Five Infamous On-Court Altercations

John McEnroe during on-court altercation

In the wake of the pushing, shoving and “Shut Up!”-ing by Andy Murray and Fabio Fognini in Shanghai earlier this week, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, looks back at five other on-court bust-ups that were far more spectacular.

It is a testament to Andy Murray’s essential niceness and fundamental decency that his altercation in Shanghai this week with Fabio Fognini was one of the rare occasions that Murray lost his temper with an opponent, though he was quick to point out he’d never previously encountered such behaviour from a fellow pro. But in the history of the sport there have been a number of rather more notable on-court altercations than Murray’s clash with Fognini.

5. Nick Kyrgios versus Stan Wawrinka (2015 Rogers Cup)

It is probably true that the worst of this tussle between Kyrgios and Wawrinka apparently took place in the locker-room afterwards, with Kyrgios’ brother, Christos, initially tweeting (before deleting) that the Swiss had squared up to the Australian. But things certainly began on the court, with a courtside microphone picking up Kyrgios’ comment to Wawrinka that “[Thanasi] Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend. Sorry to tell you that, mate.” Although Kyrgios subsequently apologised for the comment, it was undoubtedly appalling and it was frankly unsurprising that Wawrinka reacted as he did when he became aware of it.

Of course, Kyrgios has been involved in numerous on-court incidents since, including earlier this year in Rome, when he was ejected from the Italian Open for hurling a chair onto the court in frustration. But nothing else he has ever done has come close to the sheer lowness (in every sense) of his comment about Wawrinka and his then partner, the Croatian player, Donna Vedic. Wawrinka and Vedic apparently split earlier this summer, but the bad taste caused by Kyrgios’ comments about their relationship lingers.
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4. David Nalbandian versus the advertising hoarding (2012 Queen’s Club Championships)

Tennis, at least outside of Wimbledon, is one of the most commercially driven sports, with advertising logos and messages to be found almost anywhere at a tournament, from the players’ clothes to the ubiquitous advertising hoardings that surround a court. So David Nalbandian really should have known better than to kick out at one such hoarding at the Queen’s Club in 2012, especially when it collapsed under the force of his foot and injured the unlucky line judge sitting inside it, leading to the Argentinian being disqualified from the Final he was playing in and the title being awarded to his opponent, Marin Cilic.

To his credit, Nalbandian immediately apologised for his action and took complete responsibility for it, claiming that he had been unaware that the advertising “box” would give way so easily.  “I know that I made a mistake, 100%,” he said. “If I have to pay for what I did, it’s perfect, I agree. I made a mistake and I apologise and I feel very sorry for the guy. I didn’t want to do that.”

However, he also pointed out that it was normal for tennis players to lose their temper when they missed a shot or made an unforced error, as the likes of Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev have reminded everyone in 2019. Nevertheless, after the Nalbandian incident, it is safe to say that most players will stick to using their hands and throwing their rackets about, rather than using their feet and kicking out at any of the on-court apparatus or advertising boards.
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3. Jeff and Benedicte Tarango versus Umpire Brune Rebeuh (1995 Wimbledon)

These days, Jeff Tarango is a widely respected commentator and pundit, but nearly a quarter of a century ago, at the 1995 Wimbledon Championships, he was anything but. Instead, he was rightly condemned for his comments about an umpire, France’s Bruno Rebeuh, who he clashed with and then accused of being “one of the most corrupt officials in the game”. However, that was nothing compared to the actions of Tarango’s then wife, Benedicte, who, despite being French herself, slapped Rebeuh in the face as she, too, left the court.

The Tarango incident is a classic example of how one misjudgement (albeit a very serious one) can permanently place a cloud over a player’s whole career. Just as Nalbandian will probably be most remembered for his infelicitous kick-out at an advertising hoarding (rather than, for example, making the Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final 10 years earlier), so Tarango’s name is forever associated with his actions on the normally sedate lawns of London SW19.
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2. Serena Williams versus Umpire Carlos Ramos (2018 US Open)

The fact that there are four men on this list of five is a reminder, if it were needed, that such outbursts are rather more common in the men’s game. Nevertheless, there have been instances in the history of tennis when women players have proved that they are every bit as capable as their male counterparts of completely losing their cool. And there is no better (or rather worse) example of that than Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open Women’s Singles Final.

Williams took umbrage with Ramos after he penalised her for receiving on-court coaching from Patrick Mouratoglou. Mouratoglou admitted to the charge after the match, but during it Williams seemed to regard the code violation as the most personal of insults by Ramos, and retaliated by calling him a “liar” and a “thief”. At the time, it seemed extraordinary, even if Williams had been involved in other controversial incidents at her home Slam earlier in her career.

Now, more than a year on, it can be seen as perhaps the first evidence of the immense mental strain that Williams is under as she attempts to match Margaret Court’s all-time record for Women’s Singles Major wins of 24. And the fact that she has now lost four Major finals in a row as she attempts to match Court is unlikely to make her calm down completely any time soon.
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1. John McEnroe versus virtually everyone else throughout his career

Of course only one man could top this list and that is the great John McEnroe. But for almost the entirety of his playing career, he was “SuperBrat” rather than “SuperMac”, as his incessant – indeed, seemingly unending – arguing with umpires, opponents and fans made him truly infamous, not just in tennis but in the wider culture.

That was why the superb documentary film on McEnroe that was released this year, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, was so revealing. As I wrote in my review, it reminded old and new fans alike of just how insanely driven McEnroe was, which he attributed, at least in part, to the coaching (both in tennis and in life) that he had received from his father, John McEnroe Senior, who was a successful lawyer and often behaved as if he were permanently in court and arguing a case.

Nevertheless, for all the feuding that McEnroe Junior engaged in with almost everyone else he encountered in tennis (the only exception was Bjorn Borg, who the younger McEnroe genuinely seemed to admire, or even look up to), the approach of McEnroe Senior seemed to work. And the ultimate proof of that is revealed at the end of John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, which concludes with the barely believable statistic that in his annus mirabilis of 1984 McEnroe’s win rate for the whole season was 96.5%, which even the “Three Gods” of 21st century tennis (Federer, Nadal and Djokovic) have never come close to matching. So perhaps there was some merit in McEnroe “losing it” so often, after all, because in 1984 at least he hardly lost anything else.

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