This weekend the tennis world had its panties all in a bunch because Canadian star, Eugenie Bouchard refused to shake her opponent’s hand before a Fed Cup tennis match versus Romania’s Alexandra Dulgheru. Fans and commentators immediately called Bouchard’s sports(wo)manship into question and even went so far as to say she deserved to lose the match for failing to be a good sport. In a matter of seconds, one of tennis’ up-and-coming stars (who was already having a tough time meeting the public’s expectations) seemed to be slowly falling back to earth. But was the public criticism really warranted? Was her refusal to shake Dulgheru’s hand really a display of unsportsmanlike conduct? Methinks the public doth protest too much. While handshakes in sports are generally seen as a gesture of goodwill and sportsmanship, like everything else in this world, it’s all relative.
First, Bouchard had a very valid explanation for not shaking Dulgheru’s hand. Her words: “It’s nothing personal towards her, I just don’t believe in wishing my opponent good luck before the match. After we play I will shake her hand, no matter what happens.” Bouchard, like all other professional athletes, is a competitor. She wants to win. In her quest to win she isn’t handing out good lucks to her opponents and wishing that they play the best tennis of their lives, nor should she be. No, she’s focused maaaaan. She’s focused on playing well and beating her opponent to a pulp. That’s what she’s paid to do, that’s what she’s trained to do, and that’s what the people really want to see. So why not let her focus on that? Focus is everything for professional athlete, especially those who participate in individual sports. A pre-match press conference can be a bit of a distraction for some, so why expect Bouchard to be focused on the match, taking pictures, answering questions, aaaand being a good sportsman? Let her be a great tennis player first and a great sportsman second.
The fact that she’s an individual sport competitor brings up another point. She plays tennis. It’s customary to see team captains of football teams shake hands before games and to see boxers tap gloves before bouts. And it’s buzzworthy when athletes in those sports decide to not follow protocol. But it’s not customary in tennis to shake hands and have press conferences with your competitors BEFORE a match. It just doesn’t work that way. How many times have you seen tennis players shake hands before they play? I’ll wait… So why label someone as a bad sport when she’s not even breaking any hard and true traditions or rules? It’s a little unfair if you ask me.
My good old Bible tells me that there is a time and a season for everything…that means everything, even handshakes in tennis. See the way tennis matches are set up, the handshake comes after the match is over. You display your sportsmanship by shaking your competitor’s hand after the winner has won. It’s a way of saying: nice match, good job, no hard feelings, etc. That’s how you acknowledge your competitor’s efforts and display your respect for the game and athleticism. And you know what, Bouchard had every intention on showing that respect after her match with Dulgheru; win, lose, or draw. She even said so: “After we play I will shake her hand, no matter what happens.” And she did just that. Like she had done countless times before, Bouchard was a good sport and shook Dulgheru’s hand AFTER the match was over. Everything seems to work so seamlessly when done in the right order.
Many people may say, it’s a just a handshake. They might suggest that since it was just a simple handshake that Bouchard should have just been willing to suck it up for the cameras, the sport, the fans, the kids, blah, blah, blah. To that, I say, she shouldn’t have to. Bouchard should be allowed to compete and focus in the best way she knows how. She shouldn’t be subjected to name calling because the way she prepares for victory doesn’t fit some Fed Cup athlete’s new rules of pre-match engagement. She’s already shown us that she’s not about that pre-match handshake life and feels more comfortable and genuine when she doesn’t have to interact much with her opponent before a match, so let her be. Let’s not make Bouchard, or any athletes, be nicer than they need to be. We love them because they’re fierce competitors, not because they’re down to sing kumbaya and braid each other’s hair before matches.