The Australian Open tennis is on again this summer. I’ve watched a lot of it over the years. I don’t focus much on tennis normally but when everyone else is excited it is fun to get swept along.
One thing I’ve become fascinated by is the invariable conclusion of the final. It ends with the victor flat on their back somewhere near the baseline, seemingly felled by emotion.
It happened last night when Germany’s Kerber beat Williams from the USA in the women’s final. I bet it will happen again tonight when Murray and Djokovic face off in the men’s final.*
Djokovic has form when it comes to touching his shoulderblades to the playing surface.
Where did this peculiar celebration come from? It wasn’t always this way, as this clip of Federer’s 2003 Wimbledon triumph shows.
Collapsing to his knees dates this footage almost as much as the Federer ponytail.
What is it about tennis and collapsing? Prostration is not standard celebration in other sports.
Mostly you get excited leaping, as we see in this other tennis-like sport (go to 11:37 in the video).
But the strange thing about gestures in sports is they are learned behaviours – as tennis players collapse so cricket players throw a caught ball in the air, and motorcyclists pop wheelies.
And over at Slate there is a fantastic article about the phenomenon of putting your hands on your head in College Basketball.
It’s a thing. Players do it and so do people in the stands.The journalist did a comprehensive review of the history of the gesture (which he refers to as a ‘disappointment situp’.).
“I decided to review footage from the closing seconds of March Madness games, going back to 1957. I chose 64 examples from among the most exciting games ever played, as determined by a set of lists like this one in USA Today.
Some things never change: As far back as I looked, losing players slumped their shoulders and stared off into space. They shambled from the court. Starting in the 1980s, I saw them huddle up, support-group style, for some mutual consoling. (You can find a hangdog Patrick Ewing in a huddle after Georgetown’s surprise 1985 loss to Villanova.) Also of long standing are the mopey hands-on-hips and the dejected jersey-tug. Fancier displays, which may be of somewhat more recent vintage, include the sad squat, the lean of languish, and the heartsick horizontal.
What about the disappointment situp? The earliest example that I could find comes from 1990, in a losing player’s flit across the screen, after Christian Laettner made a 14-footer to send Duke to victory over UConn. From there, the hands-on-head gesture slowly gains in popularity, showing up several times during the mid- to late-1990s, and much more often in the past few years.”
The weird thing is it happens when teams are losing. Learned gestures cover the good times as well as the bad.
It makes me think of an iconic image from the end of an AFL Grand Finals. The losing team sits on the ground wherever they were, lonely and inconsolable. This is unique to AFL, as far as I can tell, so it must be learned behaviour too. (video link)
I find this fascinating. We think of raw emotion as real – immune to codification or fads. But actually humans copy each other – even in moments when we feel most affected by our profound emotions. Monkey see, monkey do.
So, from where does the collapse trend in tennis originate?
I think I may have found the answer, and it comes from a likely source – Federer himself, probably the greatest male tennis player ever.
Here, in 2003, when he wins his first US Open, we see a hybrid version of the drop-to-the-knees celebration above. He starts on his knees, then rolls onto his back, seemingly overcome with emotion at winning . (The video below should go straight to 5:19 if things are working correctly.)
That could be the point at which the trend was born.
Has anyone got any clues as to whether this stretches back further? if so, share them below!
*EDIT 10.49pm: Djokovic won the match in straight sets and remained on his feet before shaking the hand of his opponent, selfishly ruining my piece!
After that he briefly came back on court and kneeled down, kissing the playing surface. I hoped for a moment he might roll over onto his back like a dog seeking a rub on the tummy, but he got up again.
Perhaps the flop down is reserved for hard-fought victories? Djokovic certainly had this one in the bag from the start. I’ll hope for better at the French Open in May!