All players at the US Open dream of having a magical run and will do anything in their power to achieve their objectives—including enlisting a bit of supernatural help. To attract good juju and repel negative forces, many competitors engage in carefully orchestrated rituals both on and off the court. Typical obsessions include never walking on the court lines when the ball’s not in play, bouncing the ball a specific number of times before serving, eating or avoiding certain foods, and wearing the same “lucky” articles of clothing.
Some of the most storied superstitions include Goran Ivanisevic’s ritual of watching Teletubbies every day and eating the same meal at the same table in the same restaurant every night during his historic victory as a wild card at Wimbledon in 2001; Bjorn Borg’s "no shaving" rule at Wimbledon; and Andre Agassi’s decision, prompted by a winning streak at the French Open, to eschew underwear for much of his career.
Here at Flushing Meadows, the players’ talents, along with a fascinating assortment of behavioral quirks, are on full display if one knows where to look. Rafael Nadal’s plethora of exacting rituals includes (but is not limited to) the precise placement of his two water bottles to the left of his chair with the labels facing in the same direction, and the touching of his ears, nose, shoulders and shorts in a specific order. Serena Williams is known to bounce the ball five times on her first serve and only twice on her second, and she also wears the same pair of socks during a winning run at an event (one can only hope that they’re fluffed and folded between matches).
Dominika Cibulkova, the No. 29 seed, has an olfactory compulsion. “The thing I do all the time is smell new balls when I get them. It’s something I’ve done since I was little.” Apparently, her unique version of aromatherapy works because on Saturday, she upset No. 4 seed Angelique Kerber in the third round.
The French doubles team of Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut has a special ritual here at the US Open. “In 2015 when we won, Nic always left [to travel from the hotel to the tournament] 15 minutes before me because he likes to have time in the morning. Now I always take the shuttle 15 minutes after him,” said Herbert. Moreover, Mahut doesn’t like anybody to touch his racquet grip before he plays, and is also particular about where he goes to wash up. “At Roland Garros, I have ‘my’ shower. Before the final this year, someone was in my shower for 15 minutes. I waited patiently until he finished and then I took my shower,” Mahut reported.
Many believe that No. 2 seed Roger Federer is fixated on the number eight. Not so, he said. “I was born on the eighth [day] of the eighth [month] in ’81. I like that number, but I’m not very superstitious.” However, in keeping with his Swiss heritage and his country’s reputation for precision, Federer is all about punctuality. “I’m always scared I’m going to miss a match because I’m stuck in traffic. I just like to be on time wherever I go,” he explained. “On the court, I don’t mind stepping on lines, I don’t mind which side of the court I sit on or which racket I start with. And everybody in the [player’s box] doesn’t have to sit in the same place. If it’s another round, I can still play tennis!”
Sometimes, possessing a good luck charm is all that’s needed to keep the mojo working. Denis Shapovalov has created a stir here at the US Open by keeping his toy stuffed wolf, named Storm, at courtside. Apparently, this spirit animal inspires him to be an apex predator on the court.
When it comes to food, oftentimes familiarity breeds content. “I have specific things that I eat and before my matches I have the same breakfast,” said Naomi Osaka. “Now, I feel like I’ve had 500 bagels with smoked salmon—that’s what I’ve been eating here.”
Aussie John Millman prefers to take his drinks in a certain order, but that’s about as far as he goes these days. “I’ll be honest with you. When I was 12 I was crazy—I think I was super O.C.D. There are still little battles that I face but now it’s all about routines. I don’t want to go back to when I was a little kid because I was touching things; I was really in my head back then.”
While many players take comfort in consistency, others, such as Madison Keys, assiduously avoid repetition. “My superstition is to not have set things,” noted the No. 14 seed. “I never wake up at the same time. I just try to make things random because then I’m not stuck in something that doesn’t make any sense.”
In the end, achieving success mostly boils down to skill and hard work. But that being said, some players just seem to have all the luck.