Monday, October 5, 2009

tennis and other ethics part 3

(unpublished op-ed)

The Culture of Tennis

In recent years tennis has gone some distance toward recovering sportsmanship and civility as elements of its culture. At least now an outburst like Serena Williams' draws a fine. Several of the leading players (Rafa Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, and Kim Clijsters, e.g.) bring not only conventional courtesy but something much rarer: humility and grace.

The relatively new system of "challenges" often reinforces this welcome development by increasing the presumption that the official judge, not the player, is the more reliable line judge. However, it also shows that judges, trying to gauge the landing point of balls going over 100 m.p.h. within a fraction of an inch, are not infallible--and it provides instant correction when necessary. So far so good. This system generally allows matches to proceed with increased integrity and efficiency, as compared with the pre-challenge system, when players' outbursts both delayed the game and soured its atmosphere.

However there is room for a little fine tuning. One of Roger Federer's frustrations on Monday was a delay of several seconds before del Potro appealed one call. This has become common practice--a player decides whether or not to "spend" one of his allotted appeals only after (illegal) visual consultation with his supporters in the stands. Under the rules the challenge is supposed to be immediate, so Federer's irritation was well founded, if not appropriately expressed. Some other rules are also enforced with spacious discretion, like the one that the player receiving serve is supposed to play to the chosen rhythm of the server.

These are hard things to get right: ruthless enforcement would lead to many needless intrusions of officiating into the game. But too lax enforcement allows players to game the system.

There is a lot at stake in all this. With leadership from players like Nadal and Clijsters, the sport has a chance to consolidate a culture more like golf's, in which courtesy and sportsmanship not only prevail but extend to the willingness of most players to call penalties on themselves when they see that they have broken a rule, even inadvertently. The sport itself is understood to be larger and more fundamental than the outcome of a particular match or tournament, even with so much money at stake. It is unrealistic to expect tennis players to act against their self-interest, but they can be expected not to act dishonestly.

Earlier in the summer Novak Djokovic upheld a still higher standard, when he practically overruled an 'out' call that had gone against his opponent Andy Roddick. Roddick was up a set, but Djokovic had game point to remain up a break in the second set--in other words, it was a key, possibly even a pivotal point. Djokovic thought the ball had hit the line, so he gestured to Roddick that a challenge would be worthwhile. The challenge was upheld; the point and eventually the game went to Roddick, who also won the match.
It's not the outcome that shows the meaning of Djokovic's gesture. He acted instinctively, ethically, and for the most part counter-culturally. Many fans will fault him, even patronize him for jeopardizing and losing a game and probably a set that he could have won. Baseball and football players routinely try to trick umpires and refs into believing that they have caught balls that were only trapped (or worse). If a replay showed a player indicating to an official that a call had wrongly gone for his team, one can imagine the response in the clubhouse after the game. (Of course, a team outcome is at stake in those sports, whereas Djokovic was risking only his own advancement.)
It is not unrealistic to expect tennis to carry out a thoughtful study of the still relatively new system of challenges. Since the challenges themselves are entertaining, perhaps the rule could be amended to grant an additional one or two per set but officials could be stricter about requiring the challenges to be quick. Perhaps the coaches should not be seated so close to the court or should be fined or excluded if they collaborate in evading the rules.

Tennis doesn't need to undermine the good with a stretch for the perfect, but it would benefit from a higher level of consensus and from willing obedience to its own rules. In too many sports the no-brainer commitment to victory not only over the opponent but at the expense of the sport itself (as embodied in its rules and the spirit of its rules) is a poignant aspect of our culture. Tennis can help to push back against this impoverished norm. It is time for the players' representatives and the officials to talk these issues through and see whether they can come to and codify a less contentious protocol.

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