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Let the Gamesmenship Begin

Elina Frumerman

  Photo: Eric Bolte, USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Eric Bolte, USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — Delays. Distractions. Fist pumps in the direction of the opponent. Crowding service lines. Trash talk. Strategic bathroom breaks. Suspect medical timeouts.

Even an occasional hard bump on a changeover.

These tactics will all be on display, as much as big serves and hard groundstrokes, at the U.S. Open beginning Monday in New York.

Some will be subtle. Some bold. Some might even be called "cheating within the rules."

Tennis isn't the invective-spewing, crotch-grabbing, play-disrupting Wild West it was in the early decades of the professional era. Rules, and enforcement, have tamped down on the occasional barroom-brawl atmosphere that undermined (or perhaps enlivened) the genteel game.

But don't think for a second that players have given up looking for ways to burrow into opponents' heads. Gamesmanship, in all its forms, is alive and well.

"It's rampant," says 16th-ranked Maria Kirilenko of Russia.

Some tactics are more controversial than others.

After squandering five match points in the semifinals at the Australian Open, Victoria Azarenka opted for one of tennis' go-to moves. She called for medical assistance.

For 10 minutes her opponent, American youngster Sloane Stephens, sat and waited as she prepared to serve for survival at 1-6, 4-5.

Victoria Azarenka receives treatment from a trainer during her semifinal match against Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open. Azarenka took some heat for the timing of the timout. (Photo: Aaron Favila, AP)

When play resumed, Azarenka broke Stephens to seal the match and then offered some ill-timed comments about breathing problems and avoiding "the choke of the year."

Azarenka was within her rights to call for a medical timeout. But warranted or not, many felt the second-ranked Belarusian had gamed the system.

Stephens' coach, David Nainkin, called it "cheating within the rules."

The New York Times splashed it on the front page under the headline "A Timeout Jeered Round the World."

Breaking rhythm

Today's high jinks fall mostly under the umbrella of tempo control — breaking rhythm, causing distractions and stalling.

Players ask for a towel between points. They feign un-readiness before an opponent serves when they are supposed to play at the server's pace. They tie their shoelaces. They saunter over to their changeover chair to grab a different racket.

"It's people trying to take advantage of the system," says veteran doubles player Lisa Raymond of the USA. "And it's unfortunate. I don't see that ever changing. I've played against girls that are dancing in the service box, that are taking bathroom breaks after losing a set 6-0 or taking medical timeouts when you're about to serve for the set. It happens every day."

Who has the best shot at winning the U.S. Open?

Most would recognize the most egregiously mistreated rule of modern times: the bathroom break, which is commonly understood to be a tactic players use to collect themselves or impede momentum.

Don't count on the U.S. Open fortnight passing without plenty of toilet timeouts. Grand Slam rules permit two restroom visits per match, which must be taken on a set break.

For some, that's two too many. Former top-five player Brad Gilbert says that he contested more than 800 matches on tour and never once left the court to relieve himself.

"If you have to go to bathroom," says Gilbert, an ESPN commentator and coach, "it'd better be because of the runs."

What really gets under players' skin is the time it takes for players to do their business and return to the court.

"You get cool," complains former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic of Serbia. "You get stiff. Then you can't put the ball in. It's like another match. I need another warm up."

Jelena Jankovic of Serbia suggests that bathroom breaks often go on way too long. (Photo: Pat Lovell, USA TODAY Sports)

Jankovic, who says she has been kept waiting for up to 20 minutes, is in favor of a time limit.

"You're going to pee for 10 or 20 minutes?" she says. "Who does that?"

And don't get Tom Gullikson started on excessive towel use.

"I understand the physical points," says former U.S. Davis Cup captain Gullikson, who played 11 years on tour. "I get it in places like Cincinnati. But going to the towel at Wimbledon when it's 65 degrees and you've just hit an ace? It's like a pacifier."

Subtle to shameful

Earlier this year in a match against Serena Williams, Spain's Anabel Medina Garrigues was caught on TV rubbing new balls against her racket in an effort, presumably, to fluff them up and slow them down before they were in play.

There is no written rule against this, but the WTA said in a statement that had the umpire seen her scuffing balls it could have triggered a code violation.

The USA's Tim Smyczek witnessed a player he declines to name purposely lean into a ball that his opponent had smacked across the court in a fit of anger.

"He hit me! He hit me! You have to default him!" the player protested to the umpire, who didn't fall for the ploy.

Still, the incident so rattled the victim of that bit of gamesmanship that when the two played later that year "he'd lost the match before he walked on the court," Smyczek says.

Some players will intentionally hit away from a player's preferred sequence of shots during a warm-up to mess with their head, said 2005 U.S. Open semifinalist Robby Ginepri.

If there is a rub when it comes to unsporting tactics, it's this: Every player sees it; nobody admits to it.

"So everybody is lying then," laughs Germany's Andrea Petkovic.

Petkovic, a former top-10 player, is one of the few who owns up to the fact that she was told by coaches as a junior to employ disruptive psychological tactics.

For her, mind games didn't work.

"I got out of rhythm and lost even worse," Petkovic says.

Sometimes it happens well before a ball is struck.