Special report on tennis's social media abuse epidemic: 'We all get death threats after every match - it's normal'

Charlie Eccleshare
The Telegraph
Tennis players, like Britain's Heather Watson, have become a target for brutal social media abuse, mainly from disgruntled gamblers - Getty Images AsiaPac
Tennis players, like Britain's Heather Watson, have become a target for brutal social media abuse, mainly from disgruntled gamblers - Getty Images AsiaPac

In the final part of a series on the realities of professional tennis, Charlie Eccleshare examines the impact of gambling and spiralling social media abuse.

The then world No 100 Richel Hogenkamp was struggling with the disappointment of a narrow defeat to Ana Konjuh at the 's-Hertogenbosch tournament in her native Holland last June. She logged on to Instagram to catch up with her messages.

One jumped out at her. It read: “I hope everyone in your family will die from brain cancer. I hope someone will kill you with 2 bullets! I lost $1500 because of you f****** bitch. U had everything you f****** machine for UE [unforced errors]. If I ever find you I will break your lrgs (sic) f****** ugly s***. You are the ugliest person I ever saw! F****** ugly fat scum.”

Shocking? Sickening? What is remarkable about Hogenkamp's story is that it is remarkably unremarkable. 

Welcome to a constant reality for professional tennis players, with the proliferation of in-game betting now a lightning rod for social media abuse from, in the main, disgruntled gamblers.

Of the 20 players that Telegraph Sport spoke to about the issue of social media abuse, all agreed that after every defeat they are subjected to abuse, almost always including at least one death threat. And the main reason? Busted bets.

<span>The Dutch player Richel Hogenkamp has received social media abuse and death threats</span> <span>Credit: GETTY IMAGES </span>
The Dutch player Richel Hogenkamp has received social media abuse and death threats Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Gambling in tennis has become a huge business - witness the International Tennis Federation (ITF) striking a massive £52 million deal with Swiss-based data and betting company Sportradar in December 2015. The figure was - give or take - a 500 per cent increase on the company’s previous deal with the ITF.

The deal sees the ITF provide Sportradar with its data for matches at all levels - from Futures events (the lowest rung of the professional circuit) to the Davis Cup. Tennis betting is increasing all the time, and is now the third most bet on sport globally, behind football and horse racing. In 2017, between £26 and £30 billion was bet globally on tennis, according to Isle of Man-based Global Betting and Gaming Consultants.

Along with the growth in match fixing, one consequence has been the exponential rise in social media abuse. Some players can laugh it off; others find it distressing. A few have stopped checking social media channels because they know what awaits. 

After a defeat at the ATP World Tour Finals in November, the American doubles legend Bob Bryan told Telegraph Sport: “Abuse? Death threats? It’s every match. If I go check my phone now there will be some crazy gamblers that are upset with me.”

The Croatian Ivan Dodig, a former world No 29, said: “Everybody is getting death threats. It’s normal. It’s every tournament. I get thousands of messages like this on Instagram and Facebook. I just ignore it now.”

You never know, if he's crazy enough to say something to me on social media, he's crazy enough to see me in the street and do something

You never know, if he's crazy enough to say something to me on social media, he's crazy enough to see me in the street and do something

Not everyone is so phlegmatic. World No 18 Madison Keys has become an outspoken critic of social media abuse, and is an ambassador for the anti-bullying programme FearlesslyGiRL. Last year, she responded on Twitter to some of the horrific racist abuse she suffers online.

The American Donald Young, meanwhile, felt compelled to respond to a tweet in August that said, "You’ll never win a major title cuz you SUCK. ‘Typical n***** with his drama seeking theatrics". 

Other players, including the Australian Sam Groth, have complained to the social media companies when - as well as themselves - their family members have been targeted for abuse.

One danger is players start to believe what they are reading, and logging on to social media becomes a form of self-flagellation. Following a devastating defeat at Wimbledon in 2016, Britain's No 2 Heather Watson admitted that: “After a loss like this, I’m so angry with myself, I feel like I need to punish myself. So I just went on Twitter. There was plenty [of abuse]."

And where death threats would once be dismissed as merely pathetic trolling by so-called 'keyboard warriors', they are now seen as increasingly worrying - according to Jamie Murray's doubles partner Bruno Soares, who sits on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Player Council.

'If anyone is at risk of depression then tour life is going to amplify it for sure'

"It’s a serious issue," says Soares. "The Player Council took a big look at it in 2017. When it started, it was a lot of abuse from fake accounts but we’ve had a lot of abuse recently from normal accounts, and this is pretty scary. John Isner had a death threat in Paris from a guy with a big social media following so I think this is a legitimate crime and abuse. Obviously, John was pretty shaken up by it.  

"When it comes from regular accounts and you see guys with thousands of followers, you know it’s someone who’s p***** because they lost money. And you never know, if he’s crazy enough to say something to me on social media, he’s crazy enough to see me in the street and do something."

The Dutch doubles specialist Jean-Julien Rojer added: "Nothing has happened yet with threats being carried out. But it’s not nice when you’ve had a threat from, say, a Croatian fan and then you’re going to Croatia to play a tournament the next week."

Or as the American world No 44 Ryan Harrison puts it: "No-one wants to be looking over their shoulder because they missed a forehand."

As well as physical threats, the psychological impact of abuse can be huge, especially if it highlights a player's flaw. One female player ranked around the world’s top 100 explained: "Let's say you double faulted on a huge point in the third set and that was a turning point in the match. They'll say something like ‘you shouldn’t even be a pro tennis player if you can’t serve on a big point’. That is precisely what you were already thinking.

