The Tennis and Twitter Connection

Eugenie Bouchard and Laura Robson’s Gangnam Style took social media by storm in October.

Rebecca Marino announced on Wednesday that she was stepping away from her tennis career, perhaps for good. The Canadian’s ranking had slipped to outside the top 400 after returning from a seven-month absence, but she appeared to be approaching 2013 with a fresh mentality. A few days earlier, the former World No. 38 spoke candidly to The New York Times about the effect that online abuse had on her decision to take a break from tennis. Following her second announcement, Marino held a conference call where she also spoke openly about her struggles with depression.

While Marino made it clear that she had been suffering from depression for the better part of six years and sought help during her sabbatical last year, her story is one of many in the shark tank that is a tennis player’s relationship with social media as a whole.

Tennis has a large online following which far outweighs its characterization as a ‘niche sport.’ The rise of social media over the better part of the past five years has allowed fans access to a player’s inner circle. First, players posted exclusive content on their websites and next came personal pictures and stories on their official Facebook pages. Both of these could be monitored by a third party, but Twitter added another dimension; it allowed fans to theoretically interact directly with players. As tennis players travel the world week in and week out, their fans get a chance to see the world as they do.

Teen sensations Laura Robson and Eugenie Bouchard, who are both avid tweeters, took the social networking site by storm in October when they released their version of the popular ‘Gangnam Style’ dance craze featuring cameos by Heather Watson, Maria Sharapova, Samantha Stosur, Fernando Verdasco, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the WTA physio team. It may have never crossed their minds to create this gem of the Internet, nor may it have been available for fans if it weren’t for sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

With all the good, however, comes the bad.

As one would imagine, not all of this fan interaction is positive. There is perhaps an unwritten rule in the tennis-tweeting community to ‘never @ the player you’re speaking negatively of,’ but if players really wanted to find negative comments written about them, Twitter makes it all too easy for them to do so. Not only can players scroll through their mentions to read tweets directly composed to them, they can search their surname to find all tweets of which they are the subject.

Following Robson’s three-set loss to Yulia Putintseva in Dubai on Monday, she received her fair share of the abuse that has unfortunately become infamous on the social networking site. Some of the negative comments may have led to the Brit briefly deactivating her account; however, she reinstated it less than a day later. As Marino confirmed to The New York Times, much of the abuse comes from disgruntled bettors who lost money betting on a match. The majority of these comments are not even constructive in nature; they are hateful, personal attacks laced with profanity.

To avoid all of this, some players don’t even manage their own accounts, or merely hook it up to tweet links from their Facebook pages; setups like this provide little or no fan interaction. Other players who enjoy interacting with their fans, such as Paul-Henri Mathieu, have tried their best to take a stand.

While there is much more to Rebecca Marino’s story than just online abuse, it shows that at the end of the day, no one really knows much about the majority of the people he or she is interacting with online. The power of anonymity on the Internet is an incredible thing; no one really knows how overly abusive or negative comments, coupled with whatever else a player is dealing with, can affect them.

Just because an athlete is in the public eye doesn’t mean he or she should be treated with any less respect; many smartphones have the capability to sync with Twitter, so the vitriol and abuse, along with the praise and support, is as close as a player’s back pocket. Repeated encounters with this would no doubt have an effect on just about everyone.

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