Maria Sharapova turns around and serves. The spectators gasp, her hourglass figure swaying and long legs sending their pulse rates up in a gallop.
But wait. There is that grunt which accompanies her serve – not so sexy and distracting. And it’s loud. That’s meant for her opponents alone. The grunting is a bit of gamesmanship which she and others indulge in to baffle their opponents.
The high decibel pitch masks the sound of the racquet strings and opponents are confused over how the ball has been struck and where it may land.
So what is gamesmanship in sport? It is described as the usage of dubious methods, stretched to legal limits, to gain advantage. It has been used in every sport, whether it is football, rugby, boxing or cricket. Even darts, golf and poll are not spared.
It’s a fine line which just falls short of cheating. Deliberate slowdowns, chattering, wasting time, distracting opponents and changing equipment have all been used with great effect in sport.
Take US tennis star, Jimmy Connors. He made his opponent wait by taking toilet breaks. He took his time, cooled down and came back while his opponent waited and wilted in the hot sun. Connors won.
Football easily attracts gamesmanship. It’s really simple for a player to feign injury and break the flow of play. The trick is not to get caught out. However, former Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar had a bigger goal. As a rule, a goalkeeper is not allowed to move from his line while the opponent takes a penalty.
But Grobbelaar wanted to disturb his opponent while he took the penalty. So he mimicked eating spaghetti loudly without moving from his spot and this led to his opponent missing the penalty. Later in the same match, he pretended to tremble at the spot, his legs shaking and wobbling enough to put off the opponent. No doubt, Liverpool won.
Time wasting is the most common form of tactic used in gamesmanship. Cricketers are among the biggest culprits. Match proceedings can be slowed so easily in this game.
Calling for fresh equipment at a difficult moment in the game is common. This breaks the run of play and gives the player a breather to gather his thoughts and causes the opposing team to lose momentum. Complaining about the sightscreen, frequent conversations with the non-striker about trivial matters like ‘what’s for dinner’ and adjusting and readjusting equipment are other examples.
Bowlers have been known to tie shoe laces over an inordinately long period after aborting their run-ups, changing fields after almost every ball or restoring to returning to their bowling marks like a man aged 90.
Boxers are smart. They grab their opponent and cling onto them just before the break to tire them out and waste time.
In American Football and basketball, calling for timeouts at critical junctures is often used. This stresses up the opponents giving them more time to think and, in the bargain, tensing them up.
Golf is leisurely in its approach. But Seve Ballesteros came up with a unique way to make it even slower and wind up his opponent.
He looked at the sky, then adjusted his watch, then his clothing and even coughed a bit before taking it shot just to frustrate his opponent. All this was done in a painstakingly slow and deliberate manner.
In pool, making loud comments and appealing to the spectators to keep quiet just as a player is about to take a shot have had its effects. This gives an impression that you are on your opponent’s side when the sole purpose is something else.
But the temptation to cross the limit of gamesmanship is always present.
But don’t so what figure skater Tonya Harding did. Just before a US championship event in Detroit, Harding went for a clean break literally. The night before the event, she hired a goon to break her opponent’s leg.
Winning at all costs sometimes can prove expensive.