A man should spend his whole life at play.” — Plato
“Laugh as much as possible, always laugh. It’s the sweetest thing one can do for oneself & one’s fellow human beings.” — Maya Angelou
“Humor has justly been regarded as the finest perfection of poetic genius.” — Thomas Carlyle
Art Buchwald, the humour columnist for The Washington Post and an avid social player, reminded me that tennis always had plenty of quipsters, jesters, and comedians—whether they competed, coached, talked, or wrote about our sport.
On the perils of mixed doubles, Buchwald advised, “You either go to bed with someone or you play tennis with them. But don’t do both.”
Politicians rarely escaped his biting wit. “He’s a very good [tennis] player,” Buchwald wrote about then vice president George Herbert Walker Bush. “I think he’s a much better player than he is a vice president.”
A few years later, Bush, a standout baseball first-baseman at Yale and one of the most athletic U.S. presidents in history, became the butt of a different kind of humour. During a charity doubles match with Anna Kournikova and former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, Kournikova hit the former president in the derriere with an errant serve. “That was the most I’ve ever laughed on the court,” Davenport said in Australian Tennis Magazine.
President Gerald Ford, often portrayed as a klutz on Saturday Night Live TV skits, ironically starred as a University of Michigan football lineman and played several other sports, including tennis. Ford also provided some comic relief in a doubles match when he hit his partner on the head with the ball.
Novak Djokovic said the nickname he likes most is ‘The Djoker’. His impersonations of the pre-serve mannerisms of Maria Sharapova and rivals Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Andy Roddick were so hilarious at the 2007 US Open that he said, “In the last two days, the people were congratulating me more for the impressions than for my tennis.”
At The Boodles 2013 exhibition before Wimbledon, Djokovic spoofed Sharapova, who happened to be the girlfriend of his opponent, Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov. Spectators roared with laughter, as did Grigor, when Novak turned his back to the court and fiddled with his racket strings, pushed his hair back, stuck his derriere out, bounced the ball, pushed his hair back several more times, and let out a high-pitched scream after serving.
John McEnroe’s bad-boy antics provided ample material for The Djoker at the 2009 US Open. An imperious Novak demanded, “Give me the balls” and ranted, “You cannot be serious!” Novak then imitated McEnroe’s unique service motion and protested to an imaginary linesperson, “It was wide!” That prompted Johnny Mac, a good sport, to show the cheering fans the real thing. So he served, faulted, and threw his racket on the court in mock anger. The two smiling ‘comedians’ hugged at the net amidst the laughter from delighted spectators.
Ernests Gulbis got his forename from his billionaire Latvian father, an admirer of Ernest Hemingway, the great American author. Ernests also had a way with words. His métier was press conferences, where he never failed to entertain.
On reports that he travelled to tournaments in a private jet, Gulbis jested, “Yes. And I have a helicopter, a submarine, and a spaceship.”
When Ernests misheard a question regarding John McEnroe’s critical comments about umpires, he expounded, “Get rid of vampires? My God. Umpires? I thought of something else. I thought vampires in the way the people who are surrounding and sucking the energy out of players. That’s what I meant. Umpires, no. Without umpires, it wouldn’t work. So please delete it. No, umpires. Cannot work without umpires. I thought it was vampires. You know what I mean?”
Asked about a night he spent in a Stockholm jail for soliciting prostitutes, Gulbis gave a reply that could have been scripted: “It was great. It was great fun and a very funny time. But I’m never going to go to Sweden again. If you go out and meet some girls, and immediately you’re put in jail, that’s not normal. It was very funny, though. I think everybody should go to jail at least once.” Sometimes players are unintentionally funny. For example, Serena Williams, then 29, in a rare display of self-deprecation, told us her mental age was still 15. In sharp contrast, Marion Bartoli announced that her I.Q. was 175. “I did a test when I was younger, but I’m not really someone who is really telling everyone, ‘Oh, I’m so smart.’ I’m kind of hiding it.” Marion, you cannot be serious!
Whenever we want a spontaneous medium for humour, we can always turn to Twitter, or X, as it’s been rebranded. Well-known Australian coach and TV analyst Darren Cahill used it to tweet his definition of a bad day: ‘When you sign an autograph for a kid and he looks you square in the eyes and says, ‘Thanks, Brad!’’’
When Victoria Azarenka flirted on Twitter, asking how she could learn to serve as powerfully as Nick Kyrgios, the 19-year-old Australian sensation responded, “Private lessons, of course!”
