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On missing the emotional crux of every tennis match, the handshake

When Dominic Thiem and Hugo Gaston played the final point of their five-set duel at Roland Garros on Sunday, and began their weary march to the net, I did what I always do at the end of a memorable match: I yelled “Show the handshake!” at my television set.

Does this sound slightly nutty, like something that only a man who has been locked down in his apartment for too long would do? Maybe. But I’m guessing that I’m not the only tennis fan who has shouted those words at a TV. We all know that the handshake, while it only lasts for a few seconds and has nothing to do with the outcome, is the emotional crux of any match. It’s the final act and the cathartic moment of the drama we’ve been watching, and it lets us know how the two actors in it feel about the performance, and each other. For the players, it marks the end of their staged battle, when they can lay down their arms, take off their headbands and their game faces, and go back to being friends—or not friends.

All photos from Getty Images

During the peak years of the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, I was amazed by how much weight fans placed on how each of their heroes handled the handshakes after their showdowns. Did the winner look arrogant? Why didn’t the loser smile more? Who was more gracious? Who was sincere and who was phony? Did they secretly hate each other? The debate over handshake etiquette often drowned out any discussion of the match itself.

But I also understood the appeal of that debate. Over the course of a match, we see the players hitting forehands and backhands, serves and volleys—i.e., doing their jobs. When they shake hands, we see them, however briefly, as they are. For most fans, discussing that is more interesting than discussing the mechanics of a certain player’s service motion. Hence, my annoyance when a match ends and the cameras inexplicably linger on the cheering crowd, or the winning player’s coach, for a split-second too long and miss the handshake.

That hasn’t happened as often during the pandemic era, mainly because there are no cheering crowds to linger over. Unfortunately, there are no handshakes to show either. What we get now are two players politely nodding and tapping their racquets together from a (hopefully) safe distance. Inside and outside tennis, the handshake has been a casualty of the pandemic. Away from the court, I can’t say I miss it. Why did we feel the need to swap germs in the name of civility in the first place? And as a recreational player, the racquet tap is more than enough ceremony for the matches I play. These days, just seeing pre-pandemic clips of people shaking hands or high-fiving is enough to give me the willies.

But I have missed them in pro tennis. Missed the way, after a good match, two players will pull each other closer in mutual congratulations. Missed the way the winner will console the loser with a pat on the shoulder. Missed the post-epic hugs, and the extended conversations two players might have after one. Missed the drive-bys, too, when the loser can’t face the winner, and tries to bolt out of there as quickly as possible.

Whether it’s gracious or rude, the handshake gives us a tiny window into the people behind the players. It’s a moment of human communication in a sport that mostly bans them, and a way to show that sportsmanship—how you act after a victory or a defeat—is still a valuable part of sports. Billie Jean King, that relentless modernizer, thought handshakes were a relic from the game’s too-polite past, and eliminated them from World Team Tennis. Quaint or not, though, the handshake lived on, and has given us some of tennis’ lasting images. Martina Navratilova wrapping her friend Chris Evert in a congratulatory hug after Evert beat her at Roland Garros in 1985. The dying-light meeting at the net between Federer and Nadal on Centre Court in 2008. Agnieszka Radwanska’s drive-by to end all drive-bys after she lost to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon in 2013. (You can even buy a T-shirt with that image on it.) In general, handshakes have only grown more emotional and respectful since the days when John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl could barely bring themselves to look at each other after their matches.

When the pros returned this summer, they mostly stuck to the new rules—keep your distance, tap your racquets, nod at your opponent, walk to your chair. There wasn’t much room for emotion or congratulation or solace. Not surprisingly, there has been some backsliding, as the players revert to old habits. These days, they know they’re not supposed to make contact, but they end up doing it anyway. On Monday, Andrey Rublev and Marton Fucsovics fought for nearly four hours on Court Suzanne-Lenglen; when they met at the net, their arms seemed to naturally go around each other’s backs in a show of mutual respect. It’s hard to begrudge them that.

Unfortunately, we have to for now. Better to stick to the rules, and do whatever it takes to stay safe, until life can return to normal. On Sunday, Alexander Zverev was ill during his loss to Jannik Sinner. What if he and the Italian had embraced or chatted at the net, and it turned out that Zverev had the virus? (Fortunately, from what I saw, they tapped racquets and kept their distance.)

And how about the match, between Thiem and Gaston, that inspired me to yell at my TV? The cameras stayed with the Austrian and the Frenchman, and caught them doing a tentative high-five at the net. Once upon a time, that would have been a proper civil coda to a contest like theirs. As it is now, I cringed at the physical contact and their proximity to each other. Thiem has done a lot of things right this year, but observing Covid protocols hasn’t been one of them.

For now, I’ll probably keep yelling at my TV set to “show the handshake,” and then hope the players don’t actually shake hands. In 2020, a racquet tap is good enough.

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Articles by Steve Tignor

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