Twelve months ago, Michael Llodra was fined $2,500 by the ATP after he “verbally abused” a spectator during a match at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Angry with spectators cheering for his opponent, the Frenchman turned his attention on one particular woman and yelled “putain Chinoise”, which translates as “Chinese whore”. The fact that the spectator concerned was Korean-American was neither here nor there. Llodra made other derogatory comments and later, when discussing the incident with French reporters, did not appear even to understand that he had done anything wrong.
Not surprisingly, the woman concerned was shocked, as was her husband and her brother, who were sat alongside her in the stands. But what really shocked them was the response by the ATP, which fined Llodra just $2,500, logging it under verbal abuse. Looking back now, that seems incredible, especially as Llodra compounded his mistake by saying in an interview: “I love Chinese — I can totally make love with a Chinese girl,” before being cut off by the ATP moderator before he could say anything else shaming. Under tennis’s rule-book, a player could be fined just as much for swearing out loud to themselves. To put it into context, Llodra earned $12,725 from his Indian Wells singles efforts last year and in 2012, he won more than $640,000 in total.
According to the woman’s brother, Daniel Lee, Llodra later sent a hand-written letter of apology and a shirt from Lacoste, one of his sponsors, having failed to fulfil an earlier promise to call and apologise in person. The ATP rules do list “abusing a spectator” as part of verbal abuse and say that a player can be fined up to $10,000 for each violation. Considering Llodra’s abuse was racist and that he did not deny the reported words, it seems incredible that it was not much nearer the $10,000 and potentially not scaled up to a “Major Offense of Aggravated Behaviour”, which would have resulted in a far larger fine and potentially a ban. That’s down to the discretion of the ATP supervisor, who decided it was worth only $2,500. In the 12 months since the incident, it seems nothing has been done to increase potential fines or alert players as to their responsibilities.
Lee believes the ATP should not only have handed Llodra a more significant fine but should have done more to show others that abusing fans, particularly racially abusing them, is just not on. “At the time it was more Llodra that I was upset with and disappointed with,” he told The Tennis Space in Indian Wells this week.
“As a fan, you’re just excited to come to the tennis, to this beautiful tournament and to see great matches and you pay a lot of money, so that’s the last thing you expect to happen. It was upsetting at the time but then (the bigger issue) became more the very tepid response by the ATP because they could have said something, they could have made a bigger statement saying this is not OK and this behaviour should not go unpunished.
“I mean, $2,500 is really nothing. When you look at other sports, what they fine people for slurs, even just to their fellow players, let alone fans…we were fans, paying members of the public….they could have banned him from the next three tournaments or done something that would have made some type of statement (to say) that that was not OK. No one deserves that kind of treatment, especially for not doing anything other than cheering for a player. It was just very disappointing and it continues to be disappointing more because of that lack of response from the governing body of tennis.”
There will be plenty of people who say tennis does not have a problem with racism and it is clear that the Llodra incident was a rare case. But it’s not the only one. Serena and Venus Williams have not been back to Indian Wells since 2001, when they were abused by sections of the crowd and both have been abused elsewhere too because of their colour. In 2009, Australia’s Brydan Klein was fined $10,000 for racially abusing his opponent in a match and others have fallen foul at various times. And there are enormous double standards at play. Caroline Wozniacki received more criticism in the media for her perhaps misguided impersonation of Serena Williams, when she put towels inside her bra and in the back of her skirt, than Llodra received for racially abusing someone to their face.
Sadly, racism in sport is nothing new. In Britain, after years of letting it happen, the authorities are now leading the way in educating players and fans that racist abuse is just not on. Tennis is an international sport and though the Llodra case may be a rarity, that does not mean the ATP should not take a stand by at least making punishments harsh enough to help show they mean business.
For the record, Llodra had left Indian Wells before the interview with Daniel Lee and Llodra’s agent answered the request for comment but did not want to comment. The ATP said it was happy “that they had the relevant rules in place to deal with this last year”.