Sledging isn’t cricket? Actually it is

Sledging in sport means unsettling one’s opponent to gain an unfair advantage. Referring to his race, intelligence or the sexual record of his mother/wife/girlfriend has been known to work a treat.

If you think that’s not cricket, you ought to know that the term was first used during the Adelaide Oval in the mid-sixties, when one player suggested that an opponent’s wife was having sex with his team mate.

Thenceforth, whenever the wronged party came to bat, the other team greeted him with a rousing chorus of When a Man Loves a Woman. I don’t know what that did to his performance but, judging by the fact that since then sledging has become commonplace, it must have worked.

Cricket had its Gentlemen vs. Players matches, starting in 1806, but the distinction referred to the sportsmen’s social class, not their conduct. In those days, and for a century and a half thereafter, they were all expected to behave like gentlemen.

The 1960s Walpurgisnacht destroyed gentlemanly behaviour, along with any notion of propriety. This coincided with a huge influx of money into many professional sports, including tennis.

The combination of the ‘liberating’ effect of the time and the chance to become a millionaire in one’s teens gave tennis a mighty push, and decency began to go off the rails. By the mid-70s it had crashed.

In times olden, tennis players, even Australian ones, were gentlemen par excellence. The great Aussies Laver, Rosewall, Newcombe, Emerson et al may have consumed copious amounts of beer off court, but their behaviour on court was impeccable. They showed dignified respect for the game, umpires, opponents – and themselves.

Then came the brats, the Nastases, Connorses and McEnroes of this world, and suddenly, in line with Dostoyevsky’s dark prophesies, everything was permitted. Out went fair play, in came every dirty trick possible.

Playing against a morbidly superstitious opponent, Nastase once brought a black cat to the court and let it out of his tennis bag as the opponent was about to serve. Connors would make foul gestures towards his opponent, use delaying tactics, scream obscenities at the umpires, other players and paying public. And McEnroe… well, he was McEnroe.

Boris Becker remembers playing McEnroe for the first time and being treated to a steady litany of “motherf***er-c***sucker” at every changeover. Sledging had left its native shores and original game to catapult into tennis. And because tennis had become a massive money-spinner, officials were reluctant to do anything about it.

Since then sledging has become a constant factor in the sport, of which 20-year-old Aussie Nick Kyrgios has kindly reminded us.

This chap, adorned with tattoos and gold chains, stands out even against the background of widespread rotten behaviour. He mutters obscenities while the ball is in play, swears at everyone within earshot and tanks matches when he feels wronged or doesn’t feel like playing.

Then last week he used a changeover to proffer useful information to his opponent Stan Wawrinka: “Kokkinakis [another young Aussie player] banged your girlfriend. Sorry to tell you that, mate.”

The girlfriend in question was the Croatian teenager Donna Vekic, Kokkinakis’s mixed doubles partner for two years. Wawrinka has had an affair with her since leaving his wife earlier this year, a split that affected him badly.

His game suffered and he only began to recover a couple of months ago. Nonetheless he was clearly vulnerable to being unsettled by such a remark, which Kyrgios knew and exploited with the savagery of the young barbarian he is.

An outcry ensued. Kyrgios apologised and was fined £6,400, pocket change to him. The ATP also gave him a ‘notice of investigation’, suggesting he could be suspended for any number of matches or months.

I can’t recall any other player being banned for on-court misconduct – positive drug tests are the usual reason. But then neither do I recall such an outburst of public hypocrisy.

The chorus was led by Martina Navratilova, who champions traditional mores so much that she formally went down on one knee to propose to her girlfriend in a restaurant, with paparazzi in close attendance.

“There needs to be more than a fine,” she pronounced. “There is no place for such behaviour.”

Since when? Certainly not since I started watching tennis in the mid-70s. And certainly not since Navratilova in her playing days waged a full-scale war against Steffi Graf, off the court and on.

The problem isn’t just with Kyrgios, an ignoble savage though he is. Nor is it with merely tennis or sport in general. What’s going on there is merely a symptom of a disease afflicting us all. It’s called modernity, and there’s no cure for it.

So by all means run Kyrgios out of the game – I don’t think it’ll be any the poorer for it. But please spare us the emetic holier-than-thou hypocrisy, which is in even worse taste than Kyrgios’s jibe.





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