What happened to tennis?

I find tennis almost unbearable to watch now.

The unhinged emotions that have permeated our culture have infected everything, from art, to sports. As I watched some of the US Open last week I was shocked by how much the sport has diminished.

It’s not only how homogenous the style of play has become. It’s not only the lack of finesse on display from the world’s top players, or the variety of shot making. It’s about behavior.

When I started playing tennis in the 1980s and when I became a fan of the sport, there was something we called stoicism. Mental toughness was about persevering with grace. You were rewarded by restraining your emotions and not succumbing to them. If you watched singles play it was impossible to determine who was winning and who was losing. That’s what made the matches so exciting, wondering who was going to break first.

But now, it’s all about temper tantrums, crying, throwing your body on the court, bowing, waving and blowing kisses to the crowd. I mean, you might think this was tolerable if the player won all four majors in one year, but now this type of behavior happens when a player wins in the 1st round.

Watching Canadian tennis player Leylah Fernandez’s journey to the final of the US Open this past month, I was disturbed with the lack of restraint she displayed upon winning a match. The falling to the ground, the shaking, the uncontrollable crying, the performative elements that seemed fake, was embarrassing for me to watch, but perfectly acceptable it seemed to everyone else.

I don’t quite know when we started thinking it was acceptable to throw these type of tantrums in public. But it’s so mainstream now that it’s an expectation from audiences for tennis players to behave this way.

It’s not only the players, it’s the players’ families who are acting like children, throwing themselves out of their seats and hollering and hooting in the first game of the match, beating their chests, yelling at the other opponent’s family.

I couldn’t imagine this ever happening in the 1980s and the 1990s. Monica Seles was coached by her parents who when she was winning or losing a match sat calmly in their seats.

When Martina Hingis threw a temper tantrum versus Steffi Graf in the French Open Final of 1999 she was booed off the court. The message was clear, it was inappropriate to carry on like a child, even if you were a teenager. There was a decorum and a dignity one should present, even during the toughest of points and closest of calls. Teenagers in tennis were expected to act maturely.

Look at Serena Williams, who had a near 30 minute meltdown on court after being called out for cheating while playing. The media the next day rightfully called it out as an unhinged meltdown but then they faced the charge of racism and sexism on Twitter. No, it wasn’t sexism or racism to call her out on her childish antics. What she did was unprecedented. It was poor behavior, not a moment of bravery, or challenging misogyny.

When I was younger, there were two players who we all laughed at: John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova, because they would carry on like children while playing. Screaming, hollering, yelling at umpires, showing no respect for linesmen/women or any call that wasn’t in their favor.

Now, players like those two are routine in tennis. I wonder if they’ve been coached to act this way, or if our culture has degraded so much that we think it’s completely appropriate to act like a child.

When Fernandez won her semifinal match, her opponent smashed her racket and broke it. It’s almost a rule now. Winners are to throw their bodies on the court, wail, cry, cover their quivering mouths, shake, twirl to the crowd, blow kisses, wave. The loser is supposed to scream, yell at the umpire, break their equipment.

Back in my day, I know I sound old, players, both losers and winners, simply left the court when the match was over. No hysterics, no performative excesses. They behaved like adults.

One thought on “What happened to tennis?

  1. Martina Navratilova was one of my sports idols as a kid, I had a poster of her right up next to Fred Lynn. Watched her play for the Boston Lobsters of WTT. Classy to this day.

    In the late ’90s, saw Andre Agassi vs. Roger Federer for a small title my company sponsored. Federer was top of the hill; Agassi was making a comeback from retirement. Agassi was super aggressive charging the net receiving serve. It psyched Federer out and he kept faulting. So then Federer kept checking his racket, swapped for a new one twice. Bad tennis crowd etiquette but I shouted, ‘it ain’t the racket, Rog!’ Agassi clobbered him. Afterwards, he spent the whole time praising Federer and thanking Brooke for her support. Classy and humble.

    I care not a bit about pro tennis now. Sure, McEnroe was always a tw*t, but all of today’s players seem unstable and boorish. Serena Williams is worshipped as a ‘goddess’, but I see rather a monster with anger management issues and predicable malaises whenever she’s falling behind. I would like to be her racket supplier, though. Osaka needs to suck it up and realize just how blessed she is.

    All that being said, the pressure put on tennis stars from early childhood on is so intense that it takes a formidable character to not turn out a temperamental basket case.

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