FLASHBACK: Zverev loses control after Acapulco doubles defeat

We have seen too many dangerous moments, with officials or ball persons caught in the crossfire of aggressive or disrespectful conduct. These incidents shine a bad light on our sport. This conduct affects everyone and sends the wrong message to our fans, especially young fans. Andrea Gaudenzi, chairman of the ATP, in a communication to his constituency later released as a statement to the media and others


It’s welcome news that the ATP is addressing the current rash of ugly behavior on the court, but the response was slow in arriving and it lacks transparency and details.

“Effective immediately, and as we head into the clay court swing, the ATP officiating team has been directed to take a stricter stance in judging violations of the Code of Conduct,” the players were informed. In addition, Gaudenzi wrote, the ATP is reviewing its Code of Conduct and its “disciplinary processes,” with further information to come “later in the year.”

The issue of menacing conduct took on critical mass back in February, when Alexander Zverev was ejected from Acapulco after repeatedly smashing his racquet against the chair occupied by the umpire. It was the first of several alarming incidents that took place in the first three months of the year.

You know that things have gotten out of hand when pundits and even former players, a cohort that is generally reluctant to criticize the stars, have called out offending players along with the ATP’s lax attitude toward unacceptable behavior. Among the transgressors: Denis Shapovalov, Daniil Medvedev, Nick Kyrgios and Jenson Brooksby

“The first three months of the season have seen an unusual frequency of high-profile incidents involving unsportsmanlike conduct,” said ATP CEO Andrea Gaudenzi wrote. “This includes serious cases of verbal and racquet abuse.”

Brooksby could have been defaulted for his racquet toss during a first-round match in Miami. Instead, he was hit with a point penalty and later fined $15,000. In the end, the 21-year-old reached the fourth round to pick up 90 rankings points and $94,575 in prize money.

Brooksby could have been defaulted for his racquet toss during a first-round match in Miami. Instead, he was hit with a point penalty and later fined $15,000. In the end, the 21-year-old reached the fourth round to pick up 90 rankings points and $94,575 in prize money.


Tennis has a unique problem in the realm of sports officiating. Fans love expressive, mercurial players, many of whom tread close to the fine line separating acceptable behavior from hooliganism. But if a player crosses that line and incurs a default, the match ends and spectators are left feeling cheated.

Compounding this problem, the way tennis evolved as a pro sport encouraged players and officials—at least chair umpires—to enjoy collegial, cooperative relationships. Umpires have always been less like police than match managers, ensuring that things didn't get too out of hand. At times, they even interceded as counselors to struggling players.

But the professionalization of officiating (back in the day, chair umpires all were volunteers) and the rising stakes in the game have changed that calculus while failing to invest officials with the kind of authority enjoyed by referees in other sports. That’s unsurprising. A soccer or basketball referee can chuck out a player and the show goes on. Not in tennis.

So where does the ATP go from here? Where can it go?

One of the strongest selling points of tennis is personality. Those scantily clad, sometimes expressive, lonely warriors are more accessible to fans than any other professional athletes. They launch overheated popularity contests masquerading as partisan debates. Fans want to see the pros “be themselves” and some of the most appealing selves have the naughty gene.

Equipment abuse, especially racquet cracking, has always been a feature rather than a bug in tennis. Fans enjoy and can relate to angry outbursts (see “K” for Kyrgios), and who can forget Mikhail Youzhny that time in Miami, bashing his own head bloody with his racquet? Acting out underscores the severe mental strain of the game, and fans understand and seem to like that the players are “only human,” often in outsized, entertaining ways.

Kyrgios was fined $35,000 in Miami after being hit with a $25,000 penalty at Indian Wells.

Kyrgios was fined $35,000 in Miami after being hit with a $25,000 penalty at Indian Wells.


So the challenge for the ATP lies in striking the correct balance between allowing players freedom to express themselves while embracing clear and meaningful disciplinary protocols. This has been an ongoing theme and battle in tennis for a long time, with one segment of insiders focused on order, rules and integrity; the other protesting that bureaucrats are trying to destroy the very things that draw spectators to the game.

ATP officials surely will take a closer look at the fines structure. But most fines, especially for top players, are mainly a deterrent—a slap on the wrist for an infraction that may not deserve much more in the way of punishment. It would be just plain stupid to hit a player who smacks a ball out of the stadium or cracks a racquet in frustration with a whopping fine. Besides, fines for most infractions are clearly stated, and paying them is mandatory.

The ATP certainly needs to streamline its unwieldy Code of Conduct, looking to eliminate some of the caveats that are essentially work-arounds intended to keep players on the tour at all cost. Zverev’s “suspended” eight-week ban (contingent on the player’s future behavior) after the incident in Acapulco is a good example of how the ATP wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Surely, tennis can survive eight weeks without the services of any player.

Mainly, the ATP needs to have a nuclear option that it is willing to use when it comes to a player acting out in a way that endangers others. Call it a code violation for “Reckless Endangerment.” That ought to be clear enough. Make the penalty simple, severe and mandatory. Meaning: mandatory suspension.

There’s a great opportunity here for all those tennis functionaries who have been bragging about the new spirit of cooperation among the stakeholders. Serious violations of the ATP or WTA codes should be linked to suspension from the most important tournaments, the Grand Slam events (over which neither the ATP not the WTA has jurisdiction). That would really act as a governor on some if not all of the stars inclined to acting out.

Realistically, the game flourishes when the players have a fair amount of latitude to express themselves in the best—and sometimes even the worst—ways. But that doesn’t mean that when it’s the latter, they should be allowed to skate.