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Novak Djokovic

Five thoughts on swearing in tennis


Speaking Out of Turn: Five Thoughts on the “Audible Obscenity” Rule

In Madrid this week, there was a tense exchange between Novak Djoković and a crowd that was not simply lively or partisan toward his opponent, Grigor Dimitrov, but at times almost inexplicably hostile to the Serb.  After saving a match point and winning the second-set tiebreaker, the men’s No. 1 defiantly shouted a vulgar phrase in his native tongue.  While it stands to reason that few in the Caja Mágica understood what he was saying, Djoković’s outburst – or, more specifically, the lack of response to it from chair umpire Carlos Bernardes – nevertheless reignited an ongoing tennis debate.  In an international sport with a global television audience, is it fair for only those players speaking English (or, in rare cases, the language of the umpire) to get penalised for violations of the “audible obscenity” rule?

1.  Players on both tours agree to abide by a code of conduct geared toward encouraging professional behaviour and promoting the integrity and positive image of tennis.  In fact, the code is in effect throughout the tournament grounds, though fans generally hear about it only when it’s been breached during a match.  The audible obscenity rule, which can include point penalties as well as fines of up to $5,000 per violation (up to $20,000 at slams), differs from rules about the game itself as it concerns consideration for those within earshot of the court.  As the rule is general, merely stating that a player can be called for a violation if he or she uses “words commonly known and understood to be profane and uttered clearly and loudly enough to be heard,” it makes sense that it should apply equally to all players.  Or, if that seems unrealistic, perhaps the powers that be will consider abandoning the rule altogether rather than maintaining a double standard.

2.  While audible obscenities are hardly a plague on the sport, it’d be a good idea for WTA, ATP, and ITF administrators to put their heads together and decide if they’re committed to the rule, what principles are behind it (for instance, is it intended to safeguard only the sensibilities of on-site spectators or those of all viewers?), and how to more fairly implement it.  With the number of languages spoken by players, however, this may be easier said than done.  We witnessed just how complicated – albeit entertaining – it can be in Miami, when chair umpire Marija Čičak assessed a code violation to Svetlana Kuznetsova after she shouted a word that sounded like profanity in the player’s native Russian but turned out to be the Spanish word for “court.”  Still, given that umpires call the score and request fans to be “Quiet, please” in various languages, I see no reason why they can’t be asked to master a short list of choice words in the three most common linguistic clusters on tour: Romanic, Germanic, and Slavic.  (Readers who think this would be an onerous task for tournament officials are welcome to suggest alternatives in the comments.)  If such a change encourages more players to learn Chinese, so be it.

3.  The above example aside, determining whether a player has used an obscenity is relatively straightforward.  Umpires, then, have only two judgment calls to make before enforcing the rule.  Was the profanity sufficiently loud so that others, including ball-kids, will have heard it?  Was there anything “flagrant” or “egregious” about the utterance that would warrant the player’s being assessed with a major offense of “aggravated behaviour”?  Unless the act falls under separate rules for verbal abuse or unsportsmanlike conduct, the direction in which a player is cursing – at him- or herself or in the general direction of the stands – doesn’t matter.  As likely goes without saying, players are expected to comport themselves professionally, however frustrated they may be or poorly a crowd behaves.

4.  Having said that, the umpire can and should warn a crowd if it gets out of hand.  (For the record, I think cheering for faults and whistling or booing a player’s winners is a pretty low standard of behaviour.)  Everyone, especially players, likes an active and engaged audience.  But since tennis has a longstanding tradition of silence, excepting “oohs” and “aahs,” during points, there’s good reason for officials to intervene before the atmosphere gets too rowdy.  Even in Fed and Davis Cup, there are limits.  While all players must learn to deal with adverse conditions, no player should have to put up with deliberate distractions or disrespect from spectators.  To disrespect players is, after all, to disrespect the game.

