Tennis Impersonations: A History



The recent controversy about Caroline Wozniacki’s impersonation of Serena Williams got me thinking about the history of impersonating a player’s ticks or idiosyncrasies.  My mind initially thought that  Jonas Bjorkman was the progenitor of this fad.  His rain delay US Open fodder of lighthearted imitations did indeed pave the way to Djokovic’s 2007 US Open impersonation tour.   However, a more contentious and longer history came into my mind the more I thought about the topic.  It is doubtful that Rod Laver ever impersonated John Newcombe, but since the late 1980’s impersonations have popped up and generally engendered bad feelings.

1988 – Boris Becker Imitates and Gets Imitated by Pat Cash

Boris Becker won Wimbledon in 1985 and 1986.  Pat Cash was the defending champion having claimed the title in 1987.  Their 1988 quarterfinal round battle lived up to the hype, but not because of the tennis.  Becker won the match routinely 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.  Here is how Mitch Album described the memorable events on June 30, 1988:

Well. Let us take you to the second set Wednesday: Becker was leading, 4-1, and Cash came charging, hit a volley winner — and fell over the net.

Fell over the net? Yes. And Becker got so excited, he somersaulted over the net as well. Wheee. Are we having fun, or what? Now we had two guys on the wrong side. Becker was kidding. He offered his hand. Cash was serious. He offered his thoughts.

“What did he say?” someone asked Becker.

“I don’t think I should repeat it,” Becker said. “He taught me some new words in English.”

And the girls screamed. Cash wigs out after losing

But wait. Before you castigate Cash for being a poor sport, let us take you now to the post-game press conference — after Becker had humbled Cash in two hours and 17 minutes. Everyone figured the moody, broody Australian wouldn’t show, right? He had just lost his title.

But here he came, wearing a red punk-rock wig, all spikes and points. The kind that makes you look like Son of Porcupine.

1988 – Agassi Ticks off Connors and McEnroe Simultaneously

Andre Agassi’s first US Open tilt with Jimmy Connors was seen as a passing of the torch as Agassi would assume the mantle as the top US born player.  John McEnroe was watching as well.  At some point during the match, Agassi imitated McEnroe’s serving motion, an act that infuriated Johnny Mac.  Agassi’s post-match comments angered Connors into making a biting paternity joke.  Agassi did win the match 6-2, 7-6, 6-1.

1989 – Boris Becker gets Imitated by McEnroe

Boris Becker defeated John McEnroe in an epic Davis Cup encounter in Hartford, Connecticut in 1987 4-6, 15-13, 8-10, 6-2, 6-2.  Even before that match, McEnroe and Becker had exchanged tense words and stares dating back to their first match.  McEnroe’s autobiography You Cannot Be Serious describes their relationship as generally being that of friendly rivals.  At times, tensions did boil over.  McEnroe saw fit to challenge perceived gamesmanship on Becker’s part during their semifinal encounter at the 1989 Paris Indoor. McEnroe loudly coughed in response to Boris Becker’s characteristic cough.  At a changeover, Becker asked for compassion, and McEnroe retorted that Becker had been sick since 1985.  McEnroe calling Becker out for gamesmanship in this manner did not endear him to the crowd and helped inspire Becker to a 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 victory.  McEnroe even recounted that this event led to a post-match argument with his first wife.

1998 – Andre Agassi Mocks Karol Kucera

Karol Kucera had a great season in 1998.  He reached an Australian Open semifinal and a US open quarterfinal.  Along the way, Kucera dispatched of Andre Agassi in the 1998 US Open round of 16 6-3, 6-3, 6-7, 1-6, 6-3.  Kucera’s return of serve and ability to change the pace and direction of the ball during a rally mystified Agassi.  Head games were the only thing that made this match close.  Agassi, irritated by either the scoreline or Kucera’s frequently errant service toss, began to imitate a Kucera.  Agassi timidly approached the service line and mockingly attempted to toss the ball.  Beyond that, Agassi hit moonballs to his upstart opponent.  These tactics unnerved Kucera and helped the match extend to 5 sets.  Personally, this is the lowest moment of tennis imitations that I can remember.  Agassi was simply trying to throw his opponent off through mockery.

The Sampras-Agassi Hit for Haiti Debacle

The first Hit or Haiti was an unqualified success.  Major world athletes threw together an enjoyable charity event without the meddling hands of sponsors and agents.  It was a feel good event.  When Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were added to the mix for a sequel charity doubles match, things looked great, right?  Who would not want to see all-court maestro’s Roger Federer and Pete Sampras take on two men who revolutionized backcourt tennis in Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal?  It did not live up to the hype.

“That aint personal.” (?)

Sampras and Agassi already had some bad blood from Agassi’s recently published autobiography Open.  Agassi did not take Sampras’ imitation well and threw out a tasteless imitation implying that Pete is cheap.  Sampras went head hunting, and Agassi still pressed his claim of Sampras’ stinginess.


Boris Becker attempted a funny net dive when playing Pat Cash and was repaid by Cash wearing an ugly red wig?!?!  John McEnroe’s impersonation of Becker helped to inspire his opponent to victory and started an argument with his then wife.  Andre Agassi angered or incited John McEnroe and Karol Kucera with impersonations.  Agassi responded badly to Pete Sampras impersonating him.  This spiraled to a tit for tat impersonation that managed to ruin a fundraiser for a natural disaster.  Caroline Wozniacki, as well as Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic, have made questionable imitations of Serena Williams’ body-type.

My advice is that unless an impersonation serves a purpose and is obviously approved of by the player being mimicked (a la Djokovic’s take on Guga) to not do imitations.  My main reason for saying this is not that charitable events or marriages might be threatened.  My advice for not doing imitations stems from the fact that impersonations have been done to death and are not terribly comical (Gustavo Djokovic aside).  If comedy is not funny, what is it?

The Exception that Proves the Rule? (No Impersonations Unless They are This Funny?)

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Dan Martin says:

    Sorry that some of the videos require viewing on youtube only. Can anyone else throw out a few tennis impersonations they remember?

  2. jane says:

    Dan, do you know the answers to the Bjorkman imitations? I am pretty sure one of them is Roddick and maybe one of them Rafa???

  3. jane says:

    Roddick imitates Rafa:

    Nole imitates Johnny Mac:

    p.s. Merry Christmas – looking forward to more tennis & posts in the New Year!

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