Is tennis teetering on the brink of controversy?

As 2021 draws to a close, we have plenty to be thankful for. Simultaneously, much is alarming. Far from escaping the clutches of COVID-19, that particular virus seems poised to strike viciously against an apathetic population. Migrant crises are exploding on the Polish border and across the English channel. Climate breakdown is unrepentant, as are human offenders. And at this particular moment, I believe tennis might be teetering on the brink of controversy.

Admittedly, it’s not the most pressing global concern. But several issues are bubbling dangerously close to the surface within the sport.

The tennis calendar concluded last week, in a dramatic ATP Final showdown between Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev, in which the former reversed a five-match losing streak against the latter. He now finishes the year as World no. 3, just behind no. 2 Medvedev.

Of course, the tennis schedule is brutally demanding. With limited time off, we’re currently embroiled in Davis Cup battles, ensuring certain nationalities are still working hard. For fans, it makes the sport consistently exciting to follow. There have been plenty of specific reasons to celebrate this year, too. The emergence of the hard-hitting Carlos Alcaraz, who I was lucky enough to watch at Wimbledon, is a definite highlight, after he utterly dominated the Next Gen Finals. Having already claimed his first official title in Umag, no doubt the first of many, a glittering career awaits him.

Personally, I’ve loved watching Casper Ruud break into the top ranks. There’s so much young talent shining across the sport, but his mental resilience and calmness is especially endearing.

British tennis fans have plenty to cheer over. Andy Murray is back. Despite some shaking results earlier in the year, he’s made fantastic progress, and produced some incredible, gritty, enthralling wins in the waning stages of the season. Even better, at his very best, he might still face stiff competition for British no. 1. Cam Norrie, where did you come from? Oh, that’s right. South Africa. Sorry, New Zealand. Or was it the US? Well, you’re British now, so nothing else matters.

Don’t think I forgot Emma Raducanu. An absolute revelation. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of her.

Tennis’ violent streak

Sadly, there can only be so much positivity over here. Playing tennis requires as much emotional endurance as it does physical toughness. Each point is vital, decided by minute margins and extreme technical focus alongside brute strength. It’s a potent concoction often boiling into visible frustration. We’ve seen frantic gesticulations, swearing, and racket smashing. It’s generally tolerated as injecting additional drama into proceedings.

Meltdowns are not a dealbreaker for me. It’s a reminder these athletes are human. A number are also exceedingly young (a terrifying proportion are considerably younger than I, in fact). Sportspeople are primarily athletes. That status, however, is closely tied to the position of celebrity entertainer. The greater your sporting success, the higher demand for the export of your personality as a commodity. On- and off-court, players are under tremendous pressure.

But there’s no room for violence. Aggression against your racket is punishable by verbal warning, then loss of a point, escalating into games. Striking an opponent, spectator, grounds-person, or umpire brings an immediate default, accidental or otherwise. Exactly as it should.

My purpose here? Off-court violence. The aforementioned Zverev is currently subject of an internal ATP probe into domestic abuse alleged by ex-girlfriend Olga Sharypova. This was first announced on the 4th of October, approximately an entire year after Sharypova first brought claims of abusive incidents. Zverev allegedly hit her head into a wall, punched her in the face, smothered her face with a pillow, and was ‘controlling and possessive’, including stealing her passport to prevent her from leaving.

Zverev continues to deny the claims, even welcoming the probe. If he is found conclusively innocent, we can move on and apologise for mis-characterising him. The fundamental problem is that abuse allegations rarely arise from nowhere. Assuming the claims are not a complete fabrication, the ATP has yet to confirm what sanctions it might take depending on its findings. Zverev is undeniably high-profile within tennis, which is perhaps why the allegations have been quietly ignored thus far.

His is also not an entirely isolated incident. Nikoloz Basilashvili, who finished the year as World no. 22, was arrest in May of last year for assaulting his former wife in front of their son. Out of pure convenience, the ATP has remained almost completely silent on the issue.

I don’t have any evidence. I know neither Zverev nor Sharypova on a personal level, so cannot accurately gauge what might be true without simply weighing each one’s statement against the other. But these are appalling allegations, whilst the players are allowed to continue unimpeded. The solution is perhaps not to destroy the careers of men who might be falsely accused. I say this only to appease those who frequently condemn feminist movements as attacking men. They don’t. False accusations are also exceedingly low. The entire affair should have been a lot louder and a lot faster. Zverev is also the reigning Olympic Tennis Champion. He’s a prominent advocate for the sport, yet a potential domestic abuser. We need the probe concluded swiftly and decisively.

Anti-vax tennis players

Let’s quickly recap: COVID-19 exists (yep, inconvenient), but vaccinations help. I learnt about those at school. They don’t involve micro-chips, nor literally any logically conceivable reason to not receive a vaccination.

The only arena in which I have even a shred of sympathy for anti-vaxxers in elite sports. Adverse effects might interfere with their training regimes and fitness, which would prove damaging in a sport like tennis, where the calendar is so demanding. To be clear, vaccinations are good, and have only become divisive because of rampant disinformation and stupidity across the general public. I don’t understand players citing ‘personal reasons’ for not disclosing their vaccination status. I would appreciate explanations relating to their training schedules, but still assume they could work in a couple of off-weeks to facilitate becoming vaccinated. And they’ll have to.

