Just two days earlier, Andrey Rublev, the seventh seed at the French Open, was also cautioned for unsportsmanlike conduct after furiously smashing a ball that almost hit a groundsman.
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At Indian Wells in March, Nick Kyrgios slammed his racquet so hard after a loss that he nearly hit a ballboy. Jenson Brooksby did much the same thing the next week at the Miami Open, throwing his racquet at a ball kid. He was given a point penalty and a $15,000 fine instead of defaulting.
In February, third-placed Alexander Zverev hit his racket against the referee’s chair after losing a doubles game at a tournament in Acapulco. As punishment, he was disqualified from the singles event and fined $40,000. But after an ATP investigation, he avoided a suspension.
None of the sport’s current bad actors invented bad behavior on a tennis court.
John McEnroe was a master of tantrums throughout his career. For Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase, profane rants and obscene gestures were simply part of the playbook in the 1970s and 1980s to stoke the crowd and themselves and unsettle their opponents.
But the recent spate of seizures is different, with a physical component that some believe calls for a firmer hand.
“It’s more violent; it’s absolutely more violent,” said Mary Carillo, who coached alongside McEnroe as a junior and won the 1977 French Open mixed doubles title as his partner. “These guys took it one step further.”
Two-time Grand Slam champion Tracy Austin urged the ATP to “amplify” their response.
Hall of Famer inductee Pam Shriver, a frequent tennis commentator, also thinks tournament officials and the ATP need to take a tougher hand – especially when players berate the crowd, as Denis Shapovalov did at the recent Italian Open, yelling: “Shut the f- — up” to fans who booed his sustained tirade at the chair umpire.
“I think in some situations there weren’t serious enough consequences,” Shriver said. “Swearing by a crowd is totally unacceptable because that’s who makes your living – the fans.”
Regarding Zverev’s attack on the umpire’s chair, Shriver argues that it warranted a ban for the next few tournaments.
However, one American player, Taylor Fritz at No. 14, believes tennis would be better served if players were given more leeway to express their feelings – not less.
“I think it would be cool to see the hype surrounding tennis grow,” Fritz said at the French Open this week. “One thing we can do on tour is be more accepting of crazier attitudes and things like that. I feel like any little thing can get someone fined or in trouble, so maybe I’d like to see more openness to crazier players.”
That’s what his generation is responding to, he noted.
“Maybe it would be a little bit exciting to let the players get away with something more,” Fritz said.
That’s the catch from Carillo’s point of view.
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Unlike team sports, where a top athlete can be kicked out for a egregious offense and replaced by a substitute, tennis is individual. When a chair umpire kicks a runaway player out of the game, it ends the game and penalizes ticket buyers and broadcasters alike.
And knowing this, players see little reason to monitor their own behavior – even if they were able to.
“That’s the hard part,” says Carillo. “The players who act out know when they look at the referee, ‘Are you going to kick me out? Do you know how many boos there will be if you throw me off this seat?’ I think that gives them additional freedom of choice. They think, ‘Why not do it all?’ ”
However, most professionals at the top of the sport recognize that it is ultimately in their best interest to control their anger.
For Rafael Nadal, five-time winner of the ATP Award for Sports Achievement, he learned how to behave on the pitch as a child.
“My uncle, my family, never allowed me to break a racquet, never allowed me to say bad words or give up a match,” Nadal once explained. “When I was a kid, they probably didn’t care much about winning or losing. Of course, all parents and family, my uncle [who was also his coach] wanted me to win every single match. But that probably wasn’t the most important thing. The most important thing was the training and that I grow with the values, with the right values.”
It’s been a process for second-placed Daniil Medvedev, who is still reeling from an epic meltdown he had as a 14-year-old junior.
“At some point I understood that it can negatively affect your tennis,” Medvedev said. “But I definitely didn’t get it [at 14]. It was much later. … I’m still learning because sometimes on the pitch I throw some tantrums when it’s the right word. Usually I’m not happy about it. The most important thing is to either know how to react, or better yet, how not to, and just focus on the game.”
Begu, who won Thursday’s match in three sets, went into the stands afterwards and held the frightened child in her arms as photos were taken.
In her subsequent press conference, she said she regretted the incident and called it “an embarrassing moment for me”.
“You hit the sand with the bat, but you never expect to fly that much,” Begu said.
Hours later, the French Open released a statement detailing the sequence of events after Begu threw her racquet. It read:
“The bat bounced over the bench into the spectator area. The bat accidentally landed in the spectator area, where it grazed a young spectator. After an initial scare, the viewer turned out to be fine. The Grand Slam supervisor spoke to the parents who were with the child, the parents confirmed that the child was fine and there were no injuries. According to the procedures, a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct was declared.”