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Couch: Roger Federer’s Stall Tactics Are Classic Gamesmanship

Roger Federer has played on tour for nearly a quarter of a century, and he has yet to have a hair out of place. So if you think he lost his composure Thursday in the French Open when he argued with the chair umpire for about four minutes during a crucial moment in the match — an argument that blew up Twitter — then you just don’t understand.

He did that on purpose. It’s called gamesmanship. He was trying to mess with the head of his opponent, Marin Cilic.

“Am I going too slow?’’ Federer asked Cilic, stalling while arguing his warning for, well, stalling. “Am I playing too slow?’’

Cilic said that yes, he was “on a few occasions.’’

Here’s another thing: You’re not supposed to be talking to your opponent during a match anyway.

But know this: Cilic was upset because Federer was actually blocking his own gamesmanship. If you’re not a tennis fan, this is a great moment to show you the little head games that players use against each other in a one-on-one sport. It’s sort of an unspoken argument or fight, like the unwritten rules of baseball.

It all happened in the second set Thursday. Federer won the first set 6-2 and was down 3-1, deuce, on Cilic’ serve in the second. That means: This was a huge point.

Cilic bounced the ball and got ready to serve and when he looked up, Federer was off to the side of the court, drying his grip with a towel. The umpire gave Federer a warning. And Federer came to the net and argued. . .in French.

Again: He got a warning. No point penalty or anything.

Federer argued that he had a long walk to get to his towel, and that is true. In normal times, a tennis player can wave his fingers and a ballboy will come running with a towel. Now, in COVID times, they don’t want ballboys touching the players’ sweaty towels, so players have to go to the corner and get the towels themselves.

“I understand the rules; I understand,’’ Federer said to Cilic, when he should have been talking to the umpire. “But I’m going from one corner to the next trying to get my towel. I’m not even doing it on purpose.’’

Without being in Federer’s head, I’d say that he is telling the truth and was not stalling on purpose when he’d go to his towel. He might have been, though. But during his lengthy argument with the chair umpire, that turned into a conversation with Cilic?

Definitely, on purpose.

I was at the Australian Open quarterfinals in 2010 when Nikolay Davydenko was crushing Federer. Suddenly, Federer needed a bathroom break. If you do that, the rules require that you actually go to the bathroom.

It was a time when players would pretend to have cramps to delay things and break their opponents’ momentum. So the tour put in a rule banning strategic cramping. Federer then decided instead for strategic, well, whatever-ing.

“When the sun comes from the side, the ball seems half the size and is just hard to hit,’’ Federer said after that match in 2010, explaining why he took that break. “I never take toilet breaks, but I thought, ‘Why not?’ I just hoped that with every minute it took, the sun would move another centimeter.’’

He was messing with Davydenko’s head. He wanted Davydenko to think about what was happening and realize what he was doing: He was on the verge of beating one of the greatest players of all time. When Federer finally came back, Davydenko fell to pieces.

That’s what he was trying to do to Cilic Thursday. It didn’t work, though. Cilic didn’t lose his rhythm and won the second set anyway. Still, Federer went on to win the match.

But like I said, this was double-gamesmanship. Players tend to bounce the ball forever before they serve. I believe Jimmy Connors started that in the 1970s. The idea is partly to get their rhythm before serving, but it’s also about making your opponent stand there, waiting for you forever.

Cilic wasn’t actually ready to serve when Federer was warned. In fact, he was only ready to start bouncing the ball forever to get into Federer’s head. 

In fact, tennis has a 25-second serve clock now because Rafael Nadal notoriously stalled before his serving points.

So this is not to accuse Federer of breaking any rules. It’s just to give a little look inside a tennis player’s head. At least strategic stalling is more pleasant than strategic whatever-ing.

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Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

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