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When the gloves come off on the court

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31st March, 2020

A one-on-one combative exchange, where tempers can flare and personalities clash, it’s no surprise that tennis is often compared to boxing.

Thanks to the likes of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, as well as Nick Kyrios in more recent times, we’re used to the verbal blowups.

But what happens when players start getting physical? Here’s are my top four moments of tennis infamy.

4. Rosol can’t bottle it up anymore
One of Rafael Nadal’s idiosyncratic behaviours is the careful placing of his water bottles in a specific order, with labels facing outward.

In a fiery confrontation between Nadal and Lucus Rosol at Wimbledon in 2014, Rosol took to Nadal’s bottles with a vengeance, kicking them over during a change of ends, and laying the boot into Nadal by proxy.

3. When a turkey plays chicken
On the day Irina Spirlea bumped into Venus Williams, it wasn’t in the supermarket but on the change of ends at the 1997 US Open semi-final.

Spirlea, known to use the odd expletive or two, made a beeline for Venus, who seemed genuinely oblivious to what was about to hit her.

At the post-match press conference, Venus’ father and coach, Richard Williams, dubbed the Romanian “an ugly white turkey”.


2. Chest bumps at 50 paces
It’s 1990 in Munich and David Wheaton and Brad Gilbert are playing in a semi-final to decide who will be Pete Sampras’ opponent in the final of something called the Grand Slam Cup.

Neither has any realistic chance of beating Sampras, but the loser of the final is guaranteed a cheque for one million dollars. Money doesn’t talk, it pushes and shoves, and this what happened over a disputed line call when the two players got close and personal.

What started as a heated verbal exchange escalated when Gilbert pushed at Wheaton, who retaliated with a chest bump.

More threats were hurled and eventually order was restored.

1. McEnroe goes for the throat and Newk crosses the line
From the moment the 1981 US Open doubles semi-final between John McEnroe and Peter Fleming versus John Newcombe and Fred Stolle began, the tension was palpable.

Fuelled by what McEnroe perceived as critical comments of himself in an article written by Newcombe the previous day, there were other underlying factors at play. The laidback personalities of the ageing Aussies collided with the brash, no-nonsense approach of the two young Americans. They may as well have been from different universes.

Early tension was diffused by Newcombe playing the role of the clown, but when McEnroe deliberately drilled a ball into the throat of Stolle, causing Stolle to drop to the ground like a sack of spuds, all bets were off.

Amidst the roaring New York crowd, Newcombe crossed the net, stood toe-to-toe with McEnroe, shoved the butt cap of his racquet millimetres from McEnroe’s face and told him in language that would have made Irena Spirlea proud that his days were numbered.


Roarers, do you have any you can add to the list?

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