If you thought that the on court behaviour by two of tennis’ marquee names earlier this month was about as bad as it gets, then you’re in for a shock.
I would like to publicly apologize to Raphael. I was wrong and completely out of line. I accept any consequences as a result of my behaviour from the ITF governing body.” Micahel Kouame
A couple of days ago, in front of a handful of spectators attending the Tennis Foundation Ghana Open, an ITF J5 event in Accra, 15-year-old French boy, Michael Kouame ranked 606 in the ITF’s world junior rankings, approached the net to acknowledge his opponent, Ghanaian Raphael Nii Ankrah, who had just defeated the French No 1 seed in a draining, three set epic, 6-2 6-7 7-6.
But instead of shaking his hand, the tournament favourite Kouame slapped his conqueror in the face, an action which sparked a minor brawl between the two players’ camps on the side-lines.
Perhaps Kouame had been influenced by the much publicised actions of actor Will Smith, who slapped American comedian Chris Rock in the face live on stage at the Oscars a couple of weeks earlier; or maybe he had witnessed the racket breaking, umpire abusing antics of Nick Kyrgyos at the Miami Open in March, behaviour which saw him fined $35,000 for two counts of unsportsmanlike conduct, an audible obscenity and verbal abuse!
Or maybe it was the on-court misdemeanours of Germany’s Alexander Zverev in Acapulco in early March, misdemeanours which resulted in him being ‘let off’ (as some commentators have said) with an eight week ban and $25,000 fine, both suspended!
On the other hand, of course, the French boy might simply be reacting to his shock defeat at the hands of a local player ranked a whopping 1,202 places below him.
Whatever the reasons, tournament director Roger Crawford immediately disqualified Kouame from the doubles event and recommended to the ITF that it consider banning him from next week’s circuit event. At the time of writing, the ITF has not made its decision known.
Kouame’s apology was swift, if a little bit disingenuous.
“Hi everyone, I sincerely regret my actions on Tuesday at the ITF Tournament in Ghana against Raphael Ni Ankrah. I regretfully struck him after an extremely frustrating and intense match. During the course of the match, I was repeatedly verbally abused by a large number of individuals in the crowd, including insults to my mother in particular. However, that does not excuse my behaviour. I would like to publicly apologize to Raphael. I was wrong and completely out of line. I accept any consequences as a result of my behaviour from the ITF governing body.”
The abuse of racket, balls, court and umpire is not a new phenomenon, of course.
I am old enough to remember the days of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase and others who took what was considered to be ungentlemanly conduct on to the tennis court.
In the late 1970’s, I witnessed a remarkable on-court Davis Cup confrontation in Bucharest between Nastase and Britain’s David Lloyd, in which the latter accused the home player of verbal abuse, the outcome of which saw chaotic scenes both on and off court and a year’s disqualification from the competition for the Romanian.
Fast forward to today’s era and here we are again, talking about player behaviour but this time in a world dominated by social media. Thirty years ago, no one would have even heard about Kouame and his slap.
Today, the video of it and its aftermath is all over tennis’ social media outlets.
Today’s era of Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray has not, of course, been without incident, but there is a long list of lower ranked players who name at least one of them as their inspiration from a young age.
Arguably, these tennis greats have carried the game well for those aspirational youngsters who wish to emulate them.
The game is much bigger than those four, of course, and all of them are now in the autumn of their careers. The next generation of male players has its own responsibility to represent tennis in its best light. The ATP has to lead.
Its Chair, Andrea Gaudenzi, recently said, “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.”
Sadly, though, it’s not only the men who have a problem.
Earlier this week, just a day after Kouame’s slap, 22-yearold Russian player Anastasia Gasanova refused to shake the hand of her 30-yea- old opponent CoCo Vandeweghe, following her two and a half hour, first round, 6-3 4-6 6-3 set defeat by the American at the WTA clay court event in Charleston, USA.
The official online WTA footage of the conclusion of the match, however, is stopped — just before the handshake that wasn’t! Airbrushing out negative factual content isn’t a good look for tennis. It doesn’t resolve any underlying issues either.
There are other high profile examples, of poor female player behaviour. Who could forget Serena Williams’ on-court outburst at chair umpire Carlos Ramos at the 2018 US Open. For that misdemeanour, Williams was fined $17,000 dollars!!
So I suppose the question is, is the assault and bad sportsmanship which we see in other entertainment arenas creeping into tennis. Is it becoming the ‘new normal?’
The actions of Will Smith may have prompted Kouame’s slap; only he will know. But every sport, every profession, requires its professionals to demonstrate fair play and sportsmanship to those who follow.
Good behaviour and great play, as some of the epic matches that we witness at, for example, Grand Slams every year, are as much ‘box office’ as controversial behaviour is.
Both the ATP, the WTA and especially the ITF want to promote the game at its best. And why not. It is a wonderful sport, played by fantastic athletes. But it does need to nip excessive bad behaviour, especially violence, in the bud.
Fines won’t work, don’t work. Brushing incidences under the carpet won’t wash either, especially in these days of social media.
Maybe ranking point deductions and bans are the only way to go. It may appear to harm the game in the short term, but the longer-term game isn’t going anywhere. And that is what we need to protect.