When I wrote my last blog post about Tennys Sandgren’s heinous abuse of social media, I introduced it on twitter saying that the mainstream media wouldn’t talk about it, but that we must.
I was wrong.
Over the next few days, I was shown that the media would talk about it. Did talk about it. And indeed, couldn’t bury it. So how did that happen?
First, it happened because tennis twitter is full of amazing and frankly spiteful bitches who do not forget. Those who already knew of Sandgren’s social media activity began screen-capping and sharing the worst of what he said (really, we were drowning in data here). I will avoid the shout-out to the one person who did the most work, only because as I was doxxed, I don’t want to put her in the way of the lovely backers of Sandgren who have spent the last two days threatening me through my work email and tweeting me instructions to suck dick.
The well-connected, international world that is tennis twitter spread the word so efficiently that by the time Sandgren got to presser after beating Dominic Thiem, a question about his social media use was waiting for him. The question was asked, notably, not by an American journalist, but by British journalist Simon Briggs. Bravo Simon. We salute you.
The next 24 hours was full of either American journalists finding their backbone quickly, or searching for it while fretting about how to write about Sandgren without losing their access to his friends like John Isner. Isner, meanwhile, was busy trying to destroy my credibility by tweeting a link to my blog. A little tip, John. Writers love it when you use your social media platform of a quarter million followers to share their work. Enjoy the beatdown you got in your replies.
Sandgren made life a lot easier for everyone to find where they stood when he deleted all his tweets, leaving only the link to the complimentary article I wrote about his play before I followed him on social media. This move seemed creepy and stalky, particularly as the tweet contained my name and probably made it easier for me to get doxxed.
Of course, by then it was too late. When Sandgren stepped on court to have his ass handed to him in straight sets by Hyeon Chung, Serena Williams laid down perhaps the greatest two word subtweet of all time.
Nobody who was following tennis at this point misunderstood what Serena meant. She provided the clear sign that Sandgren’s tweets had been measured, weighed, and found wanting at the very height of American tennis. Meanwhile the media rightly noted that Sandgren’s washing of his twitter history was a gutless and self-serving gesture. So when Sandgren sat in presser reading his prepared statement condemning the media and championing his own right to speak, he metaphorically shot himself in the foot. If he had literally shot himself in the foot, it might have done less damage to his sponsorship prospects.
While Sandgren’s buddies from the Challenger tour were weighing in with tweets in support of Tennys’ good guy-ness, Serena Williams decided to go from subtweet to tweet:
Tennis, writ large, now had to respond, and it did. Martina Navratilova (of course) led the charge from the podium on Tennis Channel, backed by Jim Courier, Captain of the Davis Cup team, who seems to have quickly decided what side of history he wanted to be on.
The next day, John McEnroe, much to our shock and surprise, came through with the spike. Loved this.
Game over for Tennys, but not for tennis. If American tennis wants to make sure that this never happens again, it’s going to take more than the wizened ones speaking down to one bad actor from on high.
While various idiotic takes were musing through the question of whether sport and politics should mix, the larger question was missed: Why did this social media mess happen in tennis but not in other sports? You have no analog of Tennys Sandgren in the NFL, NBA, MBL or NHL. I’m not saying you don’t have white athletes in those sports who don’t share his views. Of course you do. But they can’t get away with tweeting pizzagate conspiracies.
That John McEnroe can call himself “the self appointed commissioner of tennis” brings up the problem that there is no actual commissioner of tennis, an international sport where athletes essentially self-fund and can’t afford PR help until they break through to the top. The institutional structure of tennis is extremely weak, making it difficult to corral any bad actors. If we want to avoid another round of this, we have to look at American tennis’ structures for repair.
The juniors circuit is obviously the first place to start schooling aspiring pros in how to use social media. We keep thinking the next generation might “naturally” be more savvy users of the Internet, but we see time and again that is not the case.
The USTA player development program is also clearly culpable here. Shouldn’t part of player development involve helping them navigate the profession they are entering without endangering their own careers?
How is it that “ATP University” has failed to school their students in social media usage? How have they not educated them that twitter is forever, and if they want the endorsements, they need to appeal to a wide audience? Could they perhaps teach players that the First Amendment guarantees (hopefully) only protection against government retribution, but not consequences from any other entity, be that fan, media, fellow player, or corporate sponsor?
These are now American tennis’ problems to wrestle with. Whether Tennys Sandgren goes on to win a grand slam or disappears into obscurity doesn’t matter. It takes a village to enable a racist. It will take all of American tennis to correct the course for the long run.
But that doesn’t mean tennis twitter can’t take a moment to bask in this well-deserved win. Tennys had to take the shit down, Isner is cowering in silence, American pros have been put on notice, and sponsors are no doubt a little more wary than they were. That’s huge, and it wouldn’t have happened without the dedicated fans who love their sport and want to see it continue to thrive. I raise a glass to you all tonight.