Sports

Why Do People Keep Threatening Tennis Players with Violence On Social Media?

As betting on tennis has increased dramatically, so has the volume death threats from scorned gamblers to tennis players via social media.
July 6, 2016, 1:45pm
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Fabrice Martin had just stepped off court at the Montpellier Open in February when his phone began to ping repeatedly.

Martin, a French doubles specialist, and his Austrian partner Oliver Marach, had just lost their opening match in three sets to the Croatians Borna Coric and Antonio Sancic. Going by the rankings, it was an upset, but as a first round doubles match in a fairly small tournament, the result would cause barely a ripple among Martin's fellow players and the millions worldwide who follow tennis.

Advertisement

Or so one would expect.

A quick glance at the Facebook messenger app on his screen was enough to confirm Martin's initial suspicions. His phone was filling up with volleys of abuse, sent to his inbox from people across the world, some accusing him of 'throwing' or 'fixing' the match, others telling him to retire, and some threatening his family, friends and Martin himself.

Read More: Searching for Match-Fixing in Minor League Tennis

"It usually happens at least once a month," Martin said with a shrug when we spoke during his run to the third round at Wimbledon. "The messages are always the same–they want you to die because you lost, how did you lose when you were up a service break, you should quit tennis, you've cost them a thousand euros so they're going to kill you and your entire family."

Martin says the messages typically come from gamblers across the world who have lost money backing him. "It happens when you're the favorite and you lose, or when you're the underdog and you almost win so they've taken a chance on you, it's come close to paying off but they've still lost," he said. "Thinking about it though, you get more hate messages and threats when you're supposed to win. It's a bit tough at times because it's usually right after your match and they're as mad as you are! But every player gets this. You just have to laugh."

But not everyone is able to brush it off.

Last week, the South African player Kevin Anderson, seeded 20th at Wimbledon, voiced his anger on Twitter after receiving a stream of death threats following a surprise first round defeat to Denis Istomin. "Bummed to have lost yesterday but at least I had a ton of death threats on facebook and twitter to make me feel better about things," he tweeted afterwards.

Advertisement

The global sports betting market is thought to be worth up to $3 trillion, with around 12 percent of that coming from tennis. In many countries, including the United Kingdom, tennis is second only to soccer in terms of bookmaker revenue. The sport's popularity with gamblers stems from the sheer number of matches taking place almost every day of the calendar year. Bookmakers such as bet365 typically provide up to 18 different markets per match, ranging from odds on the outright winner to detailed aspects of the contest such as who will lose their serve first or even who will win the next point.

A decade or so ago, tennis gambling was largely restricted to the Grand Slams and ATP tournaments, but advances in technology enabling betting companies to provide live scores from challengers and futures events–the second and third tiers of the professional tour for players ranked anywhere between No. 100 and No. 2000 in the world–has meant that it's possible to place money on obscure singles and doubles matches in even the most far-flung outposts of the circuit.

The increased exposure has meant that relatively unknown sportsmen and women find themselves facing the kind of vitriol which used to be reserved for soccer players on the terraces. And while players like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have professionally maintained social media pages, run by their management teams, it's relatively easy to access a direct line of contact with anyone outside the top ten.

When VICE Sports asked Guido Pella, an Argentine ranked No. 52 in the world who put up an impressive performance in defeat to Federer earlier this fortnight, about the death threats Anderson received, he seemed almost surprised at the stir it caused.

"But this is something usual," he said, looking bemused. "I receive around a hundred messages every time I lose. Every time they say, 'I'm going to kill you. I'm going to kill your mother. You're a loser. You're never going to be a top ten player.' The loss to Roger was one of the few times it didn't happen. No one backed me then!'

Advertisement

Pella says he first began receiving such messages in 2014 after a loss to the veteran Czech player Radek Stepanek in Bogota. Most come from Eastern Europe or Asia but he's also been targeted by gamblers from Italy, Spain and across South America.

