The Ugly Side of Tennis

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There are several beautiful aspects to tennis. The graceful swings, the elegant clothes, and the trophy ceremonies at the end of a competition. Tennis is supposed to be a gentleman’s game, a sport of high culture and affluence, but it has an ugly side. This is a side we have all seen. People whine, complain, throw and smash rackets, curse and threaten umpires, and even make derogatory racial remarks. A good friend of mine was recently on the receiving end of the uglier side of tennis, which made me ask the question … why? Why does this happen? What is it specifically about tennis that brings out the worst in people at times? The conclusion I came to is that people feel more secure showing the worst sides of themselves in tennis because it is a non-contact sport.

Contact sports are a far cry from our gentle game of tennis. I remember playing several contact sports in high school with immense enjoyment. My mother, on the other hand, was less of a fan, not because she was worried I would be injured, but because the cost of new glasses was always a bit overwhelming. Hopefully, there are some readers here who also know the plight of the myopic athlete.

Contact sports, by nature, involve a high level of physical contact. That being the case, there are certain consequences for acting unreasonably, such as excessive trash-talking, cheating and/or poor gamesmanship. When a player decides to talk trash in basketball or perhaps blow in the defender’s ear, they have to be ready to be on the receiving end of some extra physical contact. They may find a stray elbow to the face, or perhaps an ambitiously hard pick. Football has the same situation as does any contact sport. The argument could be made that the more contact a sport has, the more gentlemanly the players. Rugby, a sport renowned for its physical nature, is also known to be a sport with some of the nicest most gentlemanly players. Those guys know that if they cross a certain line, they’re going to feel the pain.

Tennis is non-contact sport, there is no actual physical contact between opponents. What recourse does a person have when the opponent is cheating, trash-talking, or bending the rules? What motivation do they have to observe a certain level of sportsmanship? Unfortunately, there is nothing really keeping anyone in check in tennis. For example, if someone is habitually making bad line calls, there is nothing you can do. If someone decides to curse at you, there is nothing you can do about it. The best recourse is usually to just walk away from the situation, but in tennis, if you do this, then you lose for walking off the court. The alternative is to suffer through a match you’ll probably lose because all you can think about is getting off the court as fast as you can. Poor sportsmanship and poor conduct is toxic and makes players want to leave the sport.

Life off the court is different though right? Not really. Off the court we could divide human interaction into two types: Online and Offline. You can observe some of the worst in terms of human behavior when looking online at the Internet. The reason that happens is because there is no real consequence, similar to non-contact sports like tennis. People tend to exercise a bit more discretion offline because they know there will be consequences if they cross certain lines. Cursing and threats of physical violence will be met with a call to the police at best, and a fast track to the hospital at worst. The safety of anonymity online is akin to the safety a non-contact sport provides certain players who display certain poor behavior. No one can stop you.

How much of a challenge is it to keep your cool in competition and observe a certain level of sportsmanship. I would argue that it’s not much of a challenge. Sports are about testing yourself and your skills against the skills of another, and that endeavor is supposed to bring us a certain level of enjoyment. Personally, I find I play my best when people I know come and watch me. I don’t care if I lose in front of a student, my family or my girlfriend, but what I cannot stand for is making a fool of myself from poor behavior. You never want your emotions to turn you into someone you’re not. When you’re out there playing a match, try to ask yourself if you would want your children or parents to see you that way. Hopefully you won’t be bullied by another player pursuing you after a match, antagonizing you for a reaction, and then threatening you with physical violence, the way my friend was threatened.