It has been 41 years since chalk flew up and the most immortal phrase in Wimbledon history was born. Little did John McEnroe know when he angrily uttered the four words, “You cannot be serious”, that it would go down as the single most iconic line in tennis history. When Hawk-Eye was introduced in 2005, many thought the era of the player-umpire arguments was over. They were wrong.
World number three, Sasha Zverev, is at the centre of the latest high profile incident between a player and official. After cursing at the chair umpire Alessandro Germani following a questionable line call, Zverev took four big swings at the umpire’s chair with his racket after the match. The first three blows landed close to Germani, causing him to flinch and shift his feet at one point to avoid being struck. After Zverev took a short break to curse at Germani some more, he returned for one more swing at the chair.
Richard Ings, a former executive vice president for rules and competition at the ATP Tour said - “The conduct of Zverev was the most egregious example of physical abuse of an official that I have seen in my decades working in and observing men’s professional tennis.”
On Tuesday, the ATP announced the conclusion of their review with a statement: “The review determined that Zverev committed aggravated behaviour under the player major offense section of ATP rules. As a result, Zverev has been issued an additional fine of 25,000 US dollars and a suspension for a period of eight weeks from any ATP-sanctioned event.”
However, both are suspended punishments and Zverev will instead be on probation for a year until 22 February 2023. Only if he commits another code violation over the next year will they be activated. According to the ATP rulebook, possible punishments for Zverev included an immediate suspension of between 21 days and one year. The decision has widely been considered as extremely lenient.
This is, at best, a firm slap on the wrist, and it is hard to think of another major professional sport that would opt for such half-measures if an official were physically threatened to this degree by a player. Tennis is quick to suspend players for gambling on matches or for doping. But the sport has been sending inconsistent signals on protecting umpires for too long now, and the recent uptick in players confronting officials may be one of the consequences, for example Daniil Medvedev’s and Denis Shapovalov’s outbursts at this year’s Australian Open. With the wider use of electronic line calling, tension between players and umpires should be dropping, not increasing.
An interesting similarity in all recent incidents is that none of the chair umpires involved did much to respond or deter their attackers, or make them feel like they were taking a risk by verbally abusing them. Generally umpires want to calm down the situation. By not giving the player much of a response the players anger can often fizzle out. This is opposed to the umpire clamping down harshly on the player and potentially escalating the situation, similar to the famous 2018 US Open Final featuring Serena Williams. As we saw that night, code violations can pile up quickly, from warning to point to game to match. A default is not something that any umpire, or any paying spectator, wants to have happen unless there’s no other choice and it seems umpires are hesitant for various reasons to hand out code violations for verbal abuse.
Serena Williams claims that the sanctions imposed on Zverev are another example of a double standard in tennis. Williams was placed on a two-year probation and fined $175,000 (£135,000), reduced to $82,500 (£63,750) if she met the conditions of her probation for her outburst at the 2018 US Open. Zverev faces significantly less for what many believe is a worse offence.
Tennis journalist, Matthew Willis, insists the current rules are confused and that recent incidents have raised questions over what tennis has chosen to punish more harshly:
“I don't think most fans could care less about players swearing at themselves on court, nor about smashing racquets (as long as they don't do it anywhere near the ball kids). That the powers that be choose to punish these mostly harmless and unimportant infractions equivalently, or more harshly, than verbally and physically abusing umpires, reeks of a deep confusion about what the sport believes itself to be. If tennis is going to choosily select which actions fit into its prissy pretences of ‘etiquette' then it should pretty obviously start cracking down on occasions where other human beings are in the crosshairs of player behaviour rather than inanimate objects or self-directed outbursts. Using tradition as a justification for punishing the trivial rather than the serious will continue to look bizarre, and umpires will continue to unfairly take the brunt of the fallout of this decidedly preventable disorder.”
I believe that by not properly punishing Zverev that the ATP has missed an opportunity to send the right message to the public, to its players and above all, to its officials. In a world where many people look up to young sports stars as role models the game needs strong leadership. It’s not a good look for the sport when incidents like this happen and it’s an even worse look that it goes relatively unpunished.