Smoking is the dirty, secret habit that tennis doesn’t like to talk about. Just try finding a player on the men’s or women’s tour who will pose with a racket in one hand and a Marlboro Light in the other. Or even someone who will admit to occasionally having a cigarette during the close-season. Yet rumours abound about a small number of players who, win or lose, will light up in private. Who is going to be the first to ‘stain’ the sport’s whiter-than-white, clean-living image with nicotine yellow?
There are examples from the recent past of smokers on the tennis scene. There was Karsten Braasch, a German player, who was challenged by the Williams girls to a Battle of the Sexes at Melbourne Park in the late 1990s. Braasch, who used to smoke 15 a day, cuffed Serena and Venus, only pausing to take a drag while sitting on his chair between games.
Tim Henman also smoked a few cigarettes during his career, something, which had it been widely known during the height of Henmania, would have been as shocking to Middle England as the introduction of decimal coinage.
One of the rare occasions that a leading player has spoken openly about smoking was when Anna Kournikova told a French newspaper in 2000: “My smoking has nothing to do with my tennis. It is absolutely my business when I smoke cigarettes. And I like to have a few cigarettes, especially in the evening after a hard day.”
Bill Tilden, an American tennis player who won 10 slams, once appeared in an advert for Lucky Strike cigarettes, which he smoked “to protect my throat”. But that was back in the 1920s, when tobacco companies could still promote their products as being good for your health. The world has moved on since then. Smoking is one of the most damaging things that a professional tennis player can do to his (or her) body. In any discussions about the underground locker-room smokers, a few names keep coming up, but The Tennis Space is not about to out those who need their nicotine fix after matches.
Players sometimes talk about having a glass of wine over dinner, and that’s fine. But smoking is taboo (the anti-lobby means that players can’t smoke in the locker-room, though in theory there would be nothing to stop them from doing so on, say, Wimbledon’s Centre Court). Perhaps someone from this generation wants to be the first to take the Kournikova approach, to talk openly about cigarettes, and to say: “Yes, I smoke, and that’s my business.”