When you think about tennis, you might imagine a sport fueled by camaraderie, good sportsmanship, and a spirit of civility. You might even be thinking of joining in the fun by getting started on some tennis lessons or learning about the basics of the sport.
But just because tennis is a wonderful game, doesn’t mean it’s free from scandals. There have been countless scandals in the tennis world, both big and small – ranging from drug test failures to attempted murder. We’re going to look at some of the biggest scandals that have rocked the world of tennis!
What is a tennis scandal?
To start with, what do we mean by scandal?
A scandal is any event or action that causes public outrage. Sometimes scandal is intentional in the media, like how a lot of reality TV is designed to be particularly scandalous. Most of the time, though, scandal is to be avoided. And in a professional sport, that’s certainly the case. Athletes are often personal heroes to their fans, so it can be highly upsetting when they act in a way that people find to be distasteful. It can lead to a loss of fans, or, in some cases, the loss of an entire athletic career.
There are lots of different kinds of scandals in the world of tennis. Match fixing, where a player intentionally loses a game so that gamblers can make money, is a big scandal. Failing a drug test can also cause a big scandal for a player. Sometimes, there has even been violence on the court!
But, as we’ll see in this article, a lot of the biggest tennis scandals happen a far way away from a racquet. What tennis players do in their personal and public lives can create a lasting effect on their reputation and their legacy.
This can include things like evading taxes, speeding, or having affairs.
Scandals Outside of the Law
Let’s start with the scandals that have involved breaking the law!
A good tennis instructor will help teach you the rules of the game. Unfortunately, none of these players seemed to have someone to teach them the rules of society. After all, being an incredible tennis player doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be an incredible human being.
Bernard Tomic Speeding Incident
Australia’s Bernard Tomic seemed to have everything – money, an incredible tennis career, and an amazing car. At only 20 years old, he thought he could get away with having a little too much fun with that car.
But in 2013, in Queensland, Police pulled Tomic over after they caught him going 78 km/h in a 60 km/h zone. Talk about reckless! In addition to a ticket, Tomic ended up losing his license over it. After all, he was already in trouble over previous traffic offenses.
He might’ve been upset about the whole affair, but Tomic is lucky. When you’re racing at those speeds, losing your license is one of the better things that can go wrong.
Wayne Odesnik Smuggling
Not surprisingly, taking performance-enhancing drugs is a bad idea if you’re a professional tennis player. We’ll get into a whole section of prominent players who’ve tested positive on drug tests, but for right now let’s just say that messing with drugs can easily get you a ban from playing professional tennis.
Wayne Odesnik is a little different from other players who’ve gotten bans for testing positive for drugs. In 2010, he received a ban when he was caught smuggling Human Growth Hormone into Australia. At the time, he denied he was using it. But eventually in 2015 he did test positive for steroids, which effectively ended his career.
Boris Becker Goes to Jail
There are a lot of reasons to start taking tennis lessons. You can get in great shape, make friends, and learn the love of a new sport. In fact, there are more benefits to playing tennis than we can list here – but you can look for yourself at this article.
Of all the reasons people take up this fun sport, not many are thinking about money. Not a lot of players have their eyes on the US Open, for instance. However, for elite players at the top of their game, there is a lot of money that can be made on the court. Prize money, corporate sponsorships, government funding – there are a lot of ways that a great player can make a healthy living off of tennis. For instance, Serena Williams has often been the highest paid female athlete in the world.
Unfortunately, all that money can sometimes mean that they get greedy. Some players will even break the law to make money.
If you’re looking for controversial tennis players, look no farther than Boris Becker.
Boris Becker - Tax Evasion
There’s no denying that Becker is an incredible tennis player. He’s a six time Grand Slam champion with 49 singles titles and 15 doubles titles. When he won Wimbledon the first time, he was the youngest male player ever to do so, and the first to do it unseeded. But, as he found out, just because he’s a tennis legend doesn’t mean the law doesn’t apply to him.
In Germany in 2002, a court in Munich found Becker guilty of tax evasion – to the tune of 1.7 million euros. His punishment included a two-year suspended prison sentence, and a fine of 3 hundred thousand euros.
Boris Becker - Hiding Assets
For all that, though, Becker seemed to hit some financial trouble. After he retired in 1999, the money stopped rolling in. He owed over $50 million dollars, including millions owed on a luxury estate he owned in Spain. Unable to pay it off, he filed for bankruptcy in 2017. Of course, there’s no shame in filing for bankruptcy. The problem, though, is that he tried to hide his assets, so that they wouldn’t be claimed.
Becker tried to hide almost 3 million dollars in assets. For violating the United Kingdom’s Insolvency Act, Becker has been jailed for 2.5 years.
Becker’s Personal Scandal
Money isn’t the only place where Becker has caused a scandal. In his personal life, he caused a stir for cheating on his wife, Barbara Feltus. To make matters worse, he cheated on her while she was in the hospital with labour pains. His liason with a Russian model ultimately resulted in the conception of his daughter. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that both of his first two marriages ended in divorce.
