Once upon a time, like, oh, a few years ago, tennis was a sport in which the ancient values of mutual respect between adversaries, honesty, fairness, and sportsmanship were paramount. The periodic talented boors like Connors, Nastase and McEnroe were aberrations, and their conduct was derided, colorful though it might be.
I am pretty sure that Scottish tennis star Andy Murray has put an end to this, unless the international tennis body or a public uproar puts an end instead to his bringing the tennis equivilent of NFL taunting and NBA showboating onto the court. Murray is a trick shot specialist, and at the London Queens Club tournament leading up to Wimbledon, he created a viral YouTube moment when he hit a winner against opponent Wilfried Tsonga by swinging his racket under his leg. It was spectacular, flashy and fun. It was also rude, disrespectful and obnoxious.
Guess which the public cares about.
The popularity of pro tennis has been reeling since its peak in the Seventies, and its honchos would like nothing better than a little more flash and controversy. If it emulated some sports, organized tennis would jazz up its product by changing the color and bounciness of the balls, or having designated servers, or electrifying the net. Thanks to Murray, it will probably settle for allowing its players to act like jerks.
Hitting a winner in a match with a trick shot is in the same category as high-stepping into the end zone after breaking away in football, making a circus slam dunk in an unguarded basket in basketball, or standing, arms raised, at the plate watching a home run sail out of the park in baseball…only worse. What Murray did was an outright insult to his opponent, toying with him rather than giving him the respect of straight play. Naturally, the crowd and the commentators loved it. Naturally, Murray was unrepentant, and says he will not hesitate to take similar trick shots in the future.
This is how standards of civility and sportsmanship—which is really just the athletic version of civility—decline and rot. An ethics corrupter is reinforced rather than condemned or disciplined for bad conduct because the incivility is amusing, or satisfying, or directed at someone who “doesn’t deserve” fairness and respect. The culture rewards the Corrupter with notoriety and celebrity, and soon behavior that was taboo becomes the new norm….until another corrupter pushes the envelope some more.
The public, the media, sports commentators, the Internet and now YouTube are complicit in this process, which produces Allan Graysons in politics, Michael Savages in radio, Ed Schultzes on cable, Ann Coulters on the lecture circuit, and, of course, LeBron James. Tennis, like golf, once prided itself as being a game played by ladies and gentlemen, and trained its young players accordingly. Now we will have aspiring players practicing ways to win points while simultaneously ridiculing their opponents and tickling onlookers….just like Andy.
There are larger consequences of celebrating incivility in sports, because who we idolize and celebrate have disproportionate influence over society’s evolving values. A society that cheers jerks will, sooner or later, become a society of jerks. If that happens, and it appears to be happening, it won’t be Andy Murray’s fault.
It will be all ours.