How Twitter Is Taking the Fun Out of Tennis Fandom

I’ve always rooted for John Isner.

A few reasons: One is that he is almost always involved in close matches, and I like the drama of competition. I enjoy observing how players handle the key moments. Isner seems like a straight-up, honest competitor — a good guy I can feel good about rooting for.

I also appreciate the irony that he’s known for winning the closest and longest match ever, yet what has held him back from greater success are his losses in close, important matches. I have defended Isner in arguments with tennis buddies who complain that his game is one-dimensional. But that’s what makes Isner’s competitiveness not just good, but valiant. His margin for victory is crazy thin. One bad service game from him probably loses the set. If he hits just one kick second serve in a tiebreak that sits up a tad, that alone could cost him the set. Isner competes with the burden of that knowledge. He can’t think, “Oh, I’ll just get the mini-break right back.” With his return game, that would be delusional. So for those reasons, when I went to Isner’s first-round match at the French Open last year, I was probably the loudest voice out on Court 3 cheering for him against Aussie Jordan Thompson. (Isner won in four sets.)

But Isner complicated my fandom when I later read about views he has expressed on Twitter. Obviously he has every right to put whatever he wants on social media. And I have the right to like or not like him for his views. Of course, John Isner has no reason to give a rat’s ass whether I like him.

But none of that’s the issue here. It’s not that I agree or disagree with Isner’s views. It’s that I don’t want to know them. I didn’t ask to know them. I don’t want to have to read his, or anyone’s, Twitter timeline, Facebook posts or Instagram messages to figure out whether I want to root for him. It’s too much work. I didn’t become a sports fan because I wanted to do research. I was rooting for Isner because of what I saw on the court. He’s never been on the ballot of any election I’ve voted in. He plays a sport. I had all the information I thought I needed.

You can argue that I could quit Twitter and not see the opinions of Isner or any other players. But that’s not realistic. These things have a way of getting around, into news stories or the comments sections of unrelated articles.

So, what did Isner tweet that got me thinking? It was him describing as “amazingly disrespectful” the statement one of the Hamilton actors read aloud to then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence a couple of weeks after the 2016 election. In another tweet, Isner complained that the actor and cast weren’t being “tolerant.” Pence, for his part, later said he wasn’t offended.

Here are three things I thought at the time: 1) The United States is a great country. 2) One of the things that makes this nation great is that someone can lecture the vice president-elect in a theater without getting punished. Sure, most countries have freedom of speech. But it’s more institutionalized and ingrained here than pretty much anywhere else. I’ve lived in at least one other country where that actor might have gotten roughed up or killed for that later on. 3) I liked Pence’s response more than Isner’s.

Twitter is a terrible forum for engaging in complex conversations. Isner isn’t doing himself any favors trying to express his views in such a truncated format. It’s possible that if he had written a 750-word essay on why the Hamilton lecture bothered him, he would have come off as thoughtful. Instead, with just a few words, he made a lot of people think he’s narrow-minded.

Not to compare Isner with Tennys Sandgren, but Sandgren also didn’t help himself communicating via Twitter. He complained to the media during the Australian Open that he was portrayed unfairly. But all the information everyone had on Sandgren was put out by Sandgren. Perhaps if he had explained his thoughts in a longer format he wouldn’t have felt he was being mischaracterized.

In his podcast interview this week with Ryan Harrison, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim noted that when he started covering tennis in the late 1990s, he didn’t know what the players’ political views were. That was essentially the same thought I had reading Isner’s tweets. When I was a kid watching tennis in the 1970s and ‘80s, I didn’t have to sort out the cultural or political opinions of the 18th-ranked male player.

So, do I keep rooting for Isner? Maybe not quite as enthusiastically as before, but yes. I don’t have to agree with everything an athlete says or does. It’s also hard to change old rooting habits. Still, if I could choose, I’d like to go back to having less information about the players’ views. It made fandom more fun.

Stop the Overrule Unfairness

After the senseless tragedy in Florida this week, nothing could be more trivial than this little rant below, which I had already written at the time. But if you’d like to escape the madness of the real world for a few minutes and geek out on a tennis micro-issue, here you go:

One of my irritations with tennis lately, and it was especially true during the Australian Open, is when the chair umpire overrules an out call and gives the point (instead of replaying it) to the player who hit the ball that was initially called out. The umpire typically explains the decision by telling the other player that he/she attempted to return the shot before hearing the out call from the linesperson.

