By Giri Nathan
Uh-oh. Iga has done the bad thing at net again. What’s it look like to you? To me it looks like a tree frog in freefall. On some level it’s just fun to see an athlete this extraterrestrially coordinated move like a doofy 4-year-old. There’s no tennis-as-tennis reason to move arms like this; it functions purely as distraction.
As she wraps up a WTA season for the ages, the world No. 1 has stumbled into amusing micro-controversy. It’s not totally new territory. In the past, Swiatek has faced minor gamesmanship grumblings from tennis fans—but not, as far as I can tell, from opposing players, on the record. Most of the behaviors under scrutiny are on the soft side. When the match is close, Iga might put up a hand, not quite playing to the server’s speed, a tempo-breaker she shares with her tennis idol, Rafa. Or, returning on a big point, she might take a mid-game trip to her bag to swap out racquets, in an “icing the kicker” fashion. But some of Iga’s high jinks skew genuinely grimy. Last season she whacked her racquet against the grass, making a sound, while her opponent had a sitter. At this year’s US Open, more than once, she resorted to frog maneuvers while her opponent had an easy putaway. Another frog emerged in a frontcourt exchange against Donna Vekic in San Diego earlier this month, and that’s the one that lit up this discourse in earnest. Completists can consult the work of one Twitter watchdog, who cobbled together a Swiatek poor sportsmanship supercut, a fine example of what happens to online conspiratorial degeneracy when given a (relatively) healthy outlet. For a true sports sicko, this kind of receipt collection is sweeter and rarer than a simple highlight reel.
Swiatek’s frog teeters on the boundaries of taste, violating tennis’ unwritten rules, but it is harder to determine whether it’s against tennis’ actual rules. The WTA and ITF rule books both say that a hindrance will result in the loss of a point, but they don’t describe exactly what should count as a hindrance. Maybe no rule crafter could have anticipated Iga’s innovative waggle when they sat down to write. And maybe a good deal of it is just up to interpretation. Players staring down a potential passing shot have a whole range of options at their disposal. A fake-out sprint in one direction? That’s always been fair game. Clattering the racquet against the court? Making noise is more in line with the hindrance calls these days. There’s a huge swath of ambiguity in the middle. Even if the books don’t offer much clarity, Swiatek’s guilty conscience does reveal something about the player perspective. After Iga won the San Diego title, she wound down her celebratory tweet with a spot apology: “And congrats @DonnaVekic for your amazing run! And sorry for waving my hands at the net.” Now that this is all out in the open, perhaps umpires will be instructed to rule with a heavier hand in these instances.
This week, in an interview with Polish outlet Sport.pl, Swiatek was asked about that moment in the Vekic match. “I can’t control it, but I hope it will never happen again. We are working on it. It is a stress reaction to what is happening. It is an involuntary reaction. I did it during the US Open, and as I recall it was a stressful moment. In San Diego, I did it unconsciously. Right after the game I approached Donna and apologized. She had no hard feelings, it turned out she didn’t recall this at all. I hope fans will understand me as well,” she said. She also wondered if she’d been polluted by cross-sport influence. “Maybe I’ve seen one too many football games, and taken notice of what goalies do during penalty shots,” she said with a laugh.
Above: Iga does her best impression of a flightless bird.