Tennis has long held the reputation of being a “gentleman’s game,” steeped in tradition and decorum. The sport’s origins date back to the 19th century, and during that time, it was indeed a game primarily played by the aristocracy, emphasizing etiquette, sportsmanship, and adherence to unwritten rules. However, as tennis evolved over the years, so too did the perception of it being a gentleman’s game.
The Tradition of Tennis:
- White Attire: One of the most iconic traditions in tennis is the dress code. Historically, players were required to wear all-white attire at prestigious events like Wimbledon. This tradition reflected a sense of formality and respect for the game.
- Handshake: The post-match handshake, or sometimes a simple nod of acknowledgment, has been a symbol of sportsmanship in tennis. It signifies respect for one’s opponent, regardless of the outcome.
- Quiet Please: The hushed silence of the crowd during points and the respectful applause after a great shot have been staples of tennis etiquette, creating an atmosphere of concentration and mutual respect.
- Calling Your Own Shots: In amateur tennis, players are expected to call their own shots fairly, even if it goes against their own interests. This reliance on self-policing demonstrates the integrity that tennis values.
Over the years, tennis has witnessed a transformation in terms of its traditions and codes of conduct. Here are some ways in which the sport has evolved:
- Dress Code Relaxation: While Wimbledon still enforces a strict dress code, other tournaments have become more lenient, allowing players to express their individuality through their attire.
- On-Court Behavior: There have been instances where players, in the heat of the moment, have violated the unwritten rules of sportsmanship. John McEnroe’s outbursts and Serena Williams’ confrontations with umpires come to mind. These incidents have sparked debates about sportsmanship in modern tennis.
- Increased Competitiveness: As tennis has become more competitive, some argue that the quest for victory has sometimes overshadowed the respect for opponents. Trash-talking and on-court rivalries have become more prominent.
- Technology and Line Calls: The advent of technology, such as Hawkeye, has reduced the reliance on players making line calls. While this minimizes disputes, it also takes away from the player’s responsibility to call their own shots.
Several players have challenged the traditional norms of tennis, sometimes to positive and other times to controversial effect:
- Nick Kyrgios: Known for his outspoken nature, Kyrgios has challenged traditional tennis decorum through his on-court antics and frank comments about fellow players.
- Venus and Serena Williams: The Williams sisters have challenged conventional tennis attire with their unique and sometimes daring outfits.
- Novak Djokovic: Djokovic, like many players, has engaged in intense rivalries and occasionally displayed frustration on the court, prompting discussions about sportsmanship including the recent US Open incident where he mocked the behaviour of American Ben Shelton who “hung up the phone” in celebration of his match against fellow American Francis Tiafoe.
In conclusion, while tennis still upholds many traditions and unwritten rules that emphasize sportsmanship and respect, the sport has evolved in response to changing times and the competitive nature of professional tennis. Players like Kyrgios and incidents involving top players have raised questions about whether tennis can still be considered a “gentleman’s game” in the traditional sense. It’s a topic that continues to evolve alongside the sport itself, reflecting the ongoing tension between tradition and modernity in the world of tennis.