The bias problem in tennis

Srinivas Murty
Jun 15, 2016 · 16 min read
Sharapova at her press conference

This is going to be long post and wind it’s way to the point. I hope you have the courage — patience is of course is required in abundance — to indulge me. I am not a writer nor do I have any pretensions to being a journalist. Just a lifelong tennis fan, a big Borg, Edberg, Sampras, and Federer fan. And hundreds of other players, notably Nadal and Djokovic. But some events over the decades have drawn my attention and I thought I ought to voice my opinions here. So here goes…

A few things struck me as I read and heard the details of Maria Sharapova’s press conference and announcement about her failing her drug test in January. The general mood in the tennis world, for that matter all of sport, was that she was caught, more or less guilty, and it was all over bar the shouting as far as imposing a ban was concerned. Sponsors dropped her like a hot potato, barring one notable exception, Head. By now, after several months, when we heard a variety of players and officials opine about what they felt was due process, a huge error in judgement, or outright cheating, we’ve come to another stage in the saga. Maria Sharapova has been formally found guilty by the independent tribunal and the ITF has banned her for two years. Sharapova has been contrite in public while using her Facebook page to fight back on the ban and the process. And she has filed an appeal, results of which will be in by July 18, 2016.

Sharapova, of course, did herself no favors by being icy cool and aloof with all her fellow players in the WTA tour. That fact has come to bite her, metaphorically speaking, in the rear end. Many players (Mladenovic, Cibulkova, etc.) have chosen to vent, casting aspersions about her performance having been “enhanced” to help her win her titles and similar allegations. Others have played it coy or making politically correct statements like “if she has done wrong, she has to suffer the consequences.”

What constitutes cheating?

It is evident that in the history of modern sport, there have been many instances of athletes using banned, performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) to augment their capabilities. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and its predecessors have been pursuing athletes and slapping bans where evidence has been found. In many cases, the evidence of drug use and the related performance enhancements have been well-proven. WADA has discussed situations where they are frequently chasing after athletes and spurious drug companies and agents to try and establish the latest methods being used. Often, much is unknown as athletes have apparently found ways to train and hide the use of these PEDs. In some cases, however, athletes have shown legitimate reasons why they took certain drugs. In some cases to manage a health problem, in other cases, through sheer ignorance or “honest” mistakes, athletes have attempted to prove their innocence. Some tennis players, like Marin Cilic of Croatia and Victor Troicki of Serbia, have been found guilty and served bans of varying durations. Their cases, though, are quite different. Cilic admitted to making a mistake in taking medication that was banned. Troicki had simply asked for permission to be tested the next day when the tester arrived. For doing so, he was judged guilty and slapped with a ban. Troicki’s case is particularly sad given the complete pass given to Serena Williams who went into a panic room fearing that the tester was an intruder. Professional tennis players are supposed to expect surprise tests. It is surprising to see William’s reaction as well as how, in a somewhat similar situation, Victor Troicki was not accorded the same leniency that she was. Richard Gasquet of France was absolved when he provided a somewhat spurious argument. Guillermo Cañas, however, was not so lucky and served a ban before returning to the sport. Most interestingly, Uzbekistan-born US player Varvara Lepchenko has been dogged by stories that she tested positive for Meldonium. It is interesting that several of the players who have borne the ignominy of bans and suspensions are from, shall we say, non-traditional tennis nations. Players like Djokovic and Goran Ivanisevic either stood by their friends and players, or were very outspoken about how they felt. Not so with those from “traditional” countries.

So, what is it about the use of Meldonium and Eastern Europe? By now we know that hundreds, if not thousands, of athletes from various countries, particularly Russia, have tested positive for Meldonium. At the time of writing this post, it is assumed that most of those athletes will be banned and prohibited from either a world championship, international sporting events, or even the Rio Olympics. The entire Russian anti-doping system, already reeling under a cloud of suspicion, has been hit with a double whammy in the form of Meldonium.

What about evidence of Meldonium’s performance enhancing capabilities? The answer is shrouded in mystery. It’s Latvian manufacturer and several East European doctors that have prescribed it describe a medication that is used to address chronic problems related to the heart, low magnesium and a few other conditions. Some well-known US experts have also questioned whether it is any more of a stimulant than caffeine. Those who claim it is a spurious drug that ought to be banned of course are convinced that it is being used for dubious purposes. WADA’s own answers to questions have definitely not helped clear anything. In fact, through the process of interview and discussions, it has become clear that WADA, as an organization, has a somewhat authoritarian and non-transparent process for identifying and classifying new PEDs. There is some doubt whether Meldonium is actually a PED or a slightly modified drug. At any rate, it is on the WADA banned list.

