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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

You won’t believe how much prize money is on offer at the Tennis.

At the Australian Open, first round losers take home enough money to buy three (3) of the automobiles on offer from major sponsors Kia. They can stand on an outside court, not even touch a ball with their racquet, and still take home $34,500.

Even those who fail to qualify for the tournament itself are richly rewarded. 64 men and boys and 48 women and girls have their dreams crushed in the first round of qualifying each year. To compensate them, they get $4000 in prizes. Losing in the second round of qualifying garners you $8000 and losing in the third round nets $16,000. Not bad.

Since I found out the total prize pool at the Australian Open, I’ve been asking people to guess it. Guesses have ranged from $4 million to $12 million. None have come near the true total: $40 million.

The organisers give out prizes left and right. Every player gets something. The Aussie Nick Kygrios takes home $340,000 for making it to the quarterfinals of the men’s singles draw. But he also gets $7400 as his share of a team that lost in the first round of the doubles. (Nick is ranked 1207th in the world for doubles, suggesting that entering the doubles draw might have been about the cash, not his passion for the game.)

The prizes in the singles are greatest.

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Winners’ loot.

The most expensive match of the tournament is the final, of course where the loser gets $1.55 million and the winner $3.1 million. But it is also the only round where the winner collects a cheque. In each other round the winner goes on to a chance of bigger and better things. Excluding the final, the most expensive round for organisers, at $2.1 million, is round one, where 64 losers get $34,000.Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 2.39.37 pm

The prizes are rich enough to cover airfares and accommodation – even for the players who lose at qualifying. Research suggests 150 pros are making enough money to break even in each of the men’s and women’s game. At the same time, some up and comers are probably losing money now in the hope of gaining the experience to make it big later, and others are losing money in the twilights of their career, hanging on in hope of one more glory. (Hi Mr Hewitt!).

So, where is that money coming from?

Tennis Australia’s Annual Report shows it made $193 million last year from “events and operations.” While there’s not much detail, one can imagine that the vast bulk of that is broadcast rights to that highly rare prize, the Australian Open. Channel Seven in Australia pays $20 million a year.  The rights globally are doubtless severalfold higher.

Having a grand slam is quite a feat for a country of Australia’s tennis stature. Government supports it, but the support is less direct and therefore less controversial than that provided to the Grand Prix. They prop up the Melbourne and Olympic Park trusts which run the stadiums and have put in hundreds of millions of dollars for their development and re-building. Those stadiums are used for other purposes too, many of which attract tourists from around the world, contributing to the local economy.

Happily, Australia’s tax treaties mean athletes are liable for tax in the country where tournaments take place. So Djokovic, the Williams, et al, all face up to the ATO and hand over a chunk.

Ball Kid Boiling Point: Child Labour Shock Hits Melbourne.

It is 2014.

And yet, in contravention of the guiding principles of the ILO Convention on Child Labour signed 40 years ago, hundreds of youth under the age of 15 are being employed by a major and highly profitable Australian enterprise.

The ILO convention states:

“The minimum age specified in pursuance of paragraph 1 of this Article shall not be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, shall not be less than 15 years.”

Worse, they are without pay despite doing tough physical work in conditions of searing heat.

Unpaid work in searing heat, anybody?
Unpaid work in searing heat, anybody?

Tennis Australia, which earned $1,600,000 in profit in 2012-13, accepts ballkids agd 12-15.

These embattled and un-unionised “volunteers” must complete a multi-month training schedule to secure their unpaid roles:

“Australian Open Ballkids will also be required to participate in tournaments outside of the Australian Open as part of a compulsory training requirement. These events are scheduled to take place between November and December.”

They share the court with line judges (paid around $200 a day) with chair umpires (paid around $400 a day), with overtime.

Or perhaps they will be on court with Novak Djokovic. In 2013 he secured the winners cheque of $2.43 million with 18 hours 16 minutes of court time. Call that $132,800 an hour or $2,213 a minute.

Sure, the kids seem to like it. “I’ve enjoyed it every single year so far,” 15-year old Mitchell Riley told the Herald Sun recently. “It’s great getting up so close to the players.”

But is it really fair? Prior to 2009, the Australian Open handed out $42 a match to ballkids. Someone has made the decision to cut that to nothing.

Surprisingly it is America where there has been most rancour over tennis officials pay. Half the world’s top umpires boycotted the 2011 US Open in protest at the conditions And in 2012 the US Tennis Association was sued over pay and conditions.

Meanwhile the home of the 35-hour week, France has an all-unpaid ballboy force, working up to 11 hours a day, as recorded in this Economist article

 

Would it be possible to organise a ball-kid strike? I’d love to see the players collecting their own wayward shots and fetching their own towels. Maybe 2015…