In a familiar scene that finally took the wrong turn the tennis world had been dreading, a ball swatted in frustration by a struggling tennis player bulleted straight to the face of the chair umpire instead of harmlessly bouncing elsewhere, leaving the official with a black eye, the player defaulted and the tennis world in desperate need of reevaluating the expression of on-court discontent.
It all happened in a Davis Cup tie when 17-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov hit an unforced error to hand opponent Kyle Edmund a break. Annoyed, Shapovalov then took an extra ball from his pocket and slapped it away, as hundreds of players have done over the years. This time though, the ball didn’t flutter away to some safe part of the court. It went straight at the chair umpire’s eye.
The contact immediately disqualified Shapovalov. Umpire Arnaud Gabas immediately had swelling and bruising under his eye and was eventually taken to an Ottawa hospital for evaluation. Before that happened, Shapovalov went over to check on Gabas and appeared distraught.
The teenager, pegged as Canada’s next tennis star, issued a heartfelt apology on Monday.
“Last night at my Davis Cup match I did something very unprofessional and inexcusable. […] There is no excuse for this behavior and I take full responsibility for my action. I’m very sorry to Mr. Gabas to whom I apologised in person. […] I feel ashamed of my unprofessional behavior and will accept any consequences of my actions.”
In that classy statement, the 17-year-old also apologized to his teammates and fans.
Tennis has been flirting with this sort of disaster for years. Moments like this – a player hitting a ball in frustration, casually aiming for a net or wall or just intending for a soft hit – happen in every match. The laws of probability dictated that it wouldn’t be long before someone was put in danger by a tennis ball that wasn’t aimed and hit with force by a professional. Player have come close to hitting line judges, ball kids and fans before, but never with the force of this shot and never to someone so important in the match.
AP/The Canadian Press
Shapovalov needs a small suspension, not because he did it on purpose but because the ITF, ATP and WTA need to discourage this type of behavior. Think of how a kid with a black eye would play at Wimbledon or a chair umpire with a bloody nose at the U.S. Open? Tennis can market itself on the fact that it’s a sport for both the athlete and the thinker. Beating up chair umpires isn’t quite the look it’s going for.