Should tennis players be fined for lack of effort? Not everyone agrees


The first round match between Australia’s Bernard Tomic and France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. (Source: Reuters)

By Ben Rothenberg

Anna Tatishvili’s tennis comeback looked merciless even before she took the court last month. After losing 19 months of her career to a persistent ankle injury, she returned at the French Open and learned that she had drawn an opponent nobody wanted to face in the first round: the No. 29 seed, Maria Sakkari, who led the women’s tour with 12 clay-court wins heading into the tournament.

It was no surprise then that Tatishvili lost badly, 6-0, 6-1. The shock came the next day when she went to collect her check for appearing in the first round.

She was directed to the head referee’s office, she said, and informed that her payment of 46,000 euros ($51,500) was being withheld because of her poor performance.

“They didn’t even say hi to me; they said, ‘Your account is frozen,’” said Tatishvili, a 29-year-old American. “They talked to me like I’m some kind of criminal or something. It was so disrespectful. I even cried.”

Four weeks later, at Wimbledon, Bernard Tomic was also fined the amount of his prize money — 45,000 pounds ($56,600) — after his 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 first-round loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Tomic and Tatishvili were the first players to lose 100% of their pay for violating a policy in the Grand Slam rule book, introduced for the 2018 season, that requires players in first-round matches to “perform to the required professional standard.”

Those who don’t, in the opinion of the tournament referee, are “subject to a fine of up to first-round prize money.”

The differing circumstances of the two cases reflect the subjective nature of the rule, whose policing can have severe consequences in a sport in which most players struggle to break even financially.

Both penalized players have appealed, and their opponents have said they disagree with the penalties. Sakkari called Tatishvili’s “superunfair.”

The rule was intended to prevent injured players from competing in Grand Slam events just to claim prize money, which has been rising steeply for even first-round losers in recent years. It was prompted by a rash of players retiring midway through first-round matches at majors because of preexisting injuries.

The trend reached its nadir at Wimbledon in 2017, when the opponents of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer halted back-to-back matches on Centre Court after less than an hour, shortchanging spectators.

A carrot was offered to players who withdrew before play began: half the first-round prize money. The stick: harsh fines if the referee decided a player should not have taken the court.

Two players were fined under the new rule last year: Mischa Zverev, who was docked 75% of his prize money after retiring because of illness halfway through his opening match at the Australian Open, and Peter Gojowczyk, who lost about 60% of his pay after he retired from his first-round match at the French Open with a hip injury.

Since the rule took effect, the number of midmatch retirements in the first round has dropped, and the number of pretournament withdrawals has increased.

This year, though, tournament referees have punished seemingly healthy players who have completed matches but turned in underwhelming performances.

Tomic had no injury, but the referee determined that his effort against Tsonga had been substandard. The match lasted only 58 minutes and featured Tomic playing in a characteristically languid style, often at a walking pace. Even though Tomic lost quickly, there was a stretch when he won 16 consecutive points on his serve.

“I think I played as best as I could,” said Tomic, a 26-year-old Australian ranked 96th. “It’s just I played terrible.”