There’s a thin line that one walks between a ritual and a superstition. Rituals are a specific sort of action taken on a regular basis, which is perceived to produce a desired result; to bring good luck, or, in the world of sports, victory. According to Wikipedia, [rituals]…” have typically involved special gestures and words, recitation of fixed texts, performance of special music, songs, or dances, processions, manipulation of certain objects, use of special dresses, consumption of special food or drink”; all of which we have seen exhibited watching games played on courts and on fields.
Most often, however, such actions are commonly described as superstitions. The New World Encyclopedia defines superstition in this way: “A superstition is the irrational belief that future events can be influenced or foretold by specific, unrelated behaviors or occurrences…… Superstitions are thus a way of attempting to regain control over events in one's life.”
Superstitions or Rituals
We all remember superstitions from childhood; carrying around a lucky rabbit’s foot, searching the front lawn every March for four leaf clovers, never opening an umbrella in the house, stepping on a crack or walking under a ladder; most containing an element of spooky witchcraft and bad luck.
Now I’ve stepped on many a sidewalk crack in my time and I’m happy to report, my mother’s back was never broken. So just maybe these superstitions have less to do with black magic and luck and more to do with parents, back in the day, attempting to reign in a disobedient child.
Who would want floors, windows, or walls splashed with water from a soaking wet umbrella opened in the house or broken mirror shards strewn about? The bad luck here would actually be upon the parent who had to clean it up!
Courtside Quirks & Coinkydinks
Superstitions or rituals, regardless the label attached, still exist today as more than a childhood rhyme or belief. We witness them day in and day out, especially in sports, and tennis players are no exception.
Consider Rafael Nadal for instance; he insists he is not superstitious, yet his antics on the court might deem otherwise to a superstitious minded person. Before each point, Nadal, similar to a catcher signaling his pitcher, touches his ears, his nose, his shoulders and the front and back of his shorts in a specific order. His Babalot tennis bag always sits on the seat next to him, he must have two water bottles poised between his feet court side and, while playing, the labels on the bottles must be facing the side of the court on which he is playing. He also drinks from the bottles in a certain order, making sure he never drinks out of the same bottle two times in a row.
Rafael also never steps on a line after a point, and always steps in front of the line with his right foot first. How does he keep track of all this and concentrate on his game at the same time, we wonder?
Novak Djokovic, another super star of tennis who prefers to repudiate the superstition label, proclaims, "I do not have superstitions; I have routines. I call them routines." You decide; superstition or routine? Djokovic won’t use the same shower twice during a tournament and believes he can’t win unless his poodle, Pierre, is with him. Maybe this is just his way of getting Pierre past the ‘no pets allowed’ rule.
Hmmm….. Oh yes, there’s more! Andre Agassi did not wear underwear throughout the 1999 French Open because he forgot to put them on for the first round match and won; a coincidence fashioned superstition that paid off – as he won the whole shootin’ match sans sous un pantalon. Oooo la-la Andre !!
Let’s Hear it for the Girls
Not to be outdone by the men, the feminine side of tennis has its own set of eccentricities. Maria Sharapova, amazing tennis player that she is, talks to the wall behind her before every point. On every serve, she does a little hoping dance, stares at her opponent for a bit and bounces the ball only once before whacking it over the net with a loud grunt.
Serena Williams is not only one of the best female tennis players to hit the courts, she is proud to claim her superstitious ways helped get her to where she is today. There is something about shower use and tennis players using the same shower each time or refusing to use the same shower each time that holds some kind of power.
For Williams, fifteen years of being sure to use the same shower before a match and then taking her shower flip-flops to the court seems to be a tried and true superstition that works quite well for her. As has tying her shoelaces the same exact way every game, bouncing the ball five times before her first serve and two times before her second, and wearing the same pair of socks for the entire tournament; the latter being her tennis bag’s least favorite story to tell.
Last, but certainly not least, is the ball sniffing Dominika Cibulkova. When asked in a recent interview with freedom tennis to explain kissing the ball, Cibulkova replied, “No, I’m not kissing the balls. I really like the smell of the balls, of the new balls. I was just smelling the balls all the time. I do the same things. Yeah. I don’t need to do it, but it’s just my habit, what I do on the court when I have new balls. I just smell them. It’s maybe also for the luck, and I do it all my life, so it’s just, you know, something what I do on the court.”
Superstitions or Rituals ….. Wait
Let’s throw a few other options onto the court, shall we? How about expertise, training, hard work and pure tennis genius? Looking at the track records of these fine athletes, expertise, training, hard work, and genius trump stinky tennis socks in our book any day.