Tennis is supposed to be a sophisticated sport, but recent scenes at big international tournaments this year – including at the 2022 Australian Open – are increasingly giving fans pause. The latest incident? Men’s world No. 3 Alexander Zverev has been booted out of the Mexican Open and faces serious punishment after violently threatening an umpire.
The 24-year-old German and partner Brazil’s Marcelo Melo narrowly lost their first-round game to Britain’s Lloyd Glasspool and Finland’s Harri Heliövaara in a doubles match, after a contentious line call during a tie-break.
Zverev and Melo were dismayed by the call, with Zverev screaming at the umpire to “look where the ball bounced… 8-6 in the tiebreak… for f***s sake… it’s f***ing your line… you f***ing idiot.” with the umpire issuing him with a code violation for the tirade.
Then, after perfunctorily shaking his opponents’ hands, Zverev attacked the umpire’s chair multiple times with his racket – forcing the umpire to dodge his blows – all the while continuing to curse.
The ATP responded quickly, kicking Zverev out of the tournament effective immediately. There are already calls for Zverev, who’s a notorious racket-smasher, to be suspended from the ATP Tour and commentators expect the German will be hit with some hefty fines. For reference, Australia’s Nick Kyrgios was banned from the tour for 16 weeks and fined US$113,000 for verbally abusing an umpire in 2019 – so you’d expect Zverev to get stung even worse.
But this all comes back to a broader issue with tennis: for a sport that’s supposed to be more genteel than others (and one that hands out harsher punishments to offending players than most) why do tennis players frequently behave so disrespectfully?
From Novak Djokovic flouting Australian rules and norms by trying to get into the country while unvaccinated, Serena Williams having tantrums at the umpire, Bernard Tomic ‘the Tank Engine’ acting like a spoilt brat or indeed Zverev’s violent act, the tennis world and fans seem to have a bizarrely high tolerance for players’ bad behaviour.
People often point the finger at footballers or rugby players as being badly behaved – and yes, many are – but there seems to be a double standard with tennis at play. Tennis also seems to be much worse than other individual sports, too: you don’t see golfers, surfers or sprinters acting up in the same way tennis players do. Or, at least, it’s far less common.
It’s not just tennis players who behave badly these days, either – it’s the fans, too. The ‘siuuu’ chant that went viral at the 2022 Australian Open (ironically, imported from the football world), was truly embarrassing to observe. It confused players and commentators alike, and sure, it might not have been booing, but it was just as bad.
There’s definitely an argument to be made that if tennis is to survive, it needs to become less stuffy. From relaxing dress codes at Wimbledon to being more tolerant of spirited crowds (what other major international sports shooshes crowds during gameplay?), there’s plenty tennis could do to better keep up with the times.
But we as fans really need to ask ourselves why we put up with such diva behaviour from tennis stars, and what we can do to make tennis a more inclusive, friendlier, enjoyable sport. For a start, maybe more respect for the umpire…