Tennis' Identity Crisis

Paire Turns Into A Spit Sprinkler: The Umpire Problem

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We are what we believe we are. Benoit Paire, on the way to a 6-4, 3-6, 1-6 loss to 137th ranked Francisco Cerúndolo on Thursday in Buenos Aires, became enraged at a ball mark dispute earlier in the match, and then turned into a sprinkler of spit while loudly and continuously berating umpire Nacho Forcadell. Benoit got given a point penalty, brazenly tanked away the last games of the match, and followed up the performance by bragging about how much prize money he’s earned, before capping it all off with his long anticipated sampling of the Buenos Aires nightlife. Santé Marion indeed.

If you’re wondering why it’s difficult to find footage of this shitshow it’s because the official ATP accounts, caught up in a daily existential crisis about whether to capitalise on controversy as they so often do, or to cover it up, shook their magic 8 ball and this time landed on the latter. The accounts that had shared what had happened were swiftly given copyright strikes, and the official channels selectively avoided the blatant tanking and umpire abuse (you can watch the ball mark issue here and the last game here).

I don’t blame the social media managers. They’re stuck, just like everyone else in this sport, between tennis’ split personalities.

On the one hand, this 150 year old game tries desperately to live up to its historic roots as a snooty, well-behaved affair played on pristine croquet lawns by gentlemen and ladies in long billowing white trousers and skirts in front of literal royalty. On the other, tennis understandably tries to leverage the wildfire-like effect ‘on court drama’ has on modern platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok etc, and adapt to the considerably less formal age we now live in. But the issue at hand here, and the thing that seems to be constantly overlooked whenever there’s some controversy like this, is not Paire ruining his own match (there are usually quite severe punishments for tanking matches anyway). It’s a player treating an umpire like dirt and no one seeming to care.

Players are given hefty fines for swearing at themselves, breaking racquets, ‘unsportsmanlike conduct’ et al. But they’re also, in general, treated extremely lightly when insulting, shouting at, and/or threatening the officials sitting in the chair. This seems to me to be about as backwards as it gets. Break a racquet or swear at yourself? ELECTRIC CHAIR! Hurl constant abuse at an umpire, spit at them, maybe even intimidatingly smash the chair they’re sitting on with a racquet? Hey no big deal, have a warning, a fine that represents a drop in the ocean of prize money, or possibly a point/game penalty if you were really naughty. Hyperbole aside, players are routinely punished as, or more, sternly for attacks on inanimate objects and saying ‘shit’ than they are for attacks on other human beings trying to do their jobs. If tennis is to pick and choose the areas where it aspires to be gentleman/woman-ly, and the areas where it should embrace grittiness, ‘content’ and modernity, then surely any sane person would suggest that it significantly loosens its behaviour rules around things like racquet smashes and self-flagellating obscenities, and significantly tightens them around umpire abuse.

To illustrate the perversely imbalanced incentives at play here, Serena Williams was once fined $10,000 for merely throwing her racquet and denting the lawn during a practice session at Wimbledon in 2019. In a jarring contrast, Jared Donaldson received a $5000 fine for repeatedly screaming at, and even squaring up to, umpire Arnaud Gabas mid-match in Monte Carlo in 2018. The logic and scale of those two punishments, based on their respective actions, are absolute nonsense. Racquets and grass don’t have feelings. Umpires do.

Prioritise the wellbeing and authority of an umpire? Nah, but the world will burn for what has happened to muh blades of grass.

Whether it’s Kyrgios spitting at umpire Fergus Murphy and screaming ‘you’re a fucking tool’ and ‘the worst umpire ever’ over and over, Medvedev and Plíšková hitting and/or breaking umpire chairs with their racquets, or Fabio Fognini threatening umpires at Wimbledon, grabbing them by the arm & telling them “If I lose this match you're going to be in big trouble” (none of which resulted in defaults, obviously) there is nothing reasonable about the way many players treat officials. And these kinds of actions would result in much larger fines and suspensions in plenty of other, less internally confused, major sports.

The following was umpire Mohamed Lahyani’s response to Medvedev after the first time the Russian struck the official’s chair with his racquet in Australia last year:

Lahyani: ‘Stop! You have the warning, stop. Because the action you did was too much. Please. Stop.’

What did Medvedev do after this plea from the umpire? He hits the chair again, harder. Players are not afraid of the consequences and are acting accordingly.

All of these examples, along with Paire’s meltdown on Thursday, should have been zero tolerance defaults, or at the very least larger fines and/or suspensions. And none of these players should walk away thinking that what they’ve done is ok or repeatable at the expense of an inconsequential slap on the wrist. The lack of protection the ATP, WTA, & ITF are providing to umpires thanks to such lax rules around this kind of behaviour isn’t productive, and has even fostered an odd environment where umpires occasionally feel like councillors to some of the more unstable players.

When building rules for this kind of thing it’s important to set hard examples. And if players watch each other get away this lightly for abusing officials, then more and more players will think it’s acceptable. A self-perpetuating cycle of shithousery. For where to look for inspiration in solving this problem, rugby shines brightly - thirty dudes running around a pitch in a highly aggressive environment, with testosterone levels spiking higher than a bodybuilder’s buttock, and yet they still manage to treat the referees with consistent and calm respect. Why? Mostly, because if they don’t behave towards the officials the threat of being sent off is very, very real (there’s essentially zero tolerance towards referee verbal and physical abuse). Rugby has strictly set boundaries, has communicated those boundaries clearly to the players, and the players then act accordingly (rugby also leans heavily on review technology to make applications of umpire rulings more easily explained & less heat-of-the-moment than they regularly are in tennis). Tennis players don’t face proper boundaries nor consequences for umpire abuse and unsurprisingly regularly behave like a bunch of unhinged rugrats.

Whilst you can argue that one rugby player being sent off won’t abruptly halt the ‘show’ in the way one tennis player being defaulted would, the most effective way to make sure umpires are treated better is to have clear and significant repercussions looming over abusive behaviour. As it stands tennis players are not worried about being defaulted, paying meaningful fines, or being suspended when they treat umpires poorly. And it shows.

As for tennis’ identity crisis, frankly I don’t think most fans could care less about players swearing at themselves on court, nor about smashing racquets (as long as they don’t do it anywhere near the ball kids). That the powers that be choose to punish these mostly harmless & unimportant infractions equivalently, or more harshly, than verbally and physically abusing umpires, reeks of a deep confusion about what the sport believes itself to be. If tennis is going to choosily select which actions fit into its prissy pretences of ‘etiquette’ then it should pretty bloody obviously start cracking down on occasions where other human beings are in the crosshairs of player behaviour rather than inanimate objects or self-directed outbursts. Should this sport fail to decide who it is, the dichotomy of tennis’ split personalities will only continue to diverge, using tradition as a justification for punishing the trivial rather than the serious will continue to look bizarre, and umpires will continue to unfairly take the brunt of the fallout of this decidedly preventable disorder.

‘uNsPoRtSmAnLiKe CoNdUcT wArNiNg’ directed squarely back at yourself, tennis.


Twitter @MattRacquet

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