<span>Britain's Kyle Edmund shared some of the abuse he suffers on Facebook last year</span> <span>Credit: Facebook </span>
Britain's Kyle Edmund shared some of the abuse he suffers on Facebook last year Credit: Facebook

"That can start creating mental hurdles for you. So maybe in your next match you're worried if you can rely on your serve and then when you miss one you think 'Jesus, I shouldn’t be a professional tennis player'.”

Possibly more than any other sport, tennis players are obsessed with creating a positive atmosphere around themselves. They want people with them who can stop them from obsessing over negative elements of their game. Abuse on social media can instantly undo that hard work.

So, what can be done? Most players are at a loss other than to suggest stop checking your phone. But that exasperates lower-ranked players who need a social media presence to build their brand, and secure precious sponsorship.

If players want to avoid a social media blackout, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram advocate using their tools for blocking those who use offensive language. Settings can be tweaked to prevent users from receiving interactions from people they don't know - though that again penalises fringe players seeking to build a profile. 

The fact that you can read messages that say 'I hope you and your entire family die', and not be surprised is pretty crazy I guess

The fact that you can read messages that say 'I hope you and your entire family die', and not be surprised is pretty crazy I guess

Completely eradicating social media abuse in tennis is an impossible task, just as it is in any walk of life. Aggressive and threatening behaviour on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram appears here to stay. 

The focus of the tennis authorities has been on preparing players for how to best handle the abuse, and making sure they know how to report it.

The ATP, which governs the men’s tour, the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) and the ITF (the Futures circuit's governing body) all urge their players to report abuse. 

Depending on the severity of the case, players are instructed to make reports to at least one of: their player association, the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), the social media platform, or local authorities if necessary. Once reports have been made, the TIU works directly with social media organisations to have offending accounts closed down, and contacts law enforcement agencies in extreme cases. The TIU identified this kind of abuse as a "growing concern" in its most recent annual review, and offers a compulsory education programme for players.

The ATP, WTA and ITF also provide compulsory education and welfare programmes on how to deal with this type of abuse. 

The WTA's Senior Director of Athlete Assistance, Kathy Martin, who oversees their education programme, says: "I highlight to the players that they need to start thinking about this topic because the effect of social media abuse can be extremely disturbing."

Special report: Cheating claims, Christmas McDonald's and throwing matches to catch flights - the reality of pro tennis away from the elite

The social media organisations themselves, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, rely on users making reports for malevolent activity to be properly investigated. The problem is that tennis players feel they can't report every threat because they are often receiving hundreds at a time.

There are those, including British 19-year-old Jay Clarke, the journeyman Brit Marcus Willis, and 17-year-old Canadian rising star Felix Auger Aliassime, who believe social media abuse could be drastically reduced for lower-ranked players by banning gambling at Futures events.

They argue that it’s one thing for the sport’s stars to receive abuse from disgruntled gamblers, but it’s an unnecessary added burden for those who are barely making a living from tennis to be getting it as well. They also question how these gamblers even choose who to bet on, given that there are barely any spectators at Futures events and most are not live streamed.  

What players face after a tough loss

A betting ban would also go a long way towards tackling corruption since it is at these lower-level events where the vast majority of match-fixing occurs, with players making such paltry sums that they can be tempted to take a bribe.

But the ITF said that: "If there is to be a betting market on professional tennis, we believe it is preferable to have a regulated market rather than an unregulated one. Providing authorised data feeds helps ensure there will be a regulated market."

The issue of gambling at low-level tournaments will be addressed by an imminent report being drawn up by the Independent Review Panel (IRP), commissioned by tennis' governing bodies in the wake of the 2016 match-fixing scandal.  

But whatever the verdict, the ever-increasing volume of social media use and tennis gambling means abuse towards players is an intractable problem - and a growing one. 

Case study, Jay Clarke

Jay Clarke is a 19-year-old from Derby, who rose up the rankings last year to a career high of No 219 in December. He regularly receives racist messages on social media

I get social media abuse, normally including death threats, after every match I lose.

A lot of black guys get racist abuse straight away, like Dustin Brown gets a lot more than me because people bet a lot more on his matches than they do on mine. When I can, I speak to the other black players about it.

Every single player gets messages like these but race is always the first thing they go to to with me. It must all be to do with gambling. That’s the only thing I can think of because they don’t know me or really care if I win or lose.

<span>Jay Clarke shared some of the abuse he gets on social media last year</span> <span>Credit: Twitter </span>
Jay Clarke shared some of the abuse he gets on social media last year Credit: Twitter

People always send me pictures of monkeys but I've had way worse than that. When I was in the States, they sent one to my mum about me when I was losing a match. I don’t want to repeat what they said.

It's one thing if I get it but going to my family as well, that's pretty bad. I've made reports to the social media companies. Someone on Twitter wrote to the college of one troll who abused my family.

I’m not sure what else can be done. Social media is so open and obviously it's a great way of attracting sponsors and stuff like that. Plus for people trying to follow your progress, you don’t want to have a closed profile because then they can’t see it. It’s one of those things - maybe it will get better, but it’s tough.

At the start it was difficult because I was thinking ‘it’s just a tennis match’, but now I expect it. The fact that you can read messages that say 'I hope you and your entire family die', and not be surprised is pretty crazy I guess.

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