. Nobody’s Perfect
We all make mistakes, and we all can get hot under the collar after an hour-long stretch of inexplicably bad tennis. It’s okay to have a moment. What’s not okay is to lose control. Or to develop a pattern and fall into a negative spiral. When that happens, you spoil the fun, tarnish the game, and very often your own reputation. Nobody wants to play with someone like that.
Treat Sportsmanship as a Goal
You work on your forehand for hours with a ball machine. You hit six hoppers of serves four times a week. You train and develop your net game and footwork. So why not put some time into your sportsmanship? It’s a vibe that spreads, and makes the whole tennis community a more rewarding, enriching place to be. Being a good sport is one of the most underrated skills you will keep in your bag and it will stay with you even after you’ve left the court.
Embrace it, practice it, and perfect it – it will define you more than anything you do on the court.
Want to know more about how to be a good sport? Read more on sportsmanship at the USTA.