The tennis world is in shock, according to an article in the Tribune de Genève, because of insulting language used by the Australian Nick Kyrgios during a match against Stan Wawrinka Wednesday evening in Montreal. The insult, referring to Wawrinka’s current girlfriend and another Australian player, resulted in a $10,000 fine for the volatile Australian who later apologized for what he had said in “the heat of the moment.”
That the tennis world is in shock is no surprise given the history of tennis as an elitist sport with traditions such as all white clothing at Wimbledon – see Geneva’s Parc des Eaux-Vives for the same dress code – and exclusive clubs. Tennis has always been a sport of the privileged. Althea Gibson, the first great African-American tennis player, was often refused entry into restricted clubs. Arthur Ashe grew up in segregated Richmond, Virginia, where he was often forbidden to play against white opponents. When he won the United States Open at the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills in New York in 1968, the story goes that he was told to use the back entrance, one of the reasons why many players protested playing there and the tournament is now played at the public Flushing Meadows complex. The African-American Ralph Bunche, a high ranking UN official, was involved in a much-publicized incident in 1959 when he and his son were refused membership in the club.
The Williams sisters have introduced a new generation of tennis players. Serena and Venus are from Compton, California, the wrong side of the tracks. They grew up playing far removed the elegance of restricted clubs that often host tournaments, and were coached by their father, a self-taught player with no professional experience.
Marc Rosset, the former Olympic tennis champion and himself somewhat of a bad boy in his playing days, is quoted in the Tribune as saying that Kyrgios has confused sports. The trash-talking used in basketball, according to Rosset, is not suited to a tennis court.
Each sport has its rules and ethos. In tennis, John McEnroe was known for his outbursts, but they were usually against himself or the referee. He did not insult his opponents. Trash-talking is part of basketball. What players say to each other on the court reflects the nature of the game. Trash-talking comes from a street game called Dozens - a U.S., urban, spoken contest where opponents vie to insult each other in the crudest fashion. There are few official rules, except for no physical contact. Mothers, sisters are all fair game. Michael Jordan was not only a great basketball player, he was a legendary trash talker. What Kyrgios said to Wawrinka was extremely mild compared to what goes on during basketball games, even in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Whereas Kyrgios’ insult was caught on a sideline microphone, no courtside microphone picks up the insults in the NBA, luckily for the parents of young viewers.
Each sport has its rules and ethos. Soccer players scream at referees and even bump them. American football players never argue debatable calls. Baseball players sometimes kick dirt at the umpires, but are forbidden to argue balls and strikes. Basketball players rarely dispute calls with the refs.
Tennis has tried to become a more popular game. The Williams sisters are part of the transformation of the sport. As Marc Rosset correctly noted, the 20 year-old Kyrgios is part of a generation that is trying to transpose the style of street America to the tennis court. The Williams sisters, in spite of their background, have been able to make that transition. Kyrgios’ style remains on the street.
The roots of tennis remain traditional and elitist. If the tennis world is shocked by what Kyrgios said, that is as much a statement about the tennis world as it is a statement about what was actually said. The rules of any game go far beyond the game itself.