Will Kyrgios’ Sledge Push the Tennis Culture Forward?

Nick

Today Ben Rothenberg posted, “Sledging Nick Kyrgios Shunned by Fellow Players due to his distasteful Sledge to Stan Wawrinka”  on Fox Sports. Like most of Ben’s pieces, this piece demonstrates solid reporting.  He highlights players’ thoughts on the issue including: Federer, Nadal, Wawrinka, Isner, Sock, Ivanovic, Vandeweghe and Kudryavteseva. This list of players is impressive because media training, publicists and agents push players to make generic, bland statements and steer clear controversial issues. There are truly very few ‘personalities’ on the tour. In the article the women shared their concern for the woman involved and the lack of respect Kyrgios’ statement showed. Most telling is that only one player, Isner, voiced what appears to be a  dissenting view that Kyrgios’ actions did not warrant suspension. The most well-known tennis player, Williams, refused to comment on the issue. One must ask, what is it about the tennis culture that results in a herd mentality or stifles the voices of  its players and the media? Is this what has stymied the sport’s growth?

Tennis (commentators/officials/players) and the media’s response to the Kyrgios statement is focused and does not conflate the issue, much less consider intersectionality. This is central to the tennis culture and a lot of tennis narratives. Their refrain is, ‘this is tearing down our genteel or gentleman sport of integrity’.  One wonders if spectators and fans see tennis as genteel, gentlemanly or full of integrity.  The tennis whites, the required silence during points, the signs of respect via hand shakes etc…,are appreciated but these things alone do not equal integrity. Tennis has done little  to address racism, sexism and classism. Can a tennis culture rife with the aforementioned isms market itself as the integrity sport?

The sport is intense and as much if not more mental than physical. On court players are like any athlete. Fans can’t expect perfection but they also don’t want to see anything too offensive or anything that will harm the player or others. Even fan favorites Nadal and Federer regularly demonstrate questionable behavior. On court Nadal address fictional wedgies and picks his nose. While Federer curses and is dismissive of his opponents. Then there is a player like Fognini who often pushes FCC boundaries. Surely their behavior is not genteel. And of course Wawrinka, the ‘victim’ is far from genteel on and off the court. Has no one wondered why he has been the center of so many skirmishes this year?

Kyrgios’ statement does not disrupt a perceived or real genteel tennis culture because it does not exist. Yes, he was rude and disrespectful, but does that warrant the response he has received? One should question the sport’s reasoning for all but dismissing blatant sexist and homophobic remarks from an ATP player one week and then setting out to burn another ATP player at the stake for a sexist statement. Is this incident worthy of response because: the ‘victim’ is a two-time slam holder; is it because the statement pulls back the curtain on the long-time gossip on the abundance sex on the tour; is it because Kyrgios is no longer only the ‘court jester or clown’; is it because this incident shows that tennis is simply just another sport in the 21st century; is it because it holds sexual privacy and agency above all else?

This incident and the way Tennis Officials/Commentators and the media responded illustrates much that is wrong in the sport. One must question commentators, writers and players who refuse to or are unable to voice or report opinions or truths that may hurt feelings, brands or marketing campaigns. There is a difference between analysis/reporting and marketing! By no means should one support or sanction Kyrgios’ statement, but tennis’ reaction must be consistent and measured. When the Player Council President is on Tennis Channel vehemently stating that he has spoken to Wawrinka several times and they both feel more sanctions are required what fans see and hear is that tennis is an old boys’ club. What purpose would it serve the sport if Kyrgios is suspended? And if Gimblestob and Hewitt can regain the respect of the tennis community after the atrocious things they have said and done, why can’t Kyrgios?

If Kyrgios is suspended will he be the first tennis player suspended for such a statement? Rothenberg tweeted today that tennis is stalling and in comparison the NHL suspended Avery within hours when he made similar comments to Kyrgios. It would be nice to see a thorough opinion or investigative piece on this from this writer since his outlets generally only publish feel good or brief pieces lacking the depth that his knowledge and experience on the tour could relay.

Additional fines or a suspension will not address what Kyrgios has done or the tennis culture in which he operates.  The Players’ Council should consider joining forces with a university or organization known for their research and work on misogyny or sexism. Have Kyrgios volunteer with them and launch an initiative. BE PROACTIVE!  BE CREATIVE! DO SOME GOOD!  What fans want to see is a response that addresses core issues not one that is made to appease a top player. Tennis has shown time and again that it cares more about top players than it does the sport! Tennis needs a governing body with a commissioner to guide the sport away from its insular, nepotistic actions which are not growing the sport. A ten month a year sport without media to call them on their actions will never become part of our culture like football, basketball, baseball or soccer. Will tennis and the media see the forest for the trees?

The responses this issue received have shone a light on the tennis culture. First, again, Kyrgios’ statement was wrong, but why has this of all the issues prevalent in tennis, been so important to the Players’ Council and thus the sport? And why did no one jump on Sharapova when she in essence did the same thing in a press conference nonetheless? Second, while the ATP and the Players’ Council have taken the lead, one must wonder why the WTA continues to be anemic in the ways it supports and defends its players. Third, the media should be reprimanded for continually naming the woman. The commentators on Tennis Channel did this first. If this young woman did not make a public statement acknowledging her role then no one should have stated her name. In fact, if this issue is so important, the woman’s name should never have been used!  Finally, the media’s role is primarily to inform. Most of what tennis media does is simple reporting; there is very little investigative writing done in tennis and it seems that there is even less opinion writing. If this tennis culture is to evolve and support the growth of the sport, the media needs to ask the tough questions. This can be done while respecting the sport and the players. This piece posed some big questions not yet addressed by any media outlet. Why is that?

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