When the U.S. Open begins Monday, the best tennis players in the world will unleash overpowering serves, crackling forehands and paralyzing returns. Then they will retreat behind the baseline and use a no-less-visible weapon of choice: a 100 percent cotton official tournament towel.
In the men's game in particular, tennis and towels are much more in tandem now than the faded tactic of serve-and-volley. For various reasons, sometimes including actually drying off, players have increasingly been, as they say, going to the towel.
As Roger Federer recently described it, "For some players, like a security blanket."
Beyond noticeable, it has made some people irritable. At Wimbledon, while commenting for television, John McEnroe wondered why players needed to towel off between so many points under conditions that were typically cool. At the same tournament, John Newcombe, the No. 1 player in 1967 and who is now 70, summed up the incredulity of his generation by observing: "Can we stop the towel, please? Hit one ball, towel."
At a time when several sports - Major League Baseball foremost among them - are grappling with ways to reduce the duration of games to accommodate shorter attention spans and more television choices, quantifying how rampant towel use affects the length of tennis matches is difficult because the matches differ wildly in terms of competitiveness. But people watching know when one is dragging on, seemingly forever.
On the men's tour, players are allotted 25 seconds between points. The women's tour allows 20 seconds, as do the four Grand Slam events. But players, especially the stars, often bend and break the rules. In the 2012 Australian Open men's final, Rafael Nadal, a notorious dawdler, and Novak Djokovic routinely took 30 to 35 seconds between points, albeit on a hot, humid day. Their match lasted 5 hours 53 minutes, a record for a Grand Slam final.
Few would challenge the argument of the pro-turned-commentator Justin Gimelstob, who said: "The sport has changed; it's more physical and the rallies are longer. In the summer, try serving to Novak Djokovic when you are dripping wet off your hat, shirt, shoes and shorts."
But to Newcombe's point: At the Rogers Cup this month in Toronto, Djokovic was trailing Gael Monfils, 0-30, 3-4, in the third set when he hit exactly one ball - a service winner - and called for a towel. In a night match of 20-something big servers with huge forehands, Milos Raonic and Jack Sock consistently took as much time toweling off as they did playing points.
"Sometimes the conditions in a place like D.C. or New York, it's almost mandatory," Sock said. "Otherwise you're not going to be able to hold on to your racket. But I do think it becomes habit, routine for guys in situations. You go to the towel to think about things."
Around the men's tour, Greg Rusedski, who retired in 2007, is generally acknowledged as the godfather of point-by-point - or pointless - toweling. Rusedski considered it an unbreakable habit, while conceding, "It must have been annoying to watch and play against."
Federer said he was a regular towel user as a temperamental teenager, tour newcomer and perhaps trendsetter.
"I don't want to say I was one of the first to start it, but I needed it to calm down, you know, to not throw the racket or not yell," he said. "I was like, 'OK, go back to the towel and relax.' That was for me a thing I consciously tried to do at the end of the '90s. Has it gone over the top? Sometimes, absolutely."
Towel routines differ from player to player. For some, it is a cursory brush to the face. Others have more comprehensive wiping routines. Then there is Nadal, who wields a towel with the same fervor he does almost everything else: left arm, left side of his face, behind the left ear; repeat those steps on the right side.
Some players prefer to walk toward the ballperson with the towel; others use hand signals to have the towel delivered. David Ferrer wiggles his fingers. Sock said, "I'm a pointer." Andy Murray said he believed he made two short wiping motions near his cheek. "I'm so used to doing it," he said, "I don't even realize that I'm doing it, to be honest."
Like Gimelstob, Murray added that the towel use was mostly justified in tennis because rarely do other athletes have to labor for hours in warm, humid conditions with no teammate to allow them a rest.
"I'm not sure it's really needed to slow your opponent down because you're entitled to take the allotted time," Murray said, acknowledging that in a recent match against the fast-playing 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios, the towel helped him with tempo. "If you're taking longer, it's the umpire's job to call a warning."
As for those who towel off out of habit, Murray said that was getting into the realm of the sports psychologist. He happened to have a good one.
Alexis Castorri, a psychologist based in South Florida who has worked with Murray and other athletes, described towel reliance as a sound strategic tactic.
"It's become less about the towel, unless they're honestly sweating," she said. "I don't teach towel. The routine I do teach is that you have to take some of the 20 or 25 seconds to do something. If that's what you want to do, go to the towel, go ahead. It's all about what you're doing with your mind."
In terms of looking "for a feeling," Castorri cited Maria Sharapova's habit of gathering herself behind the baseline, back to her opponent, as a good other example. Golfers, she added, rely on ticks and body gyrations in preparation for the next shot. Basketball players developed the odd habit of slapping teammates five at the free-throw line even after a missed shot.
Castorri said that some athletes, when advised to find that security blanket, have told her, "I don't want to look goofy." She has responded, "Actually, you'll look professional."
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