The public at the French Open is generally well behaved. From the moment the serve is taken until the end of the rally, the stands are silent and then people shout encouragement to their favourite player. Sometimes, however, the spectators shout during a rally, especially when a player goes to the net, gets lobbed and is about to respond with a shot between the legs: a tweener. As if this already spectacular gesture had to be accompanied by a brouhaha. The 2022 edition was no exception to the rule and we saw this scene play out during the round of 16 between Karen Khachanov and Carlos Alcaraz, where the young Spaniard made a break with a lobbed tweener that sent the crowd in the Philippe Chatrier court into a frenzy. In one fell swoop, from the first to the last row, from the boxes to the commentators' booths, all the onlookers stood up to applaud this gesture which, when successful, is certainly the most beautiful of the game.
Vilas, whisky and polo
Alcaraz, 19, has been heralded as Rafael Nadal's successor and once again followed in his idol's footsteps with this lobbed tweener, a speciality of the man who has won the French Open fourteen times. Nadal is not the inventor of the tweener, however. It is difficult to say who was the first tennis player to do it, but Guillermo Vilas is undoubtedly one of the forerunners, although the American Whitney Reed is said to have attempted it several times in the 1960s. A Frenchman - Wanaro N'Godrella - seems to have been the first victim of a Vilas tweener during an exhibition in Buenos Aires in 1974. This gesture is said to have been inspired by polo and Juan Carlos Harriott who, in a whisky advert, had hit the ball between his horse's legs. At the time, however, it was not referred to as a tweener, but as "Gran Willy", Willy being the nickname of... Guillermo Vilas.
As players like Ilie Năstase and Victor Pecci began to slip the tweener into their kit, a new name emerged. Pecci even tried it in the French Open semi-final against Jimmy Connors. The result? A failure, as Connors was not surprised and even responded with a glare and then a gesture with his index finger to indicate to his Paraguayan counterpart that he did not really appreciate it. Yes, just like the panenka in football, the tweener was long perceived as a lack of respect by some players, before becoming a recognised technical gesture and a daring defensive move. A gesture whose beauty is mainly proportional to its difficulty, the failures being numerous.
"Don't try to be like him if you want to have children"
Performing a tweener is not an easy task and requires perfect coordination. First you have to adjust your speed, then raise your racket above your head before hitting the ball at sock level, all the while avoiding hitting your knees or crotch as John McEnroe pointed out during a match between Fabrice Santoro and Roger Federer: "Don't try to be like him if you want to have children". Yannick Noah has had five children. Yet during his years as a tennis player, the last Frenchman to win a Grand Slam was a tweener and living proof that the gesture is not a coin tossed in the air hoping it will land on the right side, but a mastered stroke that is tried in practice as he said in a press conference after his 1983 US Open round of 16 match against Aaron Krickstein, a match marked by a tweener that sent the crowd into a tizzy: "At the end of practice, when I'm a bit tired of hitting the ball, I often try this kind of shot, just for fun. But be careful, you have to make sure you are well protected before you try it."
Roger Federer, a great tweener specialist, also works on this gesture in practice, as he confided after his 2009 US Open semi-final against Novak Djokovic, where he got a match point on one of the most beautiful tweener in history: "I was in a difficult position and I had nothing to lose. I practice a lot with tweeners, but it never works." If the Swiss prefers to play it modestly, it's because he still has in mind his tweener attempt against Marat Safin four years earlier at the Australian Open. A gesture attempted on match point that Roger Federer missed before losing to the Russian. Whether he succeeds or fails, Roger Federer's tweener is above all an attacking shot. Just like the one Andre Agassi made in the third round of the 1999 French Open against his compatriot Chri Woodruff. A stroke of genius that the American explained to Nelson Monfort while sending a little dig at Yannick Noah: "I'm surprised, caught off guard. I run but I don't have time to turn around and hit a forehand. In fact, I have no choice but to try this shot. Don't try this at home! I have a lot of respect for Yannick Noah, but when he tried this kind of shot, he just put the ball back in the court. I make it a winning shot." And Dominic Thiem, who managed two tweener shots in one game against Marco Cecchinato in the first round of the Geneva Open, is not going to say the opposite.
The Kyrgios tweener
At 193 centimetres tall, Gaël Monfils and Nick Kyrgios are adept at the tweener. But this gesture is not reserved for men and giants. The proof is in the pudding with the one achieved by Russia's Daria Kasatkina in 2017 when she was only 170 centimetres tall. However, unlike Monfils and Kyrgios, the recent French Open semi-finalist has never done a tweener for the sake of entertainment. Although the shot between the legs is normally a defensive gesture - or a counter-attack - carried out as a last resort, some people are increasingly amused by the reverse tweener, particularly on volleys at the net. A move that divides the public. Factionalists love it. The purists hate it and see it as a lack of respect. A debate that Nick Kyrgios has no use for. The Australian is busy inventing a new tweener by combining it with a spoon serve. A move that even polo players have never thought of doing.