Nick Kyrgios - Maybe the Most Controversial Player
Australian Nick Kyrgios has been the center of controversy before. He once yelled at an audience member. Recently, he made headlines for wearing red to Wimbledon, which has an all-white dress code. He was once disqualified for throwing a chair. He’s also received a fine for yelling at a ref for not disqualifying his opponent, Tsitsipas, after Tsitsipas volleyed a ball into the stands.
However, all of these scandals may be taking a back seat so something much more odious. Kyrgios has been charged with assaulting his ex-girlfriend, Chiara Passari. This is recent news, and no legal judgment has yet been passed as to his innocence or guilt.
Drug Test Failures:
As with all global professional sports, professional tennis players are tested for drugs. And, as with all sports, those drug tests don’t always come back negative. Any discussion of tennis scandals would be incomplete without mentioning drug scandals. Here’s a short list of some of the major players who have failed drug tests.
By 1997, there was no doubt that Andre Agassi was one of the best tennis players in the world. In 1996 he won gold at the Olympics, and that’s just one of his many impressive titles, including 8 Grand Slam titles. Sadly, even the best players can run afoul of the rules.
Agassi failed a drug test. To keep from being banned, he wrote a letter to the ATP, in which he claimed that a friend had spiked his drink. The ATP was lenient with Agassi, and rather than give him a ban, they only gave him a warning.
So what really happened? In his autobiography, Agassi says that he had lied to the ATP – there was no friend who spiked his drink. The truth is that Agassi had taken crystal meth.
In 2017, British tennis player Dan Evans’ year seemed to be off to a good start. However, that promising year came to an immediate halt when he tested positive for drugs. In April, he failed a drug test, which found him positive for cocaine. Evans defended himself, saying that although there was cocaine in his system, it didn’t mean that he was currently using the drug. According to Evans, he had previously taken cocaine outside of the tennis season, and kept his remaining supply of the drug next to his medication. For that reason, he says that his legal meds got contaminated by his illegal drugs.
Whether or not Evans was telling the truth, he was slapped with a one year ban from competing.
It was a rough year for Evans. He talked to a sports psychologist, who said Evans was one of the angriest people he’d ever spoken to. A lot of that anger was directed at himself for being banned from tennis. Nowadays, he’s playing tennis again, and says he isn’t as hard on himself as he used to be.
Drug use allegations also seep into the world of womens’ tennis. With Maria Sharapova, though, it’s a little more nuanced than an athlete taking crystal meth. In 2006, Sharapova started taking a prescription medication, Meldonium. In 2016, the drug was banned in tennis because it was thought to have performance-enhancing qualities. Sharapova tested positive for it and received a 15 month suspension.
Sharapova has since denied that the drug enhanced her athletic performance in any way, and that she was solely taking it for medical reasons.
In 2007, Martina Hingis failed a drug test after Wimbledon, which found she had used cocaine.
This makes her the second person on our list to use cocaine while they were at the peak of their performance – is that how top athletes celebrate?
Hingis’ drug use got her a 2 year ban from the WTA. When she did return, she was back on the top of her game.
Wayne Odesnik got in trouble in 2010 for smuggling Human Growth Hormone into Australia. Odesnik claimed that although he was in possession of it, he never used it, and hadn’t ever tested positive for the use of the hormone. Nonetheless, he received a temporary ban from the ATP.
It was in 2015 that things escalated. Odesnik failed a drug test, testing positive for several banned substances including steroids. This time, he wasn’t given a ban of a few months. He was banned from playing for 15 years.
At 29 years old, Odesnik decided he didn’t want to be hoping to rejoin the professional league at the age of 44. Not surprisingly, he announced his retirement.
Violence on the Court
Tennis isn’t what one considers to be a violent sport. It’s a zero-contact sport, that is generally associated with a degree of decorum and civility.
However, human beings are still human beings, even when they’re on a tennis court. It isn’t common, but the world of professional tennis has witnessed some incidents of violence over the years.
David Nalbandian Kicking a Line Judge
Argentinian player David Nalbandian found himself disqualified from the Aegon Championships after one fateful kick. Frustrated by a play, he kicked an advertising board that was next to the court. Directly behind the board was sitting the line judge, Andrew MacDougall.
It’s automatic in tennis that an act of violence results in a forfeit of the game. Directly after the game, Nalbandian was given an opportunity to apologize. He gave a half-apology, saying that he was frustrated, and that it was unfair to disqualify him based on a mistake.
Choking Under Pressure - the Koubek Incident
Tennis has a long history as “the gentleman’s sport”, and it has a tradition of good manners, etiquette, and civility. All of these qualities will be encouraged by a good tennis coach. For that reason, the slightest bit of physical violence, intimidation, or even yelling can lead to an immediate disqualification. It’s very rare to ever see fights among professional tennis players.
Even so, violence does sometimes happen. One such time was at a tennis match in 2010.
Two Austrian players, Stefan Koubek and Daniel Koellerer were playing a match in the Austrian league. During the changeover, Koeller was sitting down, and Koubek went to talk to him. The two men exchanged words, and something Koellerer said upset Koubek. Suddenly, Koubek reached out and grabbed his opponent’s neck, choking him and pushing him back in his seat.