The recent questions about WADA’s process have resulted in many people wondering not only whether Meldonium should be on the banned list but on the overall process used by WADA. One other issue that has arisen is about how long after stopping use of Meldonium does the body get rid of traces of the drug. In the absence of any leeway being provided by WADA, many athletes are in a quandary, claiming they stopped use several months prior to the effective date. And still being found positive. In fact, even medical experts are not clear how long it takes to be rid of. Under the circumstances, my reading of the situation has veered to a more political angle.

It is, of course, well known that the Russian anti-doping agency has been banned by WADA for it’s dubious testing processes. The Meldonium cases that are sprouting up are primarily throwing up a large number of Russian names, Sharapova being the biggest catch. As with other issues, I would like to know why this is so. Western media has, over the years, painted a picture of Russians in general, and Russian athletes in particular, of being dubious individuals. Western media is replete with articles highlighting Russians as vodka imbibing profligates. And their athletes as cheats with an addiction to PEDs. The constant Russia baiting was quite evident when the entire apparatus of NBC, that covered the Sochi Winter Olympics, took every opportunity to portray the country in general, and it’s leader, Vladimir Putin, in particular, in completely unflattering terms. I may be accused of conflating my point but I would suggest that there is a pattern here that has been used to advantage to perpetuate the evident guilt of Russian athletes. Given an audience that is fed a steady dose of anti-Russia propaganda, the general belief that all athletes admitting to having used Meldonium are guilty, is very high.

Despite several very well-written articles, like Meldonium Demystified: Getting To The Heart of the Science by Nikita Taparia, the powers that be have chosen to go ahead with their verdict. Sharapova has vowed to appeal to reduce the ban term. We do not know what the outcome of the appeal will be. But having seen how authorities, including the NFL, have chosen to deal with cases that have been scientifically disproved, our expectations have been lowered. Unless, of course, we choose to follow the party line and agree unquestioningly with what we are being fed. Our ability to form our own opinions is being clouded by the constant drumbeat of media voices that provide only a one-sided, often biased, version of the story.

The Rest of the Story

Based on what I perceive to be western media bias, let’s discuss a different aspect of perception-related issues. From the time professional tennis became the norm in the late 1960s and early 1970s, tennis has become a very popular sport, particularly in Western Europe, the USA, and Australia. Given that these regions were the traditional tennis powers, there were general norms of good behavior that was perpetuated from the various clubs and establishments that controlled the sport. From the early 1980s onwards, several famous East European players from satellite states of the USSR started emerging. Chief among them were Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl. Both were from Czechoslovakia and exceptional tennis players. Navratilova defected to the US and eventually attained citizenship. She, of course, famously faced other problems owing to her being gay.

On the other hand, Ivan Lendl, a great tennis player but one who was very much part of his Czech tradition, was often disliked and only grudgingly respected by his opponents. He was at times confrontational and did not easily give in to media and peer pressure. He became highly successful and very rich. Finally, when he retired, he became a US citizen and now lives there. The reasons for people disliking Lendl were varied. From his dour facial expressions to a somewhat mechanical, yet highly effective, style, and certain tactics like not hesitating to hit the ball straight at his net-rushing opponent, Lendl became a target for being a foreigner, a non-conformist. The thought of aiming for your opponent’s head as he crowded the net was considered not good form. But little could be done because it wasn’t illegal. But Lendl was also emblematic of an altogether different problem, namely, being from a Soviet-bloc country. With the dissolution of the USSR, one would have thought a lot would change. But has it really?

There have been waves of new tennis players, not only from Czechoslovakia (which split into two countries) but from hitherto unknown countries like Croatia (after Yugoslavia’s break-up). During the 90s, a new wave of exciting and talented American men had reached the top of the rankings and were pretty much sweeping most of the important tennis titles. Occasionally, a player like Goran Ivanisevic would do well. But, of course, the media tended to roll it’s eyes and shake it’s head about Goran being Goran when frequently showed some crazy emotions or when he did something not in keeping with the traditional norms of tennis. Not that the media didn’t go after someone like John McEnroe in the late 70s and 80s for his own weird and obnoxious antics. Around the same time, other players like Petr Korda had come up and played a uniquely different style of tennis. In case you haven’t heard of this, Korda tested positive for steroids after he won the Australian Open in 1998, was banned from the game, and, shortly thereafter, retired. I’m not saying Korda was not doping. In all likelihood he was. After all, he claimed that he got nandrolone in his system from his penchant for eating veal! Some others have suggested that he would have had to eat 40 of the animals a day to exhibit the amount in his blood test! Nevertheless, it was a fairly humiliating end to a player who showed great flair and technique in his shotmaking.

During that same decade, we also had Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov become a top-ranked player. He was good at singles and doubles and is, currently, the last male player to win both the singles and doubles title at a tennis major when he achieved the feat in 1996 at the French Open. Kafelnikov was a fine player but, in an era that included some of the greatest male players of all time, he was not very famous except with the tennis cognoscenti. He was also, apparently, quite a surly guy and someone who didn’t have a lot of friends in the western media. That was to result in several years of post-retirement frustration, slights, and finally, a travesty. More on Kafelnikov at the end of this post.

