3 Jul 2023

Time for tennis

As the sporting summer unfolds, we inevitably find ourselves locked into debates about what constitutes sporting behaviour, gamesmanship, and the overwhelming urge to win by fair means or foul.

We are contemplating a highlight of the tennis calendar with the beginning of the much-awaited Wimbledon fortnight. As thousands of fans flock to SW19 to enjoy the atmosphere of the All England Club or simply to set up camp outside and enjoy the grass court action with fellow enthusiasts on giant outdoor screens, the annual debate rumbles on about tennis players’ on-court behaviour: is it getting worse?

There have always been tennis mavericks who have indulged in abusive on-court behaviour, although the majority of competitors play with calm professionalism and good grace. However, in recent years the phenomenon of playing to the crowds seems to have become more evident, and there are certainly elements of the fan base who rejoice in certain players’ ‘bad boy’ image and enjoy egging them on. As a result, matches can become raucously partisan, with fans screaming encouragement at inappropriate moments (just before the opponent is about to serve, for example) and enthusiastically cheering on their increasingly frazzled player when arguments break out over line calls. All this is a far cry from the hushed and reverent atmosphere that Wimbledon fostered.

Why do tennis players, and other competitors in a range of elite sports, feel compelled to abuse linesmen and umpires and show them no respect? Why are some players guilty of egregious acts of gamesmanship, which can be defined as using a range of techniques to unsettle their opponents and throw them off their game – time wasting tactics, delaying their serve until the last possible permissible moment, playing to the crowd? Much of the answer probably lies in their coaching and early initiation into the game. In the increasingly cutthroat atmosphere of professional sports, some coaches create a motivational climate that is performance-based, with a relentless emphasis on winning at all costs. Focusing on sporting behaviour and assisting young players to find ways of burying their seething emotions of rage, panic and frustration beneath a calm, unruffled exterior is seen as a time-wasting distraction from the main event: winning matches.

If bad behaviour is not rooted out and dealt with early in a player’s career it can become entrenched and extremely hard to shift. If fans encourage and applaud a player’s worst antics, their bad behaviour can begin to define them: they play up to the crowds and the abuses escalate. The most troubling aspect of all these antics is that young up and coming players tend to ape their heroes and may replicate their worst behaviour.

There is very little the professional authorities can do about players’ internal demons. If a player is locked in an agony of self-castigation and frustration, they become a sad spectacle for crowds and court officials alike. The authorities can only intercede if these volcanic emotions are manifested externally, through racket abuse or hitting the ball into the crowd. In these cases, the player will be fined.

However, it is a different matter if players turn their rage and frustration on court officials. Sometimes outbursts of foul-mouthed ranting and invective can go on for an unconscionable length of time before steps are taken. Players are fined for bad behaviour but in tennis, as in other sports, the fines are in no way commensurate with the player’s earning abilities. A fine of a few thousand pounds must mean very little to a player who can earn hundreds of thousands of pounds at a single tournament. Perhaps it is time that more serious sanctions are explored, such as a default or exclusion from future tournaments.

If you’re attending Wimbledon this year, think about your behaviour as a spectator. Follow time-honoured sporting rules: it’s fine to applaud the players you’re supporting enthusiastically, but it is equally important to do their opponent the courtesy of applauding their best shots as well. It’s extremely disrespectful ­– both to other players and to your fellow spectators – to yell out encouragement in the middle of games. Booing and whistling or standing up mid-rally and waving your fist at the players, are all unacceptable behaviour. Remember, being a passionately loyal supporter should never be about behaving in boorish and threatening ways to the opposition. It’s all about encouraging your favoured player to scale new mountains of sporting achievement, not about crushing and demoralising the opponent.

Whether you’re an aspiring, or established, tennis player, follow these simple and time-honoured rules for sporting behaviour:

• Always apologise when you win a point because of a fluke, eg. because of a net cord or a mishit. That way, you will be acknowledging that winning should really be about skill and finesse, not good luck.

• By the same token, you should accept your opponent’s outrageous good luck with a wry smile and an ability to move on. Luck is cyclical and your turn will come again.

• The self-congratulatory fist pump is now a near-ubiquitous gesture in tennis but remember there is a big difference between a moment of discreet self-satisfaction and the urge to make the gesture towards the opponent, which can be seen as wind-up.

• If your opponent plays an outstandingly good shot, acknowledge it – this can be done by simply raising your racket in approbation.

• If your opponent begins to lose the plot and starts questioning line calls, screaming and shouting, you will need to find a strategy for avoiding a tit-for-tat battle. Remember, your good behaviour should be innate and robust enough to resist the worst assaults. If you can rise above your opponent’s fury, you are showing yourself to be a better person – and your tennis will probably improve if you refuse to become distracted.

• Whatever the result, and however badly your opponent has behaved, respect the rules of the game and shake your opponent’s hand, with a murmured “well played” at the end of the match. If you’re the winner, remember that gloating or triumphalism should be ruthlessly controlled.

• Above all, remember that spectators want to watch a supreme display of sporting prowess, not an ugly spectacle of threatening and aggressive behaviour. Let the tennis do the talking.


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