"If you have a good ranking and you lose against someone ranked a hundred places below you, you can receive thousands of threats," he said. "I've never replied to but I'd like to say, 'C'mon, this is stupid. It's sport. No one knows what's going to happen so why are you betting on tennis?'"

But while players are threatened online almost every day, nothing has ever happened outside of the virtual world, and Pella says he isn't especially concerned. "They are just angry because they lost money," he said. "We speak about this in the locker room and nothing has ever happened to any of the players. Of course I hope nothing happens to me in the future, but I feel safe."

However the impact of such consistent abuse can stretch well beyond fears of physical violence. In 2012, the Canadian player Rebecca Marino quit professional tennis after repeated abuse on Twitter from gamblers. "You know, there's that saying 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,' " she told the New York Times. "But that's not true. Names definitely hurt. Words hurt."

Since then, the professional tours have tried to establish support networks for players affected by such abuse. The International Tennis Federation now runs a counseling program, as does the WTA.

Advertisement

Last year, Romanian doubles specialist Florin Mergea attended ATP University, a three-day educational program designed to help tennis players with all aspects of their careers. "We had a class where they taught us how to handle this stuff," he said. "If it gets really bad, they told us to report it to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) who will take it from there."

However, his doubles partner Rohan Bopanna is skeptical about how effective the TIU is at stopping online abuse. As a high profile Indian sportsman, Bopanna has grown used to an intense scrutiny on all aspects of his life, receiving violent threats on everything from his choice of doubles partner at the Olympics to his choice of breakfast cereal.

"My wife's a counsellor so that helps," he said, joking. "The TIU is mainly there to stop illegal betting and match fixing taking place. They can't really control people sending you abuse. I've had people threatening to crucify me and stuff like that, but no one knows what part of the world they're messaging from. There's nothing you can do, you just have to ignore it, move on and block them if it gets to you. It's unfortunately just part of sport these days."

Carla Suarez Navarro quit social media after receiving 'scary threats' from gamblers. Photo: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports.

But in the women's game, such online threats carry far more of a sinister undertone given the persistent problems many player have faced with stalkers, and the cloud which still lingers from the fateful day in Hamburg in 1993 when Monica Seles was stabbed on court by a crazed fan. Since then, Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Martina Hingis, Sania Mirza and numerous high profile female players have been forced to have bodyguards following repeated harassment.

World No. 12 Carla Suarez Navarro quit using social media following 'scary threats' she received from gamblers, while Czech world No. 26 Barbora Strycova, admits to being of two minds about keeping her Facebook account.

Advertisement

"I had people write to me after a loss and say that they were going to kill my family, and then kill me afterwards and burn my body in petrol, because I'd lost them money," she said. "These people are crazy so sometimes you're really worried what might happen. After that I was wondering whether it was really worth having Facebook, but today's world is so orientated around social media, it would be hard to live without it."

And while male players like Pella and Martin have never been confronted by angry gamblers in person, Strycova knows all too well how easy it is for someone to track her down.

"I won the WTA tournament in Quebec back in 2011 and during the week, some random guy managed to get my hotel room number, called me in my room and told me, 'I'm gonna see you tomorrow' in a really strange voice," she said. "I was there alone, so I had to have a security guard and bodyguards with me for the rest of the week. It was really scary. I've also had a guy who's been messaging me on Facebook for six years saying that I'm his girlfriend, he loves me and we're gonna get married."

Strycova laughed as she related these anecdotes, but she also said there's a certain helplessness to the situation which makes it particularly unnerving.

"The WTA try to help and they have people which we can report these things to, but they can't really do much about it," she said. "I want to be able to use social media, so now every time I lose I just don't open Facebook for a couple of days. There will be messages from people saying they want to kill me and they're going to hurt me so bad I won't play again 'till Christmas, and you don't want to see that when you're sad or upset. It's not nice and it can be really scary, especially if you're traveling alone. But these are stupid people and we can't change that."