There were several notable examples of this during the Aussie. Here are just a few: Caroline Wozniacki was serving at 6-4, 5-3, 15-30 in her third-round match against Kiki Bertens (start watching this at 1:25:00) when the umpire overruled a very bad out call on the baseline. Wozniacki swung and hit the ball into the net. I obviously don’t know exactly when Wozniacki heard the call, and one could make the case from the video that she might have argued even more vociferously if she really believed she was right. But it was close, and it looked to me like she might have pulled up short on her follow-through, which would have affected her shot. (More on that below.)

There was this (start watching at 56:50) between Agnieszka Radwanska and Su-Wei Hsieh. Radwanska had the panicked look of someone trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare. The chair umpire was about to award the point to Hsieh when Radwanska pointed out that she actually hit the disputed ball back onto Hsieh’s side of the court. The umpire was so quick to give Hsieh the point that he didn’t even consider whether Radwanska had returned the shot. Radwanska successfully demanded the intervention of a tournament supervisor and they ended up replaying the point, thankfully. Kyle Edmund had a similar complaint returning a Marin Cilic serve during their semifinal. A description of the dispute is here.

The week after the Aussie, in St. Petersburg, Caroline Garcia lost when a replay overturned an out call on match point against her. You can watch the point and her argument here, though the Russian commentators talk over much of it. This one might not have involved an overrule, but the issue is the same. Yes, Garcia appears to take a pretty full swing at the ball. But if the call came during her swing, and it almost surely did, it would have affected the shot in some way. And to not give the player the benefit of the doubt on a linesperson’s error on match point is very unfair.

I’ll predict right here that there’s going to be some kind of rule or interpretation change on this issue before long, because the status quo is so illogical. They will end up replaying the point on most of these. That would be progress. I’ll break down my argument into three parts: Ethical/moral, mechanical and technological.

Ethical/moral: A linesperson calls a ball out, the chair umpire says, “Correction, ball was good,” and while doing so makes the speculative judgment that the player swung before hearing the linesperson’s call. The mistake was made by the linesperson, or possibly even worse, the umpire making the overrule. The aggrieved player should get the benefit of the doubt since he/she didn’t make the mistake; one of the officials did. The way it works now, the umpire essentially shifts responsibility for the bad call onto the player. It’s simply unjust.

There’s also a strong element of arrogance here, as if the umpire knows better than the player whether her shot was affected. The situation is different from the typical line-call dispute, when a player thinks a ball was in or out but doesn’t actually know. In this case, most of the time the player knows whether her ability to make the shot was impaired. And when you see how strenuously the players argue when the point gets taken away (e.g., Wozniacki, Edmund, Garcia), it’s hard to believe they’re all knowingly and passionately lying every time. I know that a player can convince herself that she was wronged and argue based on that. But it’s hard to believe that all these players are mistaken that the out call affected their shot or that they are willfully lying about it so often. Call me naive, but I think most of the top pros aren’t ethically corrupt.

Mechanical: This is probably the issue that I find most maddening. The discussions on court, and in the TV commentary booth, revolve around whether the player made contact with the ball before or after the line call was made. This isn’t even the right question to ask. Anyone who plays a decent level of recreational tennis knows that the complete swing, including the follow-through, determines where the ball goes. That whip-over-the-head forehand swing of Nadal’s isn’t just for decorative purposes. It’s what keeps the damn ball in the court. In other words, if a player makes contact with the ball and then is disrupted by a shout before finishing her swing, her shot will be affected. Period. If this weren’t the case we would all just stop our swings right when the racket meets the ball. Therefore, the player should get a do-over if the call came at any time during her swing. I find it amazing that umpires — at least the times I’ve been watching — haven’t acknowledged this.

Technological:  I will admit that on this point I have more questions than answers. On these disputed calls, we hear/see the TV replay of the sound of the line call and watch the player’s swing. Based on that, the TV commentators and we at home form an opinion of which came first — the call or the swing. Notwithstanding that it’s not even the appropriate question (as I argue above), are we even getting accurate information from the TV replay? I have my doubts that the time gap between when we hear the linesperson’s call and see the player make contact on a TV replay is exactly the same as what happened in real time on the court. Does Wozniacki, who may be 10 to 12 feet away from the linesperson, hear the out call at the same instant we hear it on TV? I wouldn’t assume so. This is a question a tennis journalist or fan with a math/science inclination — someone like Jeff Sackmann or Carl Bialek, who have done interesting work with tennis analytics — could perhaps dig into. There must be someone at MIT who can answer. The question is basically this: Is the sound/vision sequence obtained from a TV replay exactly the same as what happened on court? If the answer is no, let’s stop coming to conclusions based on the TV replays.

The arguments on this issue will continue — until umpires get guidance that they have to give the player the benefit of the doubt. And I suspect that will happen before long.