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In looking the other way on Zverev, Kyrgios and Brooksby, the ATP is entering a Golden Age of Rage
After the latest rounds of racquet abuse Thursday in Miami, it's clear that fines amounting to pocket change, point penalties and deferred suspensions are complicit with a growing problem.
Published Mar 25, 2022
WATCH: Lindsay Davenport, Mark Petchey and Caroline Wozniacki all agree on what should have happened to Jenson Brooksby
Just over a month ago, Alexander Zverev went on a racquet-smashing rampage that came close to injuring a chair umpire during the Abierto Mexicano Telcel in Acapulco. The ATP responded by issuing a fine and suspending him—the punishments rescinded, however, if Zverev managed to avoid repeating such an offense over the next 12 months.
Zverev responded to the slap—naw, the tap—on the wrist in part with this comment: “I think there are stress situations in everyone's life where stuff like this happens. I'm not the first, I won't be the last, for something bad to happen on the court.”
In a predictable “Why am I not surprised?” moment, barely a week went by before an enraged Nick Kyrgios flung his racquet so violently immediately after losing to Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells that it skidded across the court and nearly hit a ballkid. Then, yesterday in Miami, Jenson Brooksby and Jordan Thompson both acted out with their racquets in ways that endangered bystanders. Either player could have been thrown out of the tournament right then and there; both of them received only point penalties and fines that you and I might even afford.
The widespread reaction throughout tennis, including the mosh pit of Twitter, has been mounting outrage and criticism of the ATP, whose leaders appear to have spent most of the last few weeks hiding under their desks. Last week, when I tried to obtain the official list of players who were fined and punished for racquet abuse at Indian Wells—something that the US Open and some other events provide in the interest of transparency—I was nicely told to go take a hike.
ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert told me the following:
The most disappointing thing is that the ATP has lost the plot. Where is the leadership? There have been at least four egregious outbursts since the Australian Open, and three of them (involving Zverev, Kyrgios and Brooksby) should have been instant ejections. They (the ATP) need to do that, to send a stronger message, like basketball does with technical fouls. Can you imagine something like these incidents in the NFL, and the commissioner doesn't at least issue a statement?
Numerous others embedded on the tour expressed similar feelings of disgust.
Until these recent incidents, men's tennis was happily celebrating a bounceback from the pandemic and its punitive protocols. Thanks to sport's vaunted Big Three, plus the always overlooked Andy Murray, we were poised to enjoy the twilight of a golden age—but it appears we may be entering a different belle époque: the Golden Age of Rage.
The trend in racquet abuse is an evolutionary one, accelerating in direct proportion to the degree of tolerance shown for it. It may seem implausible by today’s standards, but back in the day flinging a racquet aside in disgust was about the worst of it. A player who destroyed his frames usually did so in the private confines of the locker room. But wholesale destruction or abuse of a racquet was rare, and doing it in a way that endangered bystanders and officials extremely so.
Things were already changing in Gilbert’s heyday during the McEnroe-Lendl era, but there was still greater restraint. Gilbert remembered that Goran Ivanisevic would smash his racquet to smithereens at the baseline. Then there was the time at the Australian Open when Marcos Baghdatis ruined four or five of his racquets while sitting during a changeover. Others broke racquets over their knees.
“It was different,” Gilbert said. “They were trashing their own racquets but not endangering anybody.”
Once, racquet destruction was the domain of the game’s most notorious hotheads. Now, everyone seems to be getting into it. Serena Williams has a highlight reel of racquet demolitions (none of which appear to endanger anyone but herself) but so does that diminutive, winsome sprite, Simona Halep. Not long ago, shy Karolina Pliskova attacked an umpire’s chair with Zverev-like gusto.
The reaction to the growing criticism from some of the prime offenders has been disappointing. But as a last resort there’s always the “human card” to play.
“We all do mistakes,” Zverev said, “I am also a human being.”
“I'd like to apologize for my behavior,” Brooksby told Tennis Channel yesterday, “I don't really feel like that's me, and I really feel bad about that. Just more frustrated with myself.”
Kyrgios grew prickly when he was questioned by press at Indian Wells after his loss to Nadal. “Did I throw the racquet anywhere near him originally? It landed a meter from my foot and skidded and nearly hit him. I’m human. Things happen like that.”
Patrick Mouratoglou, among other things the coach of Serena Williams and Stefanos Tsitsipas, came to the defense of the players. He told Eurosport, “I think it was a bit too much, what people said. I know we are in a sport where people think the athlete should be showing perfection all the time, everything that is not in line with that is shocking to them.”
That’s pure baloney. Mouratoglou is much smarter than that. Nobody expects players to “show perfection” all the time. Most people just don’t have much appetite for watching ugly, violent outbursts that endanger others—nor respect for those who engage in such behavior.
Gilbert believes tennis officials have to step up and send a clear, uncompromising message that there’s a limit to what players can do to express their frustrations, even if it means a tournament loses a star attraction. Deferred suspensions, fines that amount to pocket change for many offenders, point penalties and ATP officials who look the other way, whistling and jingling the change in pockets, just aren’t getting the job done.
As Rafael Nadal, taking pains not to single out any individual, said at Indian Wells after the Kyrgios incident, “When you allow the players to do stuff then you don't know where is the line [of acceptable behavior], and it's a tricky thing. But probably because these situations are happening more and more often, probably ATP should review things and make decisions.”