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When tennis crowds cross the line

Tennis was considered a refined sport but its spectators now seem more gladiatorial than gentlemanly as they gang up to heckle players

Novak Djokovic (left) with Daniil Medvedev at the 2021 Australian Open. Medvedev was booed at the Australian Open final, while Djokovic was at the receiving end at the French Open.
Novak Djokovic (left) with Daniil Medvedev at the 2021 Australian Open. Medvedev was booed at the Australian Open final, while Djokovic was at the receiving end at the French Open. (Getty Images)

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Daniil Medvedev had just lost the Australian Open final on 30 January after surrendering a two-set lead in a bruising five-setter against Rafael Nadal. He ought to have been monosyllabic. Instead, he began by telling the media of how, as a 12-year-old, he had dreamt of being at the big four Grand Slam tournaments, and had been overawed at being seated in the same dining area as the big stars at the US Open when he began playing there a few years later as a junior. Then, in a bittersweet shift worthy of a play by Anton Chekov, Medvedev said his reverence for Grand Slam events had ended at this year’s Australian Open. It was clear this was the result of the crowd booing him with monotonous regularity after he beat home-town favourite Nick Kyrgios in the second round.

The crescendo of catcalling climaxed in the final, in which his service faults were cheered and drop shot errors booed in a display of crowd bullying that was difficult to watch on television. The crowd’s hostility played a role in turning the tide of the match in the third set even though Nadal stepped up his game and changed tactics brilliantly. “I’m just talking about a few moments where the kid stopped dreaming, and today was one of them,” Medvedev said. “From now on I’m playing for myself and to provide for my family.”

In May, it was the turn of Novak Djokovic to be the target of repeated booing at the French Open. He was subjected to it in his first round, merely for trying to pump himself up against a little-known Japanese opponent. In the most awaited rematch of the year, Djokovic was booed almost from the start of his quarter-final with Nadal. The crowd reaction was criticised by John McEnroe, whose temper often turned crowds against him even in his native New York. “No other player has had to deal with more adversity (than Novak),” McEnroe said on Eurosport. “It is unfair, I’ve got to say that.”

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A sport that has long described itself as being a “gentleman’s sport” is increasingly anything but. On the evidence of the past few years in Melbourne, London and Paris, fans’ treatment of Medvedev and Djokovic, arguably its greatest player ever, shows tennis crowds have succumbed to the extreme polarisation seen on social media. They no longer subscribe to the protocols of not cheering double faults and errors in what is a much more intimate sport than, say, football.

Increasingly, this looks like discrimination by the followers of an elitist sport against players from Eastern Europe. Tennis fans who followed the sport in the late 1970s and 1980s have seen this movie before. The Czech-born Martina Navratilova’s great rivalries with Chris Evert and Steffi Graf were marred by crowds overwhelmingly cheering for her opponents. Navratilova had a much more inventive game and did more entertaining post-match interviews but that made little difference. As with Djokovic, Navratilova was put down for “trying too hard”—and for being too muscular. If one is East European in a sport whose Grand Slam crowds are dominated by Anglo-Saxon crowds for the most part, you can’t win public support—even if you win tournaments time and time again.

Martina Navratilova at the Wimbledon Women’s Singles final in 1990. The Czech-born Navratilova’s great rivalries with Chris Evert and Steffi Graf were marred by crowds overwhelmingly cheering for her opponents.
Martina Navratilova at the Wimbledon Women’s Singles final in 1990. The Czech-born Navratilova’s great rivalries with Chris Evert and Steffi Graf were marred by crowds overwhelmingly cheering for her opponents. (Getty Images)

The All England Club’s ban on players from Russia and Belarus at this year’s Championships, as the Russian player Andrey Rublev says, amounts to “complete discrimination” and thus is part of a pattern. Instead of allowing players from these countries to play without their national flag, the All England Club has followed UK government guidance and banned them, without seeking a consensus within the tennis community. In response, the men’s and women’s players associations have stripped the tournament of its points, meaning that this year’s event will be a lucrative exhibition tournament that will not count towards players’ computer rankings. The dubious argument from the UK government, repeated as if it were handed down from the gods rather than from a government mired in scandal, by All England Club committee member Tim Henman, has been that a win for a Russian or Belarusian would somehow have amounted to a “propaganda” victory for Russia.

The logic is hard to follow any way you present it, but especially from a government and a tournament located in what the UK business press routinely calls Londongrad because it is one of the world’s premier money-laundering centres, notably for Russian oligarchs. Last month, The Economist bemoaned the fact that while money-laundering in the UK runs to about £100 billion a year, the budget for investigators fighting this was just £40-50 million.

Still, this year’s ban at Wimbledon, when set against the longer narrative of a routine bias against East European players, is something of a sideshow. The tragedy for tennis is that its partisan crowds have cast Djokovic repeatedly as the bad guy in a sport he has dominated as no other player in recent memory—latterly, Medvedev has been treated in similar fashion. Not only has Djokovic twice come closer to a calendar Grand Slam (in 2011 and 2021) than Nadal or Roger Federer, he leads them in career head-to-head matches and has consistently beaten them in encounters at the big four Grand Slam tournaments over most of the last decade. Although Nadal now has 22 Grand Slam victories to Djokovic’s 20, the Serb has a superior record on almost every other metric. Djokovic’s Grand Slam wins have been more diverse, whereas Nadal’s total is disproportionately boosted by his 14 wins on clay at the French Open. For all the talk of the great Big 3 rivalry, one has to scroll back to 2013 to find the Spaniard prevailing over the Serb in a Grand Slam event that was not the French Open. In further proof of Djokovic’s all-court dominance, he has won the so-called fifth Grand Slam, the end-of-year ATP World Tour finals, five times. Nadal has never won this, the premier tournament on fast indoor carpet.

To recount these statistics is somewhat beside the point because Djokovic’s denigration has little to do with performance and a lot to do with prejudice. Repeated criticism of his being “entitled” because he chose not to get vaccinated does not square with the difficult childhood he endured in war-torn Serbia, a marked contrast to the upper middle-class childhoods of Federer and Nadal. Djokovic is also insufficiently given credit for his efforts to raise incomes for lower-ranked players.

What the sport’s greatest player has craved, arguably, is merely what in a fairer world would be his anyway: the respect and love due someone at the pinnacle of his sport. As he routinely encounters a stadium of fans cheering for his opponent, it is hard to blame Djokovic for sometimes seeming calculated, even occasionally insincere, in his desire to win them over. Both Djokovic and Medvedev are warm and witty, but regrettably both display this more naturally in post-match press conferences than they do on court.

I have long been a Federer fanatic, frequently moved to tears by the balletic beauty of his game and charmed by his easy-going personality, a condition made more acute by having interviewed him. Even so, I would have to be blind not to admire Djokovic’s incredibly elastic retrieving ability and steely determination to snatch improbable victories when his opponent has him on the ropes.

At the recent French Open, McEnroe said the booing often made Djokovic more determined to win, but acknowledged that “if you don’t think it bothers him, you’re nuts!” Indeed, in the last laps of his career, as he chases records, Djokovic wants to be loved even more than before. Instead, as at the French Open, he finds himself fighting his opponent and a wall of hyper-partisan chanting and booing that sometimes breaks even his superhuman concentration and resolve. Tennis loses too, as its once “gentlemanly” spectators increasingly seem more like those at a gladiatorial contest, intent on metaphorically feeding to the lions one of the greatest players to have graced the sport.

Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.

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