The incident didn’t last very long, but it ended the game right then and there. Koubek was disqualified for his violent behavior. What’s strange, though, is that the crowd didn’t seem too happy with Koeller, either! After his victory was announced, he grabbed his bags and walked off the court, and a large part of the audience booed loudly at him.
Stabbed in the Back - the Attack on Monica Seles
In the early 1990s, Yugoslavian player Monica Seles was a force to be reckoned with. In 1990 she became the youngest player to win the French Open, at a mere 16 years and 6 months old. That’s a record she holds to this day!
She was even seeming like a real contender to challenge Steffi Graf. The two players played against each other several times in the early 1990s, and Seles was picking up steam. In 1991, the tennis star was the number 1 ranking women’s tennis player.
However, the rivalry between Graf and Seles ended up having terrible consequences. In April of 1993, Seles was playing a match against Magdalena Maleeva in Hamburg. During a break, a man obsessed with Steffi Graf stole onto the court and stabbed Seles in the back with a knife.
Seles was taken to the hospital, and her assailant was arrested. While she did physically recover, she didn’t compete again until 2 years later. While she returned with some success – even winning the 1996 Australian Open – there’s no telling what legendary career she might have had, were it not for the violence of a man.
Is Tennis a Fixed Sport?
As with all popular sports in the world, tennis isn’t just a source of entertainment for the general public. It’s also a chance to win big for people betting on the matches. Whether informally between friends, or through large online gambling sites, a lot of money trades hands over who might win or lose a match.
To make money by betting on a game, you need a combination of knowledge and luck. But in some sports, there have been people who’ve found an easier way to make money on a game: by fixing it.
Fixing a game means finding a way to cause a player to intentionally lose, and then betting against that player. This is often done through bribing the player to lose, or “throw the game”. The more likely it seemed that the player was going to win the game, the more money that can be made when they lose.
Match fixing can happen in a lot of sports, especially when the sport doesn’t involve a lot of players. It’s no wonder some people have been worried about whether or not match fixing is happening in tennis! Especially in a strange game like Davydenko versus Argüello.
Davydenko versus Argüello - Was it Fixed?
In August of 2007, two players were squaring off in Sopot, Poland. One was Nikolay Davydenko. Davydenko ranked fourth in the world, and was an exceptional tennis player on the rise. His opponent, the Argentinian player Marin Vassallo Argüello was much lower in the rankings. So, considering this mismatch, you’d expect most people to be betting on Davydenko, right?
Somehow, that wasn’t the case. At the start of the match, Argüello was the favourite, and as the match continued, more and more large bets continued to be placed on Argüello winning the match. A group of Russian gamblers had bet millions of pounds on Davydenko losing.
This might have all seemed strange enough on its own. But before the end of the game, Davydenko sustained an injury and had to forfeit the game. So, the gamblers were right, even though there’s no way they should’ve been able to guess it: Davydenko lost.
This caused some people to speculate that the gamblers must’ve known ahead of time, and Davydenko must have lost on purpose. This set off a match-fixing scandal.
An investigation was launched by the ATP, which governs mens’ tennis. After a year, the investigation failed to find evidence of match fixing, so Davydenko was cleared of the allegations. The bets placed by the Russian gamblers, however, were voided.
Daniel Koellerer and Match Fixing
Just because Davydenko was off the hook, doesn’t mean that match fixing doesn’t happen in tennis. One of the biggest scandals to rock the tennis world had match fixing at its center.
The ATP has a group that investigates things like match fixing. This group is called the TIU – Tennis Integrity Unit. In 2011, the TIU sent waves through the tennis world when it found evidence of match fixing.
The player behind it all? 32 year old Austrian player Daniel Koellerer – the same player that Stefan Koubek had attacked on the court. The ATP took a hard stance against Koellerer by banning him for life for his violation of the Uniform Tennis Anti-Corruption program. He’s the first player to whom this had ever happened. He was also fined $100,000.
According to the TIU, Koellerer had approached other players on at least 5 separate occasions to try to fix a match.
Since that time, Koellerer has maintained his innocence. He also says that the ATP has treated him unfairly – claiming that if there is match fixing, the ATP is selective about who it prosecutes over it. For instance, he claims that the ATP would turn a blind eye to match fixing if it was suspected of one of the major players – such as Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, or Rafael Nadal.
It may be easy to dismiss Koellerer’s complaint as being unfounded. However, a member of the TIU, Mark Phillips, has stated that he didn’t see follow up from the ATP when he provided them with an investigation into match fixing among many ATP players.
Away From the Scandal, Onto the Court!
Now you’ve had a good look at some of the biggest tennis scandals. But don’t let the scandals fool you – tennis is a sport full of friendship, community, and fun. The only way to know the real spirit of tennis is to try for yourself!
Even if you’re a beginner, tennis is a great sport to take up, no matter your age. It’s great for your health, easy to learn the basics, and a great way to have fun.
You’re going to have a blast with this fast-paced game! Happy serving, and stay healthy!