Game, Set, Shit

Karen Khachanov gets etymological

This will undoubtably be one of the dumber issues of the Racquet I write, but here we go.

Yesterday, during his win over Aslan Karatsev in Toronto, Karen Khachanov got in hot water over some particular bits of language. The Russian was given a point penalty for an audible obscenity, down break point, and resultantly lost his serve.

Full video here:

Full transcript here:

There are lots of odd things in the above exchange. Firstly, Khachanov confusingly asking umpire Renaud Lichtenstein ‘how do you say another way that you go to the toilet’ instead of saying ‘shit’, which not only answered his own question by mentioning the word ‘toilet’ but also seemed to temporarily delete every other word for a restroom/bathroom/toilet from existence. Secondly, supervisor Gerry Armstrong, perhaps befuddled after being asked an unintentionally philosophical question about semantics by Khachanov in the form of ‘who decides if it is a bad word or not?’, replied that ‘the English language’ decides. But that didn’t make much sense either given Khachanov had been penalised for saying ‘mierda’, ie ‘shit’, in Spanish not English. And considering that ‘mierda’ is also not a particularly serious swear word in some Spanish speaking countries you can sort of understand why Khachanov was so nonplussed by the whole thing. Of course in classic tennis fashion the original ‘mierda’ uttered by Khachanov, which likely drew almost no attention from anyone watching the match, was then utterly upstaged by the ensuing discussion with the umpire and supervisor which featured Khachanov loudly saying ‘SHIT’ about three hundred times while trying to understand what the hell was happening, thereby submitting the audience to three hundred times more profanity than if this nonsense had been ignored in the first place. Ten minutes later, at the 3-4 change of ends, the stadium DJ loudly trolled everyone as “♪(YEAH, YEAH) ALL THE CRAZY SHIT I DID TONIGHT, THOSE WILL BE THE BEST MEMORIES♪” blasted out of the speakers, thereby bringing a brown curtain down on the potty-shaped circus. None of the DJ, David Guetta nor Kid Cudi were given audible obscenity warnings.

I don’t care about who was right and who was wrong here. None of this is really worth debating and frankly, in solidarity with Khachanov, who gives a shit? But this bizarre exchange does bring up something I’ve been talking about for a while. Tennis really does need to stop treating itself as if the sport is played in some 18th century monastery. The audible obscenity rule, aside from conforming to tennis’ desire to uphold its gentlemanly values, is mostly in place to protect children’s sensitivities at home during broadcast and probably to comply with rights-holder and broadcaster standards. But considering the world we live in, in the grand year of 2021, is this really necessary anymore, at least in its current format? Nearly zero children actually watch cable/linear TV these days, with much of tennis being broadcast on-demand via streaming options. And even if the odd swear word does slip through and a kid is nearby at home, isn’t that partially what delays are for? You can’t watch a tennis match via most broadcasters without being a few points behind the actual live score. Can’t someone bleep or mute that shit out for the cable viewers and their television standards and leave the other streams alone?

The bigger question though involves consumption habits. The world has become more and more informal in the last ten to fifteen years (thank god), with kids far more interested in low production, less polished forms of entertainment on TikTok, Twitch, YouTube et al. Trust me when I say that your kids will be watching and hearing infinitely more offensive language at a young age from their favourite creators/streamers, or while playing games on discord with their friends, than some Russian dude muttering ‘mierda’ during a tennis match.

No doubt traditionalists will disagree, but it’s time tennis got a bit more real and informal, especially on the on-demand streaming options where the intentional rather than passive audience is almost entirely adults or teenagers at the youngest. Many younger or newer fans feel alienated and rather bored by overly produced, stuffy studio settings with commentators and hosts reeling off irritatingly enunciated soundbites that sound like a news desk from the 90’s.

The value of rules like audible obscenity rulings are usually decided by whether they actually accomplish anything practical. Considering the word ‘shit’ got said more times in trying to clarify the rule rather than the actual infraction, and that the DJ proceeded to play a song which loudly said the word ‘shit’ ten minutes later with no apology or issue, this particular instance seems like a waste of everyone’s time. Of course we shouldn’t just let players start saying any word or phrase under the sun during matches. That would quickly get offensive and messy. But at the same time, what on earth is the point of effecting the course of the match via point penalties for a softly worded, and barely rude, ‘mierda’? In the wider context of what is a pretty raw and unedited current environment of entertainment and consumption, such penalties feel a bit like aiming a tiny, dribbling watergun at a forest fire.

Let’s all just loosen up a bit. Sure, keep a ban on some of the more serious or offensive profanities that aren’t self-directed (and make them clear to players), but if this sport could get a little less formal, a little less serious, and a little more real, I think the kids would still be alright. In fact they might even tune in more often.

— MW

If you have any questions on the above, let me know in the comments. No question is dumb.

I’ll see paid subscribers on Sunday for analysis.

Twitter @MattRacquet

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