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Tennis: When your ‘best’ isn’t good enough

July 15, 2019

Bernard Tomic is again facing criticism from tennis and broadcasting circles following his first-round defeat to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon. Tomic’s performance was described by the BBC as “embarrassing” and “distasteful”. With just 58 minutes on the clock when Tsonga sealed a 6-2 6-1 6-4 victory, the match was the second fastest men’s tie at SW19 since such records began in 2002. On first glance, it may seem little can be done to prevent such performances, but this is where the ‘best efforts rule’ seeks to protect the integrity of tennis.

The ‘best efforts rule’ features in the rulebooks for Grand Slams and other ATP tournaments. Article III Part E of the 2019 Grand Slam Rulebook states: “A player shall use his best efforts to win a match when competing in a Grand Slam Tournament,” with an initial fine of up to US$20,000 per offence. For the first round of Grand Slam competitions only, the referee may decide that a player’s performance falls so far short of their “required professional standard” that a fine up to the amount of their first-round prize money may be incurred. In accordance with Article III Part G, factors considered in the course of determination by the referee include if:

“(i) the player did not complete the match;

(ii) the player did not compete in the 2-3 week period preceding the Grand Slam;

(iii) the player retired from the last tournament he/she played before the Grand Slam;

(iv) the player was using a Protected or Special Ranking for entry;

(v) the player received a Code Violation for failure to use Best Efforts.”

Although Tomic completed his match and did not receive a code violation at the time, he has since been fined his full £45,000 first-round Wimbledon prize money. However, Tomic is not the only player this year to receive such a punishment. Anna Tatishvili was fined her full first-round fee at Roland Garros following a 6-0 6-1 defeat, after using a protected ranking to enter, and having last played at a tournament in October 2017 due to injury.

There is understandably concern as to the damage such publicity could do to the sport’s commercial image. Tomic lost his racquet sponsor, Head, following a similar incident at Wimbledon in 2017, and other sponsors could also be deterred from future investment in the sport. Fans of tennis might even decide to vote with their feet if they perceive tennis to lack the civility and integrity with which the sport has become inextricably associated. Both outcomes would undoubtedly be negative for tennis as a sport and a global brand.

The cases of Tomic and Tatishvili suggest that previous rule changes may have been ineffective deterrents, since the rule under Article III Part G for Grand Slams and the doubling of ATP fines were only enacted in 2017. Alternative punishments at the disposal of authorities include bans from Grand Slam competitions or deductions of ranking points, which may have a greater impact on players’ attitudes than monetary fines alone. However, following incidents at two Grand Slams this year, there will likely be heightened scrutiny as tennis authorities look for a solution.

With thanks to vacation scheme student James Lehmann for his assistance in preparing this blog.