Why do tennis players lie down when they win a tournament?

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.

Serena_Williams_vs_Angelique_Kerber_CHAMPION_POINTE_2016

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.

The_Greatest_Final_Ever_Australian_Open_2012.gif

Where did this peculiar celebration come from? It wasn’t always this way, as this clip of Federer’s 2003 Wimbledon triumph shows.

Roger_Federer_Wimbledon_2003_Championship_Point

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.

ESPN has a great history of the most iconic sports gesture, the high-five.

And over at Slate there is a fantastic article about the phenomenon of putting your hands on your head in College Basketball.

Wisc-Ariz-v2.gif

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.

Wisc-Ariz-v2.gif

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!

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

8 thoughts on “Why do tennis players lie down when they win a tournament?”

  1. There is a similar oddity in soccer (football). Whenever a player scores a goal, the celebration seems to always start with the player running away from his team mates. In the other football codes, a player always looks to celebrate with his team mates. At least that’s the way it seems to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve noticed this! they run off like mad and their teammates give chase. The cynic in me says they want their photo in the paper without their teammates!

      Like

  2. I’ve never considered how actions may be prone to fashions like slang. But I suppose my demeanour is as neutral as the gesticulating Italians.

    I wonder what actions are particular to Melbourne?

    Also, good to see you are still writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kendo despite being somewhat niche also has its own slang/learned behaviours some of which are frowned upon by elders.
      I think there’s likely to be an element of young players emulating their heroes…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Jason

    I enjoy reading your articles – this tennis one reminds me of the sytle of Steven J Dubner’s Freakonomics. If you can get the data, a similar topic might be: “When did daytime running lights become cool?”. When I was a kid, the only day time running lights were on Volvos and that was not cool. Sometime in the mid 2000’s, it started to become cool – you could plot against the decline in Australian built cars and the rise of european masstegie imports…

    On 31 January 2016 at 16:24, Thomas the Think Engine wrote:

    > thomasthethinkengine posted: “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 con” >

    Like

    1. Thanks Colin!

      That’s an interesting question. I know we import a crazy number of foreign cars and it wouldn’t surprise me if some EU standard was tightened that made daytime running lights standard or at least more common on cars on Aussie roads. Would be interesting to know more!

      Like

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