The changing face of tennis

Suddenly there seem to be as many policemen involved in tennis as there are players. Gone are the days when a London bobby, with minimum fuss and barely a whiff of publicity, would quietly lead away an offending clergyman from the packed aisles of the outside courts at Wimbledon for having something less than pure intentions towards certain members of the watching flock.

Now ex-Scotland Yard’s finest are assiduously tracking down putative match-fixers across the globe while, seemingly in tune with this new reality, Melbourne’s boys in blue wade into the Australian Open crowd with pepper spray. What, you may think, is the sport coming to?

Trying to come to terms with the modern world might be the obvious answer. Not so long ago the tennis authorities were scarcely able to contemplate that drugs could possibly be a problem. Then came the nandrolone affair, one that was never properly resolved, with much sweeping under the carpet, but at least, thanks to Wada (the World Anti-Doping Agency), the drug-testing programme was rationalised under the umbrella of the International Tennis Federation.

The worries that some players are still using drugs have not gone away, even though the usual cry will always go up, if anybody is caught, that they are ”innocent”. Martina Hingis tried it after testing positive for cocaine at Wimbledon last year, but I learned this week she would not be appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Now there’s a surprise.

The match-fixing imbroglio will continue to run for many a long day. Russia’s Nikolay Davydenko rose to number four in the world on a general wave of apathy, only for his name to become known throughout the world last year once it had been appended to a possible fix in Poland’s Sopot. The matter remains unresolved, though it has spawned the Joint Integrity programme, with two former policemen, Jeffrey Rees and Ben Gunn, charged with making sure the sport, in accordance with the Wimbledon dress code, remains predominantly white.

Clearly tennis must be vigilant. It is a sport not blessed with the highest quality of administrators and might easily slip down the road of athletics and cycling. But it cannot necessarily be blamed for all the ills of the world, and the pepper-spray incident was clearly a case, despite their denials, of a gross overreaction by the Melbourne police.

The zero-tolerance attitude stemmed from a running fight at the Australian Open last year between Croatian and Serbian fans when 150 people were ejected. This caught both the tennis and police authorities by surprise, and clearly could not be tolerated.

On this occasion, during a first-round match between Chile’s Fernando Gonzalez, last year’s beaten finalist, and the Greek qualifier, Konstantinos Economidis, the two groups of Chilean and Greek fans were certainly vociferous. But Gonzalez was thoroughly enjoying the Davis Cup-type atmosphere, and was not in the least perturbed by the nature of the chanting. ”It was fun,” he said.

The police clearly thought differently, singled out the cheerleader, and then peremptorily began squirting pepper spray, with women and children caught up in the incident. The police apparently feared for their own safety, a view not shared by anybody else in the Margaret Court arena.

They continued to defend their use of the spray in the wake of the incident after which three people were arrested and charged with offences relating to assaulting police, resisting arrest and failing to obey the lawful instructions of the police force. Superintendent John Cooke insisted that the capsicum was ”appropriately used.”

Here was the perfect moment for Craig Tiley, the tournament director, to display a little caution. But not a word of it. ”We said from the beginning that we would not accept behaviour that is going to disturb and disrupt the others. We work in close partnership with the Victoria Police and in the actions they take.”

And, presumably, if that means innocent spectators having to suffer from the after-effects of the spray, then so be it. And tennis talks of integrity? — Â

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