I really love tennis. Often, I would rather watch an old highlight video I’ve seen a million times than go out and talk to friends. I have even watched old highlight videos while talking to friends. (I was told it was annoying.) I let tennis occupy more of my life than anything probably should. I do try never to forget, though, that tennis is just a game. The sport might have the ability to create matches as complicated as wall-sized tapestries and to spin incredible stories, but at the end of the day, it is still people hitting a ball back and forth with webbed sticks. It’s a testament, or an indictment, to our society that we’ve constructed tours where people travel the world to hit a ball back and forth, standing on cement, grass, or clay (do watch this video to see the elaborate process of how court Philippe-Chatrier is made) to do so. I know spending as much time as I do being concerned with a game is a huge luxury.
So it’s pretty cool and lucky for tennis fans that enough people feel this way that the sport can exist on the widespread level it does. That people are willing to layer different rocks on top of each other and then cover them with crushed brick just so people can play tennis under certain conditions. This isn’t doing anything to help conditions for humankind in any way. As such, you’d think the least tennis’s organizations could do would be to protect those who take part and stand up for human rights issues. You’re playing and organizing a niche, inconsequential game on a global level, so just look out for the people within your weird elite bubble. Try not to break too many of your toys. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
For the ATP, apparently it is. In Acapulco this year, Alexander Zverev disagreed with an umpire’s call during his doubles match. He proceeded to scream at the umpire for a while, dropping a couple f-bombs, even though there was no chance the call was getting overturned. (This never happens if a challenge does not prove the call wrong.) Minutes later, when Zverev and his partner Marcelo Melo had lost the match, Zverev walked up to the umpire’s chair.
He thrashed his racket — this being a hard, composite object almost the length of an arm — against the umpire’s chair. The umpire needed to lift his foot to avoid being struck (probably would have broken a foot or ankle if not for those reflexes) and fled the chair. Zverev continued to shout obscenities at the umpire as he did so. The tournament kicked Zverev out of the draw, but further punishment had to be forthcoming, right? This was an opportunity to say to everyone on the ATP that such treatment of one of their officials was not acceptable and would not be tolerated. It was a no-brainer. You can’t have an umpire’s ankle nearly get shattered and then not punish the person who nearly broke it. The punishment would come in the form of a suspension or a massive fine, we figured. And the tour would surely emphasize that the safety of their officials was paramount.
None of this happened. Zverev got fined $40,000, and the tour threatened him with an eight-week ban and an additional $25,000 fine if he got another violation in the next year. $40,000 is nothing for Zverev, who is a multi-millionaire living in Monte-Carlo, and even he probably isn’t enough of an idiot to become a repeat offender in the next 12 months.
What the ATP was saying, essentially, was that putting an official’s welfare in serious danger gets you a light flick on the wrist. Really, it wasn’t that surprising. In tennis, umpires make calls, and those calls stick. Challenging whether a ball is in or out is the limit of a player’s control over a call. Zverev knew, in other words, that his obscene rant was for nothing. He just decided to deliver it anyway. Watch the video for yourself to see how bad it was.
Umpires get screamed at regularly over the smallest of grievances, even though players know calls never get overturned. That the tantrums have continued tells us a lot — specifically, that the tour isn’t bothered enough to dissuade players from acting like violent children. Players feel okay, or not remorseful enough, about berating an umpire. These rants are fruitless! They don’t work! Even if you’re right about a call being wrong, if you don’t challenge it, that’s the end for the point. It’s over. Yet the screaming persists. Tantrums have even become a tactic for players to jolt themselves into playing better or to kill an opponent’s momentum. Whoever is on the receiving end of the abuse is given little thought.
With the ATP miserably failing to meet Zverev’s pathetic treatment of the chair umpire with a fitting punishment, a host of other recent incidents have followed. Nick Kyrgios spiked his racket into the ground so hard after losing to Nadal at Indian Wells that it flew all the way into the back wall (he was standing close to the net when he threw the racket). It missed a ballboy’s head by a foot or two, and had the kid not been attentive and quick enough to get out of the way, it would have hit him in the face. Kyrgios was fined $20,000 for the transgression. That was it.
A mere week later in Miami: Jenson Brooksby chucked his racket off the ground, and it bounced inches from a ballperson’s foot. The ballperson picked up the racket and handed it to Brooksby, who did not acknowledge him. (Brooksby later apologized to him in person — why this couldn’t have happened mid-match, I have no idea.) Brooksby did not get defaulted. He went on to win the match. He was fined $15,000.
Also in Miami: Jordan Thompson took an angry swing at a ball when he was near a ballgirl, causing her to flinch out of fear of being hit. These occurrences have been pouring in with such frequency that Andy Roddick took to Twitter to explain to players how to throw a tantrum safely, middle school-style.
