Photo: Martin Sidorjak
Hello tennis fans and welcome to “Inside the Lines,” a column I’ll be writing for the National Bank Open presented by Rogers each week that features news and storylines from the world of men’s tennis.
Tennis is generally thought of as a sport of etiquette and tradition. When compared to other sports, it seems to be among the more sophisticated of athletic competitions. There’s no contact as in football or hockey, no diving around on the pitch trying to draw a penalty like we see in soccer, and is played without fouls between players as we have in basketball. Most of the time the players, while competitive for sure, do not engage with each other in a verbally abusive manner either.
Of course, there are certain exceptions that can spice things up from time to time. Even the noble Roger Federer once swore on court here in Toronto at the National Bank Open at Sobey’s Stadium! Hey, we all have our bad days at the office, right? Some tense moments between competitors are bound to happen when it’s just two opponents staring each other down from opposite ends of the court.
While in a perfect world, everyone would just get along, these moments do in fact help add some drama for the fans in attendance as well as for those who are watching from home. On some level, I’d say it makes professional athletes more relatable when we see them have a meltdown on court.
Growing up I caught the tail-end of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe’s illustrious careers. My Dad can attest to the temper tantrums I used to throw on the tennis court and I’d like to put that blame on the shoulders of the two American legends who I very much looked up to!
Back then tennis seemed to have a little more personality and showmanship. The theatrics weren’t for everyone and some players did allow their rackets to do the talking for them – think of the stone-cold Ivan Lendl or the business-like Pete Sampras for example. But players like Connors and McEnroe played with so much fire inside of them that it was impossible for them to even think of containing it. They thrived on letting it out on court.
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I once spoke with Connors on this very topic on Match Point Canada and he had the following to say on how that kind of attitude on court can help grow the sport:
“The personality has been taken out of the game and it seems to be almost by design. I look back and I say the “Wild West” and we were walking a thin line. And did we fall off? Of course we did. But that’s what drew a different kind of fan into the game of tennis. It went from a country club sport to get the hockey fan, and the baseball fan and the football fan.”
Back in the Wild West, there were heroes and there were villains. Tennis has always had both and even if the villains don’t seem to exist in abundance anymore, the sport still needs players to fill that role.
What are the prerequisites for the role of tennis villain? When I think of some must-have criteria, here’s what I end up with on my list:
- Argumentative with opposing player
- Combative with the chair umpire
- Testy with the media
- Love/hate relationship with the crowd
- Love/hate relationship with one’s coaching team
- Tendency to obliterate a tennis racquet from time to time
With Connors and McEnroe long retired, let’s look at the villains in men’s tennis today and see who might check off multiple boxes from the list above!
Any conversation in terms of current tennis villains needs to start with Nick Kyrgios. Still recovering from injury and yet to take to the court in 2023, the Aussie is as polarizing a figure as there is in men’s tennis. His game is electric and his talent immense as evidenced by his collective victories over Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal. Yet how often do we see the real deal when Kyrgios steps onto the court? The Aussie often tanks when the going gets tough, jars with the crowd to his detriment, and generally shows a high level of disrespect to both the media and his fellow players. For the time being, his status as villain No. 1 on the ATP is pretty secure.
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Daniil Medvedev truly announced his candidacy for tennis villain back at the US Open in 2019. His antics then were mostly centered around the frosty rapport he had with the New York crowds and he used that to fuel his advancing all the way to the final before he fell to Rafael Nadal. Medvedev seems to be more of a playful villain, one who realizes it’s all an act and that it can actually fuel his success on court at times. More recently he’s been at odds with Alexander Zverev, who accused him in Monte Carlo of unfair play.
Medvedev always has a quick quip ready to go and in response to Zverev’s allegations, he stated, “Sascha is living in his own world….When he says that someone is not fair play you’re like, ‘Okay great. Look at yourself in the mirror’.”
In terms of up-and-coming villains, Holger Rune is a fresh face on Tour but has already managed to find himself labeled as a potential villain at the age of 19. Let’s call him a villain in training perhaps? In Paris last Fall, it was veteran Stan Wawrinka who was displeased with the lack of maturity Rune displayed on court during their match. More recently the two enjoyed a frosty handshake in Indian Wells after Wawrinka won in a tense encounter.
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These are just some of the obvious recent candidates who qualify for villain status on the ATP. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they get us talking and add another element of excitement to a match. I recently tweeted about this topic and asked for some of your thoughts. In the replies, Zverev got a few votes, Rune as well, and even Rune’s recently former coach Patrick Mouratoglou was mentioned by one respondent, showing us that tennis villains don’t have to be limited to just the players alone.
So who’s your favourite or consensus pick for ATP villain right now? Hit me up on Twitter and share your pick!