Warning: This article contains upsetting language
It’s fair to say that 2018 has been a good year for British tennis.
Kyle Edmund showed he was ready to step up in the absence of Andy Murray when he reached his maiden Grand Slam semi-final in Australia, while Katie Boulter, Harriet Dart and Katie Swan all proved there’s an exciting group of British youngsters who will be competitive on the WTA tour. That’s not to mention Fran Jones, Cam Norrie, Maia Lumsden, Emma Raducanu, Adian McHugh and Jack Draper, who all had great seasons with some notable scalps and titles.
But unfortunately British players are still subject to abusive online messages. Earlier this year, Jay Clarke opened up about the racist abuse he receives after every match, and Freya Christie was also sent vile messages one week after her injury comeback last year.
It doesn’t end there.
British star Eden Silva explained to The Big Racket that she regularly receives abuse after every loss. “I use social media to keep people who are interested in my career updated and to have an insight of a professional tennis player. Unfortunately, when you have social media it allows trolls the ability to connect with you and send these sorts of messages.”
The messages Silva mentions are extremely offensive and use language that no person ever deserves to hear, especially after a loss in a sport which pays so little on the lower-graded tournaments.
It’s very brave for Eden to share these messages, especially as it could easily lead to more abuse. The language is unacceptable and unfortunately, other British players are also regularly receiving vile posts.
Olivia Nicholls, who has will be looking to build on a promising 2018 on the doubles circuit, explained how players she knows have received messages wishing family members to have cancer or diet. “It’s tough enough losing matches when it’s your own living, so having these messages just enhances the bad feelings you get after you lose.”
What action can be taken?
Realistically, what can tennis players do to combat these messages? It’s unfair to make them switch off from social media, but they shouldn’t have to face up to hate messages aimed at them or their family. Eden Silva believes the WTA and ITF need to step in and take action.
“Although it would be very difficult, I do believe the WTA and ITF should do more and try harder to investigate each report made against these trolls and look into finding their identity. Once they find out even one person’s identity, I believe the rest will become scared to write abuse in case they are exposed, so it will help the process of eliminating these trolls once and for all.”
The WTA and ITF offer appropriate counselling to players going through abuse. But is it enough? You could argue that it should be up to the social media channels to implement the bans on users, but that isn’t sufficient given the ease of creating an account.
It appears that these trolls, often gamblers who require the losing player to win, need to understand the life of a tennis player. The sheer dedication and commitment exceeds most jobs, where losing a match can be the difference between whether you can afford to pay for a coach to improve or even travel to your next tournament. Yet, it feels like little can be done to eradicate trolls from the internet.
Are we all to blame?
However there are ways to soften the blow for other players by the way we – as tennis fans – react online to how a player is performing.
Heather Watson is often a victim to tennis fans, who often write how she will ‘tank’ matches. The lack of support can be quite frightening to witness, especially when on a poor run of form. Yet, when she’s winning, fans send all the plaudits her way.
Even The Tennis Podcast, a show which has gone from strength to strength over the years, recently ran a poll asking fans to share their most memorable ‘tennis choke’. Never mind that these losses can have an incredibly negative mental impact on the players, the way in which they are joked about and resurfaced can be quite damaging for our sport. As an individual sport, where isolation is often reported on, it is important that we have more respect about the performances from our favourite players.
I’m not saying that tennis players shouldn’t shy away from any criticism from the media, but if they aren’t respected by fans and commentators, then why would the extreme trolls care when they are firing abhorrent abuse? It’s not done in a malicious way, and fans can have their opinions, but using words like ‘choke’, ‘tank’, ‘useless’ is damaging for our sport.
I’m also not denying that I have said negative things about tennis players. I have. Hearing the words of Eden and Olivia made me think that the words we all put on our social media feeds can be equally damaging. So when you’re making your new year’s resolution, maybe think about the way you discuss your favourite tennis players when they’re at their most vulnerable.
It’s a change I’m going to make for 2019.