While these events were jarring, they’re merely a by-product of the system tennis has created. Ballkids and adults have been treated like dirt for a while. Think about how hard their jobs can be: they sprint all over the place to pick up the tennis balls and have handed players sweaty towels for years without so much as a thank-you in return. Sometimes they get screamed at. Sometimes flying projectiles get hurled near them. Similarly, umpires are tasked with identifying whether a small sphere traveling at the speed of a car on the highway lands on top of or just beside a slim line. This is not easy! You’re entitled to a mistake or two! Yet when a call comes down to millimeters and the player thinks the umpire got it wrong, screaming often ensues. Brooksby was up a double break in the deciding set when he had his little tantrum. He was going to win the match (and he did). There was no reason to throw that racket, especially not in the direction of the ballperson, but he did it anyway, probably because he knew he could get away with it.
After apologizing during an interview at the Tennis Channel desk, Brooksby said “I was more frustrated with myself, and I just had to let it out that way.” He didn’t have to let it out that way. Of course he didn’t. He could have shouted, or held on to his freaking racket when he slammed it into the court so that it wouldn’t go flying at another person. Or — and stick with me here — he could have recognized that his error was unlikely to be consequential in the context of the match, and he could have chosen not to throw his toy.
This has become a problem. Everyone can see that tennis is setting the precedent for players to violently act out, then get away with next to no backlash. This behavior is going to continue.
The younger McEnroe brother poses a legitimate question: what is it going to take? Some pretty nasty stuff can happen on a tennis court, what with players hitting balls at speeds of over 100 miles per hour. Denis Shapovalov hit chair umpire Arnaud Gabas in the eye when he angrily smacked a ball at Davis Cup in 2017. Gabas went to the hospital, where it was luckily determined that there was no lasting damage. (Per Eurosport, Gabas said “I feel quite lucky it wasn’t worse” after the incident.) So what’s going to put a stop to this? A broken limb? Something worse? Your guess is as good as mine, because I have no idea when the ATP’s morals will kick in.
Some are arguing that these insufficiently strict punishments are unfair on Novak Djokovic, who hit a lineswoman in the throat with a carelessly swatted ball at the 2020 U.S. Open. He did receive the proper punishment in the form of a default, and players are recently getting away with smaller sentences for similar crimes. Consistency is good, sure, but feeling sorry for Djokovic because he got worse than a fine for injuring a linesperson is badly missing the larger point. The issue is making sure policy reflects a concern for officials’ health — hit someone, get defaulted — not pointing out a case where justice was served as an outlier. Whoever ends up being the last one to get away with a light punishment after acting out dangerously will be lucky, but stricter policies should be implemented as soon as possible. Screw precedent, just get it right as often as you can.
It’s also time to realize, I think, that fines are not the ideal punishment to ward off dangerous tantrums. If they were, incidents would be sporadic, not increasingly frequent. Why not make suspension the punishment? That way, everyone is deeply affected — act out in a way that puts someone else at risk? You’re off the tour for a while. Imagine working on court at a match featuring a volatile player and knowing that they are not sufficiently cowed by the rules for you to be sure they won’t hurl a racket in your direction. Those doing a service to tennis really aren’t protected by their employer, and there are plenty of other jobs out there that pay without potentially putting you in harm’s way.
Here’s my advice to ballkids, linespeople, and chair umpires: demand better terms for yourselves, because you’re doing your best to help tennis matches take place and you don’t deserve to be treated like dirt for that. Boycott matches, unionize, refuse to take the court unless the ATP disciplines players, default players instead of giving them additional soft warnings so that the crowd doesn’t get disappointed. Quit if the ATP won’t stick up for you. You’re too good for them.
And to the ATP themselves: this idea you have of tennis, this weird mini-hierarchical system with the players being absolved of harmful or near-harmful tantrums and those who work at matches being treated terribly, has to stop. You have fostered an idea that it’s admirable to take out frustration on surrounding figures if it helps someone start playing well. You have fueled the narrative that Nadal’s never-break-a-racket attitude is singularly remarkable rather than decent and achievable. In doing so, you are only serving to subject people to anger or danger. You want to market tennis, right? Cut down on incidents that don’t have to do with point play! When shit hits the fan, address it and try to do better instead of sweeping it under the rug. This is not a controversy — you obviously need to protect your officials better — so when you don’t address the problem, you don’t look like you’re taking a side. You just look lazy and morally corrupt.
You have the immense privilege of there being scores of people who love this silly game as much as you do. Please treat your employees with the respect they deserve. It is the least you can do. As of now, I have no idea why they’re working for an organization that neglects their safety, so give them a reason to stay before they leave along with swaths of tennis fans.