Speaking Out of Turn: Five Thoughts on the “Audible Obscenity” Rule

This piece was published on the (apparently-defunct) Tennis Space in May 2013.  I was inspired to re-post it this week by a scene at the ATP tournament in Vienna, where Viktor Troicki had another of his infamous meltdowns.

After what he perceived to be a bad call to put him down a break-point in the first, Troicki made his displeasure known to the lines-person, Chair Umpire Timo Janzen, and his more experienced colleague Cédric Mourier, who was watching from the sidelines.  Upon losing the set, 6-4, Troicki had a further outburst—unlike the first, however, these complaints were both mostly directed toward a sympathetic member of his team and in Serbian.  As he walked to his chair, Troicki was followed by a line judge, who seems to have reported that the Serb’s yelling included some choice curses; only then does the umpire call him for a code violation.  Given how this incident was resolved, have matters improved over the past three years?

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In Madrid this week, there was a tense exchange between Novak Djoković and a crowd that was not simply lively or partisan toward his opponent, Grigor Dimitrov, but at times almost inexplicably hostile to the Serb.  After saving a match point and winning the second-set tiebreaker, the men’s No. 1 defiantly shouted a vulgar phrase in his native tongue.  While it stands to reason that few in the Caja Mágica understood what he was saying, Djoković’s outburst—or, more specifically, the lack of response to it from Chair Umpire Carlos Bernardes—nevertheless reignited an ongoing tennis debate.  In an international sport with a global television audience, is it fair for only those players speaking English (or, in rare cases, the language of the umpire) to get penalized for violations of the “audible obscenity” rule?

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1.  Players on both tours agree to abide by a code of conduct geared toward encouraging professional behavior and promoting the integrity and positive image of tennis.  In fact, the code is in effect throughout the tournament grounds, though fans generally hear about it only when it’s been breached during a match.  The audible obscenity rule, which can include point penalties as well as fines of up to $5,000 per violation (up to $20,000 at Slams), differs from rules about the game itself as it concerns consideration for those within earshot of the court.  As the rule is general, merely stating that a player can be called for a violation if he or she uses “words commonly known and understood to be profane and uttered clearly and loudly enough to be heard,” it makes sense that it should apply equally to all players.  Or, if that seems unrealistic, perhaps the powers that be will consider abandoning the rule altogether rather than maintaining a double standard.

2.  While audible obscenities are hardly a plague on the sport, it’d be a good idea for WTA, ATP, and ITF administrators to put their heads together and decide if they’re committed to the rule, what principles are behind it (for instance, is it intended to safeguard only the sensibilities of on-site spectators or those of all viewers?), and how to more fairly implement it.  With the number of languages spoken by players, however, this may be easier said than done.  We witnessed just how complicated—albeit entertaining—it can be earlier this year in Miami, when Chair Umpire Marija Čičak assessed a code violation to Svetlana Kuznetsova after she shouted a word that sounded like profanity in the player’s native Russian but turned out to be the Spanish word for “court.”  Still, given that umpires call the score and request fans to be “Quiet, please” in various languages, I see no reason why they can’t be asked to master a short list of choice words in the three most common linguistic clusters on tour: Romanic, Germanic, and Slavic.  (Readers who think this would be an onerous task for tournament officials are welcome to suggest alternatives.)  If such a change encourages more players to learn Chinese, so be it.

3.  The above example aside, determining whether a player has used an obscenity is relatively straightforward.  Umpires, then, have only two judgment calls to make before enforcing the rule.  Was the profanity sufficiently loud so that others, including ball-kids, will have heard it?  Was there anything “flagrant” or “egregious” about the utterance that would warrant the player’s being assessed with a major offense of “aggravated behavior”?  Unless the act falls under separate rules for verbal abuse or unsportsmanlike conduct, the direction in which a player is cursing—at him- or herself or in the general direction of the stands—doesn’t matter.  As likely goes without saying, players are expected to comport themselves professionally, however frustrated they may be or poorly a crowd behaves.

4.  Having said that, the umpire can and should warn a crowd if it gets out of hand.  (For the record, I think cheering for faults and whistling or booing a player’s winners is a pretty low standard of behavior.)  Everyone, especially players, likes an active and engaged audience.  But since tennis has a longstanding tradition of silence, excepting “oohs” and “aahs,” during points, there’s good reason for officials to intervene before the atmosphere gets too rowdy.  Even in Davis and Fed Cup, there are limits.  While all players must learn to deal with adverse conditions, no player should have to put up with deliberate distractions or disrespect from spectators.  To disrespect players is, after all, to disrespect the game.

5.  Call it wishful thinking, but I think that if the rule were more fairly applied, we’d see two positive developments.  First, non-Anglophone players would likely clean up their on-court exclamations.  Second, fans might be less inclined to make moral judgments in response to players’ colorful verbiage.  What sounds unusual or awfully vulgar to me may be common or fairly benign in another language, even another dialect.  Almost without exception, players curse—they’re human, like the rest of us.  And, in the immortal words of Andy Murray, they do so while “trying their tits off.”  By all means, apply the rule to all players; then, let’s cut them some slack.  Sound fair?

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