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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Q & A: A Few Words on “Vika-Gate”

Some of you know me from Twitter, from the handful of pieces I’ve written for the Tennis Space, or from tournaments where I occasionally impersonate an intrepid girl reporter.  All of these activities are part of my alter-ego as a tennis enthusiast and online enforcer of proper pronunciation of Serbian player’s names.  In my real life, however, I’m an English professor, a person who both interprets words for a living and spends much of my time, in classrooms or office hours, asking and answering questions as well as helping students formulate their own.  So, in what follows, I’m professing even more than usual and emphasizing some aspects of the recent controversy that caught my eye (and ear).

My primary point is pretty straightforward: how one frames & poses a question will shape, if not determine, the kind of answer one gets in return.  Here’s a brief hypothetical example before I get to the real one.  Imagine someone asking, “Was it unfair that Azarenka took such a long medical time-out (MTO)?  Do you think the rules should be better enforced?”  These questions imply a few things: that Vika took a break at her own discretion (whereas, after requesting a trainer visit during the ninety-second changeover, she received a MTO on the advice of medical professionals and by approval of the chair umpire), that it was unreasonably long (when, at approximately eight and a half minutes, its length was within the allowable time), and that her actions bent, if not broke, the rules (which is a descriptive claim or interpretation of what happened, not a fact). 

The average person being asked these questions is unlikely to respond with an analysis of them.  Rather, he or she will probably take them at face value, perhaps even be influenced by their thrust or tone, and answer accordingly.  The discussion has thus been limited in a very specific way.  Perhaps, in this case, it would have been warranted to ask some preliminary questions: “Why was Azarenka’s MTO longer than most?  Did it comply with tournament guidelines?”  The answers to these are less interesting than the discussion the earlier questions are likely to generate: it was indeed a long MTO because she was treated for two separate injuries (though it’s not clear she wanted to be); and yes, according to the ITF Rule Book, a player is allowed a maximum of two consecutive MTOs, with a “reasonable length of time” allotted for evaluation and a three-minute treatment per injury.  Further, the chair umpire, who uses a stopwatch to time everything from the five-minute warm-up and twenty seconds between points to changeovers and MTOs, did not call “time” until after Azarenka had returned from the off-court treatment area.  Conversation stopper?  Maybe notbut at least the conversation has a greater chance of heading in the right direction (assuming, of course, that you take the “right direction” to be toward discovering truth or solving problems, not provoking debate).

My central concern is with the Q&A that immediately followed Azarenka’s semi-final, as I think it shaped much of the reaction to her straight-set victory over underdog Sloane Stephens.  I hope my description of the way such exchanges generally proceed won’t strike anyone as controversial.

On-court interviews are ritual fluff designed to tie a bow on the match that just finished while also setting up the winning player’s upcoming contest.  The inevitable questions—basically, “How’d you do it?” and “What now?”—are tennis’s equivalent of the “previously on” and “stay tuned for scenes from our next episode” that begin & end tv shows.  Given these conventions, one doesn’t expect a question about a MTO in an on-court interview, as they can be sensitive subjects regardless of whether taken by the victor or her opponent.  Thus, at the 2012 US Open, CBS’s Mary Carillo didn’t ask Andy Murray about either the bathroom break he took after the fourth set (and which he later admitted helped him to regroup after dropping a two-set lead) or Novak Djoković’s fifth-set MTO, which some observers considered unsportsmanlike.  The on-court interview is not a press conference: it’s generally a feel-good moment engineered to give the spectators an opportunity to share in the players’ emotions, a sense that they’re getting to know them as people, and the victors one more round of applause after their opponents have left the court.

Keeping these fairly well-established conventions in mind, is it so surprising that Victoria Azarenka misunderstood what was happening in the on-court interview following her match on Thursday?  That the spectators in the stands and the fans at home understood what Sam Smith was asking Vika is, in part, a function of the reality that, while we weren’t with or in her body, we were privy to an awkward ten-minute discussion of it—a wait filled with images of Stephens sitting still in her chair and, for tv viewers, a noisy, one-sided debate about the legitimacy of Azarenka’s actions.  But because Vika didn’t think she’d done anything wrong by, first, asking to see the trainer during a changeover and, second, following the medical staff’s advice to get treatment off court (both of which are within the letter of the law governing such matters) and, further, since she may not have picked up on the vibe in Rod Laver Arena upon her return, she may not have grasped what she was being asked by Smith to explain.  Add to this the fact that English is not the Belarusian player’s first language and. . .  Well, you get the idea.  (Those who think Vika’s English is plenty good may never have heard Djoković, one of most articulate non-native English speakers on tour, say “simple-minded” when he intends “single-minded” or “collaborate” when he means “collapse.”  If you want the low-down on the linguistic ability and verbal tics of the players on tour, look no further than the wonderful women of ASAP Sports who transcribe the press conferences.)

So, what did Sam Smith ask Azarenka?  Not—literally—what most people think she did.  “Victoria, congratulations: you’re back in the final.  But, um, you had a few difficulties out there,” observed Smith.  “Can you tell us why you had to go off and. . . how are you?”  There was a pause in the middle of the sentence that I think it’s apt to call awkward and attribute, at least in part, to Smith’s not being in the habit of asking pointed questions on such occasions.  In fact, putting a victor on the spot might even be considered a breach of on-court-interview etiquette—not that I blame Smith, who likely had little choice in the matter.  Note the words that are missing here: injury, trainer, medical, time-out, leave, court.  Consider, too, other words or phrases that are ambiguous: difficulties, out there, go, off.  (After all, I’m going off at this very moment, aren’t I?  And I’m pretty sure players’ games go off unexpectedly at times—as, alas, do guns.)  Not least, there’s the totally vague final question “How are you?” which could mean just about anything from “How is the part of your body that got treated?” to “How do you feel to be back in the final of the Australian Open?” 

And yet, Smith’s is being represented as a “simple question” about the “supposed injury” by various journalists, with nearly all of those reporting on the incident paraphrasing rather than quoting her directly, thereby not only eliding the ambiguity but also assuming to know what Azarenka heard and understood.  It’s easy enough for us to say that what Smith asked was “Why did you leave the court to get medical treatment after failing to convert match points and when it was your opponent’s turn to serve to stay in the contest?”  But that’s not what she asked.  Nor did she ask the decidedly less long-winded but equally specific question: “Why did you request a trainer at that particular moment in the match?  Couldn’t you have waited a bit?” or even “What injury did you have treated when you left the court?”

If Azarenka had been asked one of the above questions, then I could understand the level of outrage that greeted her reply, which failed to answer the question on everyone but Sam Smith’s lips.  As it is, however, I found the response to her on-court interview not only impatient and ungenerous but even irresponsible.  What Azarenka did when she requested to see the trainer at 5-4 is controversial enough.  Like others, I’m pretty comfortable with the charges of poor timing and questionable sportsmanship against Azarenka and I, too, wondered about the severity of the injury she was suffering (a locked rib, she told the media in the press conference that followed) or the degree to which it, rather than nerves, were the cause of her chest pains and difficulty breathing.  Still, to suggest that she brazenly confessed to gamesmanship on court, that she indicated she had been treated for mentally choking (a “panic attack,” some were calling it), that there are major inconsistencies between her on-court responses and subsequent explanations, or, worse, that she’s a liar and a cheat seems both excessive and inaccurate.  She did something that almost all of us wish she hadn’t (and that many other players arguably wouldn’t)— something that may have compromised her opponent’s opportunity to try to hold serve, stay in the match, and perhaps even take the set.  That’s pretty bad.  Why make it worse by assuming she heard the words we did and by putting other words in her mouth?