From the late 1990s to the early years of the new century, a wave of East European players from countries like Russia, Croatia, and Serbia began to make a mark in tennis. This included both men and women. Europe’s balance of power was shifting from it’s mainly western established powers like France, Spain, and Germany to a greater swathe of territory. Along with this change, tennis’ establishment realized these players games with oodles of talent, unorthodox styles, and some weird temperament. Chief among them at the time was Marat Safin. His demolition of Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open was supposed to usher in the future of tennis in the new century. Safin was extremely talented but also Russian, hot tempered, and an avowed Muslim. Tongues wagged, eyes rolled, and heads nodded, each time Safin went crazy in the courts or imploded and took it out on his racquets. Off the courts (and, if we are to believe the reports, sometimes on it as well!), Safin was supposed to have a bevy of beautiful ladies around him, his so-called harem. All in all, Safin was a weird one, someone to be watched not only for his tennis but also for his “foreign” behavior. As if on cue, Safin didn’t quite live up to his great potential, although he did win a 2nd major in 2005 and topped the male rankings.

There was also a wave of female tennis talent from Russia and Serbia, including the likes of Sharapova, Myskina, Dementieva, Kuznetsova, Safina (Safin’s sister) and several others. From Serbia came two players, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic.

These exciting new players from Eastern Europe were welcomed by most of the tennis world. These players were very talented, photogenic, and soon mopping up a lot of WTA titles and climbing the ranks. Some of them won Grand Slam titles and laid claim to the top rankings.

The male players from these countries also emerged in the early 2000s. Chief among them, players like Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Tomas Berdych from the Czech Republic. The former, especially, had the potential to become a world champion from very early days. Berdych too had several noteworthy wins. But neither his personality, nor his results, warranted much attention from the media.

Djokovic had a personality that was far more outgoing and crowd-pleasing. He laughed, he smiled, he joked around by imitating other players as an on-court, post-match gag or in locker room videos. He was also multilingual and fairly articulate. But he was a young man, barely out of his teens. And he had some physical and emotional battles including having to withdraw from a few tournaments owing to ill health. This particular issue became a major issue with the press and media who became fairly vocal about his tendency to call for medical timeouts (MTOs) or for retiring from matches. This also led to players like American Andy Roddick famously questioning whether he was indeed unwell. Djokovic fired back during an on-court interview in Roddick’s home tournament, the US Open, causing a problem between the two players. His willingness to fight back, that too at an American, seemingly had a negative effect on his popularity. For several years, thereafter, Djokovic faced adverse reactions from many parts of the pro tennis tour. His parents who were very vocal in their support while he was playing, were admonished by Roger Federer for yelling out too loudly. Apparently, the will to fight back was as strong with Novak’s parents as it was with him. His mother made no bones about what she saw as the future potential of her son. The media went to town, berating these parents for their “crassness” and for his mother saying things about the great Federer. In addition, any time Djokovic questioned an umpire or a line call, any time he had genuine medical issues, some of the top pros took it upon themselves to chide him.

The unfairness of this situation becomes evident when one looks at the various ways in which the media seeks to overlook statements made by other players. Federer, notably, yelled at Rafael Nadal’s uncle Toni, asking him “Everything all right Toni?” during one of their matches. During a match at the US Open, he threw several F-bombs at the chair umpire but we hardly hear about this any more. When he lost to Berdych at the 2010 Wimbledon quarter-finals, his words during his obligatory post-match press conference suggested that he lost only because he was physically unwell. Of course, these were couched in the now-famous throwaway style of comments that Federer has been known for. Strangely, instead of Federer’s comments being criticized, poor Berdych had to face the brunt of criticism for daring to rant about why Federer said what was obviously a not very sportsman-like thing. Federer has had a way of saying things in press conferences, needling his opponents, belittling them at times (remember his “Nadal’s game is one-dimensional, not layered like Tommy” comment?). After a particularly tough loss to Djokovic at the US Open semi-finals, he even questioned Djokovic’s shot selection at match point, suggesting that he had not been taught to play that way. It was obviously frustrating for him to lose the match and perhaps he was venting his emotions. Yet, people moved on.