In 2014, Stacey Allaster, WTA chairman and CEO, praised Li Na as “the player of this decade who has made the most impact and growth on women’s tennis. Your legacy and your contributions to the WTA will last for decades, not only in China but around the Asia Pacific.” Indeed, late-blooming Li, the 2011 French Open and 2014 Australian Open champion, was a marvellous, trailblazing champion for a nation of 1.4 billion people with little tennis tradition. But it was her irrepressible personality that made Li immensely popular among fellow players and fans worldwide. Caroline Wozniacki called her “one of the funniest and nicest players on tour.”
When Li Na, after a 2013 Australian Open victory, was asked by on-court interviewer Rennae Stubbs, then 41, what it was like playing such good tennis at age 30, Li wisecracked, “The truth is, I am younger than you.”
Li’s trophy presentations and press conferences often turned into comedy shows. After defeating Dominique Cibulkova in the 2014 Aussie final, Li showed her gratitude with characteristic wit. “Max [Eisenbud]. Agent. Make me rich. Thanks. [My husband, Jiang Shan]. Hitting partner, fixing drinks, carrying rackets—he’s a nice guy. And lucky, too, to have me.”
At the 1991 Australian Open, Patrick McEnroe displayed the wit that would later make him a top-notch TV tennis commentator. After becoming the first player with a 100-plus ranking (No. 114) to reach a Grand Slam semifinal since 1978, the younger brother of superstar John deadpanned to the media, “It’s just like you all expected: Edberg, Lendl, McEnroe, and Becker.”
Losing can be hard to accept, even for normally gracious losers. The 2018 book, It’s Not My Fault, features hilarious excuses by American pros Pam Teeguarden and Bob Lutz.
Trying to explain why she thought the linespeople were against her, Teeguarden said, “I have to be honest. I think I lost because I wasn’t wearing a bra.”
Following his loss to future Hall of Famer Guillermo Vilas, Lutz offered not one excuse but an entire litany. “I got tired, my ears started popping, the rubber came off my tennis shoes, I got a cramp, and I lost one of my contact lenses.”
Vitas Gerulaitis, the 1977 Australian Open champion and former world No. 3, cleverly turned a long losing streak into one of the funniest lines in tennis history. When reporters asked him how he had upset Jimmy Connors at the 1980 Colgate Grand Prix Masters after losing to Connors 16 straight times, Gerulaitis famously quipped, “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row!”
Award-winning TV tennis broadcaster Mary Carillo, noted for her witty wordplay, earned more chuckles at the 2013 Roland Garros when many among the crowd cheered as muscular Rafael Nadal took off his shirt after beating Novak in a thrilling 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7 semifinal. “He’s getting a hand for his chest,” Carillo said in her inimitable style.
Freudian slips provide yet another type of tennis humor. A November 2008 transcript of WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott reads, “There’s never been more parody at the top of the game than there is today.” Scott, of course, meant to say parity to highlight the strength and depth in women’s tennis then.
Spectators come up with some catchy stuff, too. “Don’t let him off the hook, Fish!” yelled a comedian in the crowd at Mardy Fish during the crucial stage of his 7-5, 7-6 victory over Juan Martin del Potro at the 2011 Sony Ericsson Open.
No player today, other than Djokovic, can match Daniil Medvedev’s wide range of humour. It goes from the visual to wisecracks to pearls of wisdom.
After upsetting Djokovic in the 2021 US Open final, the free-spirited Russian celebrated with a zany ‘dead fish’ FIFA-style landing on the court.
When Medvedev arrived for an obligatory post-match Tennis Channel interview this summer, Steve Weissman said, “Congratulations on your win today, and thanks for coming.” With a mischievous smile, Medvedev replied, “Do I have any choice?”
While the maxims of Medvedev—whose hobbies include reading, playing chess, and PlayStation—don’t quite match those of La Rochefoucauld, they’re often thought-provoking. Someday you may find this bon mot in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: “When you die, you do not know that you are dead. It is difficult only for others. It is the same when you are stupid.”
When Laura Robson was asked at a 2013 Wimbledon press conference if she would want to watch Serena and Andy Murray “get it on” (in a ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match) in Las Vegas, the 19-year-old Englishwoman couldn’t stop laughing. Robson pounced on the double entendre. “That’s interesting wording. I think everyone would watch that.”