Victoria’s premier has already confirmed that no exception will be made for unvaccinated players arriving for the Australian Open in January. It’s promisingly estimated that player vaccination rates recently increased from 50% to 80%, but still has yet to encompass every individual. Unvaccinated player arrivals might be especially contentious too, considering the ire invoked last year when tennis players were invited into Australia whilst some stranded nationals were still waiting to return to their own country.

Vaccinations in tennis are of particular importance since there were outbreaks of COVID-19 surrounding the Australian Open last year. One entire plane arriving from Doha had to be quarantined upon arrival.

Let’s not forget the disastrous tennis tournament organised in June 2020, at perhaps the worst time imaginable, that saw several players and staff become infected. Arranged, of course, by staunchly anti-vax Novak Djokovic, reigning World no. 1. It will be hard for the ATP to avoid controversy here, since the tournament favourite and returning champion might be barred access to the country for his ‘personal reasons’. Djokovic has hinted he will comply with vaccine regulations, leaving the ATP to simply hope he does so.

Anyways, tennis is not alone here. All sports, as with any ‘in-person’ event, have been forced to balance COVID considerations. It’s been a process full of learning and adaptation, and I won’t suggest we’re close to the end. The NFL’s Aaron Rodgers was recently discovered to have lied about his own COVID vaccination status and breached rules, whilst other players have followed in his wake in backing anti-vax stances. Sportspeople need to be role models for the fans supporting them. I know our standards are often unreasonably high of people who just happen to be very good at playing a game, but these figures were signing up to the public eye. It’s unavoidable. With success comes fame and with fame comes responsibility. There are issues in the world, and the off-court job description of high-level athlete includes engaging with them and the community.

One can’t help but assume we’re nowhere near the end of hearing tedious arguments made in opposition to vaccinations, with tennis being no exception.

Tennis player’s safety

Tennis might be creeping closer to blossoming controversy, aided by problematic, high-profile players, but one recent story burst into immediate sensation through no fault of anyone in the tennis world.

Peng Shuai, a prominent Chinese tennis player and three-time Olympian, levied sexual harassment claims against former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli on social media. Her post vanished minutes later, before she, too, disappeared for several weeks. A retraction widely believed doctored or false was apparently issued by Peng, potentially under coercion. She has now appeared as a guest as a tournament in Beijing, and contacted IOC President Thomas Bach on a video call, who suggested the tennis player was safe and well. But the episode has not been satisfactorily resolved.

“even if it’s just striking a stone with a pebble, or a moth attacking a flame and courting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you.”

– Peng Shuai

Her original disappearance was stunning. The response both from the tennis community and the world was outrage and disbelief. The WTA threatened to withdraw business from China, which would impact the ten events scheduled next year, including the WTA Finals. The UN and US demanded proof of Peng’s whereabouts. Even if we can now be assured of her physical safety, her freedoms and right of autonomy cannot be guaranteed.

Tennis, as with any professional sport, is an unusual affair in China. The state effectively controls every aspect of a player’s life and career, including siphoning a percentage of their earnings. This is in exchange for complete support, aiming for success at any cost. But Peng broke from this system, like fellow player Li Na, to become independent.

The entire affair highlights a grave controversy facing the ATP, and all international sporting bodies: how to handle operations with nations failing to conform to democratic norms or human rights. China is one of the most notorious examples, much maligned for its ongoing genocide of Uyghur Muslims. This is merely another instance of the state flexing its autocratic muscles and silencing dissonance. How sporting bodies respond should influence how popular they remain. I’ve discussed before the IOC’s concerning lack of concern for China’s abuses, happily enabling the Winter Olympics to proceed.

To divert into a brief tangent, I am alarmed by the escalation of US-Chinese tensions. Joe Biden’s repeated assertions over Taiwan, later rescinded by his team, are either deliberately antagonistic or, worse, indicate a genuine commitment of force. The Chinese response here has been to condemn the Western world for its “maliciously hyped up” reaction. The US and Chinese political systems are at odds, and a broad diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics would be reminiscent of Cold War tactics. But I believe it has to happen. I’m not saying the world cannot coexist with diametrically opposed systems of governance, but the polarised treatment of one’s own citizens should be intolerable. It’s not politics. It’s human rights.

Tennis, not by its own agency, might be inadvertently navigating towards controversy. It’s almost unavoidable, given that relations with China and other nations with low human rights records currently exist. To alter those tournament deals is controversial. To do nothing and allow hosts actively committing major abuses to benefit from tennis income, is also controversial. To reiterate, China is not alone. Another notorious example is Russia, most recently accused of orchestrating the migrant crisis on the EU border, playing host to multiple tournaments and breeding several successful players.

Is tennis teetering on the brink of controversy?

It does rather appear that way. Ultimately, only time will reveal how these incidents unfold. Should Zverev be found guilty, an appropriate punishment will have to be conjured by the ATP, who will then have to retract their promotional support for a successful player. If Djokovic refuses to disclose a confirmed vaccination status, the current World no. 1 might be denied entry to major tournaments across the globe. If players continue to be attacked by their state’s for expressing views they dislike, uncomfortable decisions will have to be made.

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you’ve noticed anything alarming within the sport, or anything you’ve loved from this year. Who are we all supporting in the Davis Cup? Feature image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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