WIMBLEDON, England — Rare among sports, tennis boasts the extra intrigue of the combatants’ post-match meeting at the net, which can range from frosty to perfunctory to warm to deeply respectful.
On Sunday at Wimbledon, there came a moment of the deeply respectful. After 2 hours 29 minutes of two players slugging the ball at each other, 23-year-old American Sloane Stephens whacked one last backhand that a lineswoman judged wide. Stephens reckoned she should challenge the call just in case.
The wily 31-year-old Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova walked slowly toward the net, turning around to check the Hawk-Eye ruling on the video screen. When the technology confirmed the human call — and Kuznetsova’s 6-7 (7-1), 6-2, 8-6 third-round win — Kuznetsova turned around.
There she saw Stephens with her arms wide open, the international symbol for seeking a hug.
“Great, great sportsmanship,” Kuznetsova said.
Then they held that hug for a rare duration — maybe four, five seconds.
“Quality was good?” Kuznetsova later asked about the hug.
Quality was good.
When the hug ended and the players reached their chairs, Kuznetsova took the normal winner’s walk back out to the court for applause, but did so gently. Then she walked over toward Stephens at her chair and extended her arms toward Stephens to encourage the crowd to applaud the match’s runner-up, stoking another swell of applause. Stephens’s sportsmanship had overridden the hurt from losing a 5-2 third-set lead, and she found the experience “a reminder of why we compete.”
“I wouldn’t say I think about what I’m going to do when I lose,” she said, “but I think it’s just something that I like to see, when other people gracefully take their loss, or whatever you might want to call it. I think that’s part of competition, and I think that’s part of being an extreme competitor. And some people aren’t like that. Some people are very angry. Some people don’t really care after they lose.
“There’s just so many different types of people. But I think for myself, personally, ‘You played awesome today. You made me better. You made me raise my level.’ I have respect for her, and her game, respect for the game of tennis. There’s no negative to take away from what happened today.”
Kuznetsova saw big themes. “I mean, I got all respect for her,” she said. “I think she does the same for me. When I was coming to the net, I had no thoughts. My thoughts [were on the] Hawk-Eye call. I was praying it to go out. I was not sure what I saw. And then I saw her having hands like that, so definitely I hug her.
“Great, great sportsmanship. I think it’s a great example for the next generation. You don’t have to have hate for each other. It’s all about peace, not war. We have to show it, because sometimes they mix sport with politics. It’s very important that we show the next generations that, you know, it’s out of that, you know.”
Asked whether she meant Russia and the United States specifically, Kuznetsova said, “That has nothing to do with our countries. This is the thing, you know. Here we are united. Doesn’t matter what country you are. We have difficult relationship with Ukraine now, Russia. But we have nothing to do with that. We are doing sports. We are out of politics.”
The players recalled only vaguely what they said during the hug, but Stephens said, “I love her as a person. She’s the best. And I think it was just, ‘You did freaking good today.’ I mean, sometimes it’s just nice to be able to [say], like, ‘Yeah, you beat me, but even in a loss I can be proud of myself and I can also be happy for my opponent.’
“I don’t know. I just love her. She’s been around forever, since I was really young, and she’s always been super nice to me. I mean, competition is competition, but off the court, when someone’s really nice to you, speaks, and you can have a relationship with someone without it being so competitive all the time, and be able to talk about whatever, I think that’s really important. And she’s been one of those people off the court where I’ve actually been able to, you know, talk to, and, ‘Oh, Sveta, I have this,’ and, ‘Oh, Sveta, this and that,’ and so, I think for me, it sucks that I lost, but I played a good match.”
Added Stephens, “I know people do respect their opponents. They don’t show it. But I think for us at the end of the match, it was an emotional moment. For us, it worked. For some people, they might feel that way, but you don’t see it. But I’m sure people feel like that all the time.”