The issue at hand, particularly with Djokovic, is that he has now completely revamped his health issues, his notoriously prolonged pre-serve ball bouncing routine, and toned down his responses during interviews by being extremely circumspect. He appears to be the consummate diplomat, choosing his words carefully. Djokovic has, from the early days, been very appreciative and respectful towards his opponents, openly applauding them during the match, and being extremely gracious in defeat. In addition to cleaning out his perceived problems, since 2011, he has become the dominant men’s player by far. His record of wins is mind-boggling, his style of play quite unlike any other player. From his service return stance, to the quality of his returns, his unmatched athletic abilities, and his stamina, all these aspects of his game have made him what many experts now consider the greatest tennis player of modern times. While the title of “greatest” is debatable for any player, it must be heartening for Djokovic’s fans to hear these words from famous players and coaches like Pete Sampras, Guillermo Vilas, Andre Agassi, Brad Gilbert, and Nick Bolletieri. And yet, the public in general, and the media in particular, have only grudgingly acknowledged his greatness. While they all reveled in their ooh’s and aah’s about Federer’s stylish shot-making, and waxed eloquent at Nadal’s grit, attitude, and determination, today’s commentators are seemingly flummoxed at Djokovic’s winning ways and unparalleled record over the last 5 years. We frequently hear expert commentators dwell on how opponents should play a certain short or adopt a certain style to beat him. This is quite unlike how Federer or even Nadal were (and are) being treated.

As I write this, we all know that Djokovic has reached heights of success that few male players have reached in nearly 50 years. Not only has he matched the feats of his great contemporaries like Federer and Nadal by achieving the Career Slam (winning all 4 major titles at least once in his career) when he won the 2016 French Open, he is the first male tennis player since Rod Laver to hold all 4 of these titles at the same time. Granted, Laver won all 4 in a calendar year. And traditionally, that is known as the Grand Slam in tennis. But the acknowledgement of Djokovic’s unbelievable feat has been somewhat muted and treated as if it were a relatively less important achievement. Djokovic has, however, transcended any biases through sheer results. A quite remarkable feat that cannot be wished away by detractors.

There is another player who has increasingly been in trouble with the media and the public. Bernard Tomic is an Australian whose parents are from Eastern Europe, father from Croatia and mother from Bosnia. Tomic has been, for many years, considered one of Australia’s top prospects. But owing to his off-court antics, as well as those of his father, he has often been in trouble with the Australian public and the top brass. Infamously, he has also, seemingly, “tanked” a match or two and caused considerable uproar in the Australian media. Tomic is not without fault but one must consider that he was a youngster in a country starved for tennis stars after an incomparable legacy of stars in the 20th century. His media critics, however, seemingly do not have any more patience for him. But the amount of lecturing and hectoring he has received from former tennis and sports stars in his country has bordered on the ridiculous. Dawn Fraser, the Olympic gold medalist swimmer, has even suggested that people like Tomic should go back where they came from. All this coming from a country whose cricketers are infamous for indulging in the art of sledging in cricket!

Apart from Tomic, we also have the case of Nick Kyrgios. Born to a Greek father and a Malaysia ex-princess mother, Kyrgios is considered to be even more talented in some ways than Tomic. And Kyrgios is prone to wearing his emotions on his sleeve. Quick to chatter at umpires for bad decisions, say audibly nasty things about an opponent, tank a shot or two, while also producing incredible tennis and taking out Nadal at Wimbledon. Kyrgios is perhaps, arguably the best young talent in the world. The problem is not that he does not have issues. He does tend to lose his cool and emotions, say outrageous things both on and off-court, and general behave in a very abrasive manner. However, Kyrgios has been co-opted by his sponsor Nike and the ATP into their #NextGen marketing hype. Consequently, while he is still on watch for shooting his mouth off and fined frequently, he certainly isn’t being treated the same way as Tomic.

The peculiar case of Yevgeny Kafelnikov and ITHF

Which brings me to the problem of Yevgeny Kafelnikov and the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF). Kafelnikov is a Russian who won multiple Grand Slam titles including being the last male player to win both the singles and men’s doubles titles in the same major. In 2015, ITHF informed him that he was being nominated to the Hall of Fame. The ITHF follows the nomination with a ballot process where nominees are up for votes to get selected for induction into the Hall of Fame. Kafelnikov, doubtless overjoyed at the news, tweeted a copy of the letter to his followers. Unfortunately, he didn’t read the letter carefully. It specifically requested him to keep the information private until the ballot was announced in September at the US Open. For not keeping his mouth shut, or his fingers quiet, Kafelnikov was punished by not being voted in. This nomination had been long overdue, and players with a more inferior record had been inducted into the Hall of Fame. I wonder how Kafelnikov would have been treated if he belonged to another country.

I’ve stated my opinion and impressions based on various aspects of media I have followed over the last 4 decades. I have not even gone into details of some players like Ilie Nastase or Olga Morozova. It is fairly evident to me that the media likes players to be in a certain category of appearance and behavior. Players from non-traditional countries, particularly from Eastern Europe and Russia, are expected to behave a certain way. Else, they face the consequences of the media’s derision, whisper campaigns, or even persecution.

Srinivas Murty

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Lifelong tennis fan, musician, entrepreneur, tech geek. I have opinions on various topics, generally open to change.