Some armchair psychologists contend that tennis players are drawn to the sport because they don’t like physical confrontation, because they feel protected by the barrier of the net between them and their opponent. It’s a theory that looks shakier after every slow-mo replay of Maria Sharapova bumping shoulders with Victoria Azarenka. As they crossed sides during the Stuttgart final, neither wanted to be the one who moved their shoulder out of the way.
There is another theory about shoulder-bumping that needs examining: the idea that this is somehow a terrible thing for the sport. Fifteen years later, people are still talking about Venus Williams and Irina Spirlea’s collision at the 1997 US Open. (We will gloss over the fact that Venus’s father Richard called Spirlea “a big, ugly, tall, white turkey”.) If you watch the clip on YouTube, you will hear an American commentator lament: “Is this really what women’s tennis needs?” For all the mock outrage, the competitive tut-tutting, the reality is that these incidents bring extra, welcome attention to the game.
Women’s tennis is not harmed by occasional, light shoulder-bumping. And men’s game isn’t either. No one is advocating that it should reach the point where players will wear Gridiron-style shoulder pads and will charge at each other between games, but if neither player feels as though they should get out of the way, and there is a small clash of the shoulders as they walk past, that will only add to the interest in the result. Punching, pushing and biting: bad. Shoulder-bumping: why not? No one is going to get seriously hurt. It’s not violence, or physical assault; it’s just silly, entertaining posturing.
Without doubt, Azarenka’s rivalry with Sharapova has been livened up with the incident in Germany (plus by the cold handshake at the net). Sharapova isn’t looking for friendship on the tour, saying on an American chat show this year that she can be a bitch at times. The enmity between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian led to some shoulder-bumping at the Australian Open one year (the Australian would later say that Nalbandian, an old nemesis, had been “looking for a bit of shoulder”). It is extremely unlikely that any of the men’s top four is going to be “looking for a bit of shoulder” when they play each other in a grand slam semi-final or final, but would it be such a horrendous thing if they did?
Our agony uncle, Dmitry Tursunov, suggests that you don’t try this at home with anyone who considers themselves to be an alpha male or female. “Little things that do not matter to you are a matter of life and death to the King of the Jungle. But shoulder-bumping will just result in him trying to out-bump you at the next changeover, and if you shy away from this he will feel victorious.” So, enjoy the occasionally fractious rivalries on the tour, but go easy on the copycat bumping.
This week’s tournament in Belgrade has had to make do with just two Djokovics on the draw-sheet. The world number one, Novak, understandably withdrew from the tournament run by his family as he was left emotionally exhausted after the passing of their grandfather Vladimir. But his two younger brothers, Djordje and Marko, were given wild cards.
Djordje’s wild card was into qualifying, and the unranked 16-year-old did not reach the main draw, but Marko, a 20-year-old ranked 878 in the world, was given a place in the tournament proper. It’s not the first time this season that he has been given a free pass into the main draw of an ATP tournament as he also had one in Dubai, where he lost in the first round to Andrey Golubev of Kazakhstan. On Monday evening, he is due to play Filippo Volandri of Italy.