Occasionally, a routine post-match question results in a hilarious slip of the tongue. Daria Gavrilova, a 21-year-old Aussie, had just reached the second week of a major for the first time, upsetting 28th-seeded Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic 6-4, 4-6, 11-9 in a Friday night marathon thriller at the Australian Open. Overjoyed and overexcited during the on-court interview with Rennae Stubbs, a beaming Gavrilova said, “I’ve got nothing in my head. I’m just really excited, and I want to hug the whole stadium.”
When asked about her ability to battle back and win a critical game, the Russian-born Gavrilova innocently said, “I’m good from behind.”
Mortified by her double entendre, Dasha buried her face in her hands. The crowd erupted with laughter, dudes high-fived, and she quickly became a fan favourite.
Andy Murray, when asked to describe himself in three words, quipped, “Boring, unfunny, and miserable.” In truth, Sir Andy possessed a dry wit that he showed off after beating Milos Raonic in the 2016 Wimbledon final. Noticing spectator Prime Minister David Cameron, who had announced he would resign in October in the aftermath of the stunning Brexit vote, the mischievous Scot said, “I think playing in a Wimbledon final is tough. But I certainly wouldn’t like to be a prime minister. It’s an impossible job.” The prime minister smiled and laughed, and the cheering Centre Court crowd loved it.
Steffi Graf, a champion not known for humour, displayed a quick wit during a Wimbledon match. When a spectator shouted, “Will you marry me?” Steffi shot back, “How much money do you have?”
Messages on T-shirts can be funny, too. The buxom Serena wore a T-shirt showing a trophy and reading, ‘Are you looking at my titles?’ at a laugh-fest press conference after she won the 2009 Wimbledon singles title. After routing Barbora Krejcikova 6-1, 6-4 in the 2021 US Open quarterfinals, Aryna Sabalenka arrived at her press conference wearing a shirt with ‘I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It’ emblazoned on it. The immodest message on a T-shirt worn by Russian veteran Dmitri Tursunov was ‘Great Kisser’. Would any women like to corroborate that?
Doubles matches often showcase the lighter side of the pro tour. Gene Mayer, a former top-five singles and doubles player, recalled a funny incident when he and Peter Fleming faced Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors at an Ohio tournament. “Just as Peter made service contact, Ilie shouted ‘Nice get’ due to an obviously errant toss that Peter still hit. We all started to laugh so hard that we ultimately stopped play and prevailed upon the umpire to replay the point.”
Mayer, later a highly regarded coach and teaching pro, recounted the story of a student who habitually grunted on his groundstrokes. “A lady playing doubles on the next court complained bitterly to us and the club management about this disturbance to her game. We weren’t thrilled, but we decided to work on serves in order to avoid this conflict. The third serve my student hit was a mishit that cleared the net divider and knocked her glasses off without any injury. My student apologised profusely to her but had giggles for the rest of our session.”
Federer elicited such reverence that during the 2010 Wimbledon Championships, an Arab TV commentator couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. “If Allah allows, and I’m sure he does, I’m changing my religion to Federerism.” The polyglot Swiss superstar enjoyed press conferences, which he often did in three languages. After beating Tennys Sandgren at the 2020 Australian Open, Roger quipped, “I played a lot of tennis in my life. But never Tennys.”
No one fired zingers better than ‘spice girls’ Martina Hingis and Kournikova. After the older Hingis embarrassed Kournikova 6-0, 6-0 in the 1994 junior US Open, Anna reportedly blurted to Martina, “You won, but I’m prettier and more marketable than you.”
Four years later, when Kournikova had become a sex symbol, Hingis told Sports Illustrated, “She’s very pretty, but I’m sure she would like to change places with me if she could and have four Grand Slam titles.”
Ilie Nastase, a 1970s tennis bad boy, was once asked by journalist Richard Evans why he swore at umpires in English instead of Romanian, his native language. “Nasty”—came a candid reply. “Because I want the sons of a b*&$h to know what I’m saying.”
In 1996, Nastase, a political novice, announced he was running for mayor of Bucharest, an impoverished city plagued by corruption. “I love the [United] States and France,” he said. “I took their money and their women, but I’ll always be a Romanian. I took the best things out of there, and I want to bring them back here.”
A longtime friend from his school days, then a political science professor, sought to dissuade him, saying, “Ilie, now 100 percent of the people love you. If you run for election, only 50 per cent of the people will love you.” Nastase replied, “I hope it’s the women.”
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