5.  Call it wishful thinking, but I think that if the rule were more fairly applied, we’d see two positive developments.  First, non-Anglophone players would likely clean up their on-court exclamations.  Second, fans might be less inclined to make moral judgments in response to players’ colourful verbiage.  What sounds unusual or awfully vulgar to me may be common or fairly benign in another language, even another dialect.  Almost without exception, players curse – they’re human, like the rest of us.  And, in the immortal words of Andy Murray, they do so while “trying their tits off.”  By all means, apply the rule to all players; then, let’s cut them some slack.  Sound fair?

  • http://twitter.com/GBtennis Steven

    I agree that there is a need to be more consistent if they are going to apply the rule at all.

    I remember at the Wimbledon 2009 SFs against Federer, Tommy Haas went to the back wall and yelled “Arschloch!” very loudly. It was at himself and certainly didn’t bother me but I got some shocked looks from the people close by when the person next to me asked what he’d said and I whispered back (or so I thought!) the English translation!

    Haas wasn’t called for this, yet in the other semi, Andy Murray was given a code violation for an audible obscenity that must have been much, much quieter because those of us near the front didn’t even hear it. Admittedly it was at the other end of the court, but still …

    The idea of umpires learning the most frequently used obscenities in multiple languages is an interesting one. I doubt it would be that hard to do, but if the players knew the list, they’d probably just pick alternatives to use! I’d rather they scrapped the rule, but then of course one day there would be an outcry from the easily shocked about a very audible obscenity in a big match and the authorities ‘doing nothing about it’ so it is not hard to see how they have ended up with this unsatisfactory mess.

  • xoxotennis

    Or how about relaxing the rules a bit anyway. As long as it isn’t out of control or directed at the crowd who really cares what the players are saying. And frankly who really cares if they break a racket or kick a ball?? I don’t mind a little emotion in tennis!

  • http://twitter.com/lucyheisinger Lucia Cervera G.C.

    I’m a 43 years old mother of two. I have been to football (ok, soccer) games and they have no such thing as code, they curse all the time and one, as spectator, knows what to expect. Not to want the same with tennis, but I think that if you can’t apply the rule all the time, then is not a rule by definition.

    Each player has to have the conciussnes and the responsability in his heart. Leave to each one of them the responsability to not denigrate the sport that they love, so much to make a living out of it.

  • Steph

    Why would you penalise a phrase uttered that noone understands? Sure, it’s not nice when a Japanes guy calls me names in Japanese with a smile on his face, but what does it hurt me? Same for Serbian uttered to a Spanish crowd. Let the player vent if he wants to; we put them under enormous pressure as it is and they are only human. One phrase just thrown around in general doesn’t hurt. Only if a player goes at the crowd repeatedly would a penalty be in place.

    Why not have a translator at hand, who can alert the umpire? Would also tackle the issue of on court coaching.

    Leaves the problem of those with native languages everybody understands. But they might just adapt their vocabulary a bit. My kids don’t say sh*t, but call out “ships”. Simple.

  • izaak

    Djokovic is the only tennis player I have ever seen hurling obscenities directly at the crowd in such a disgusting manner. Why has his boorish behaviour in both Indian Wells and Madrid not been called out and penalized by the ATP?

  • Fiona

    I’m not fussed by swearing, and would generally agree that unless the content is very strong and it is used aggressively, it’s better not to make a song and dance about it. The apologies for swearing are often more obvious than the initial swearing.

    The tv stations particularly love to repeat any racquet smashes, often in slow motion, while the newspapers always print the images.

    Another issue with swearing isn’t just the different languages. Literal translations can be much more shocking in different cultures from the one where it’s popular. Even within the English speaking countries, attitudes vary considerably. The US seems much more sensitive towards swearing than the UK, and swearing is much more socially acceptable in Scotland than in much of the rest of the UK, so it’s hard for him to remember what not to say. To the point where an interview where he talks about hoping to swear less, the still needed to use the asterisks to protect sensitive international eyes.