July 8, 2009

A Tragedy Amid Revelry

Yesterday, just a few days after glorious history was made, the tennis world received news that one of its players, twenty-four year old Mathieu Montcourt of France was found dead.

Ranked #119 in the world Montcourt had never won a title and failed to qualify for either of the first two majors of the year. Unfortunately the biggest splash he made in his career came Monday, when he was sentenced to a five-week suspension and fined $12,000 for betting on other players' matches -- a punishment, he had complained, that was too harsh.

On his website former world #1 offered his sympathy for the man he used to play with as children:

"When someone like this disappears, when something like this happens, you realize where you are and you put into perspective your life, winning or losing a tennis match, not competing at an event and everything else."

My deepest condolensces go out to Montcourt's family and friends.

In the meantime I've decided to repost an article I wrote a few months back, just to remind everyone that this is the one sport where chivalry is appreciated.

Previously Published on October 1, 2008

A Gentleman's Sport

Tennis is known as the gentleman's sport.

There's no bum-rushing your opponent like on a football field, slamming him into the plexiglass barriers of a hockey rink, or drawing fouls like on a basketball court. Refs don't rush out to break up fights between players, competitors and coaches aren't ejected from the games, fans don't beat up others cheering for the other team.

Tennis is one of those games where players are expected to conduct themselves with certain amount of dignity and grace.

Take for example Andy Roddick, who after his win last week in Beijing announced he would donate his prize money to help those affected by the earthquake in the Sichuan Province last summer.

Now that's a gentleman.

It's not to say tennis is completely devoid of conflict. Even I'm old enough to remember John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors ranting, throwing racquets, screaming at chair umpires. That tradition hasn't ended -- Marat Safin, Serena Williams, and even Roger Federer have been known to lose their heads on the court a bit, justifiably or not. But for the most part, you hope that players respect each other, themselves and the game.

A few recent events, however, might lead you to question the civility of the sport.

In August my perennial favorite, James Blake, was stopped short (read: "robbed") of the Olympic finals in Beijing when a shot he returned glanced off Fernando Gonzalez's racquet and sailed past the baseline. The ump said there was no indication that Gonzalez had made contact with the ball and awarded him the point.

Blake raised a stink but the ump dismissed his complaints. And when James looked to his opponent to confirm what was obvious from slo-mo replays, the Chilean made no move to admit the fault. Blake went on to lose the game and the deciding third set, a grueling nine games to eleven.

Of course no one point really determines the outcome of a match, and there have always been, and will always be, bad calls. But real athletes can't possibly be proud of winning a point they didn't truly earn.

Similarly, no pro should ever step on a court unless they're going to give their all. Take for example the case of Nikolay Davydenko who last October was fined $2,000 at the St. Petersburg Open when the umpire cited him for "lack of effort".

He cried -- seriously.

It might be an amusing and innocuous story if not for the fact that the ATP was, at the same time, investigating Davydenko in connection with a gambling probe, an allegation from which he was only just cleared last month. Apparently odds that the Russian Davis Cup semifinalist would lose his match against a little-known Argentine player increased even after Davydenko, then ranked #4, won the first set. Nikolay eventually pulled out of the match in the third with a foot injury, sparking speculation that he may have thrown the match and resulting in $7 million of bets being nullified.

Now I'm not saying that Nikolay was involved in the betting scheme. Even the best athletes can lose to an underdog, injury or not -- that's what makes any sport worth watching. But the ATP has suspended eight players for their connection to gambling, and any such association, however tenuous, sullies the sport's reputation.

And of course the most obvious stain on any athlete's record comes when allegations of steroid or drug use pop up.

Martina Hingis was enjoying semi-success in her WTA comeback in 2006-07, rising as high (no pun intended) as #6 despite the fact that she hadn't won a major singles tournament since the 1999 Australian Open. (To be fair, of course, Jelena Jankovic has only played in one Slam final even though she's currently ranked second.) But since she returned to the sport, Hingis had managed to win three tournaments total -- Rome & Calcutta in 2006 and Tokyo in February of 2007.

Then in November of last year, Martina announced her re-retirement due to a persistent injury (she first took leave due to ankle trouble -- now she was having problems with her hip). At the same time she revealed that she had tested postive for cocaine use during the previous Wimbledon Championships, a violation which later resulted in a ruling that she repay nearly $130,000 in prize money.

Hingis has vehemently denied the allegation that she used cocaine, questioning whether her sample was really the one tested and claiming that the drug came from a spiked drink. Again, I'm not here to play judge and jury and I have no intent to slander anyone. Nevertheless the accusations mark a sad end to a career that started with such a bang.

So let's keep the scandal out of tennis. You can still fight for every point without making a mess of things!

And remember, gentlemen, "please" and "thank you" are always appreciated.

Carry on.

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