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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, February 26, 2024

Tennis commentators need to commentate, not opine

Jannik Sinner’s emotional victory at the Australian Open was overshadowed by commentators’ biases.

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John and Patrick McEnroe are pictured at the 2009 U.S. Open.

Jannik Sinner conquered all at the Australian Open last month. The 22-year-old Italian dominated the lower-ranked players and overcame challenges in the later rounds to win the title, his first Grand Slam. With this crowning achievement, Sinner moved closer to the coveted title of world No. 1 — currently held by Novak Djokovic — and cemented his reputation in the tennis world. Still, tennis commentators have not given him the respect he deserves in comparison to Djokovic. He is far from done, and every player should be worried about facing him.

Sinner’s high-quality tennis was matched by his class during the trophy presentation. He dedicated significant time to thanking his parents, expressing how he “[wished] everyone could have [his] parents” since they gave him the freedom to pursue his athletic interests. In the public eye, he is reserved and humble, a contrast to his fiery brand of tennis. Despite having great success at the AO, Sinner was not given the respect he deserved by TV commentators. They weren’t able to let go of their pro-Djokovic biases.

Frequent viewers of tennis should know that ESPN and Tennis Channel commentators exhibit biases toward certain players. John McEnroe, the former pro tennis player-turned-commentator, has long favored Djokovic. During the Sinner-Djokovic AO semifinal, McEnroe claimed that Sinner didn’t have to work hard to get the upper hand on Djokovic because Djokovic was not in good form. McEnroe is not the only commentator to land in hot water: The BBC’s Andrew Castle was accused of being biased toward Djokovic during his coverage of the 2023 Wimbledon final. After Djokovic smashed his racquet during the match, Castle explained away the outburst, calling it Djokovic’s “emotion,” prompting one disgruntled fan to call Castle’s commentary “crass.”

ESPN’s longtime commentators displayed one of their most egregious moments of bias during the 2020 U.S. Open in the immediate aftermath of Djokovic hitting a ball that struck a line judge in the throat. Djokovic’s behavior violated Article III of the Official Grand Slam Rule Book which outlines “ball abuse.” In accordance with the rule, the U.S. Open tournament referee decided to default Djokovic. After Djokovic was ejected from the match by the tournament referee, McEnroe asked on live TV whether, “because [Djokovic is] one of our all time great players,” it was possible to figure out a way for him “to continue playing the match.” ESPN First Take commentator Stephen A. Smith criticized the tournament’s decision to default Djokovic, implying that he should have been given preferential treatment as a top athlete willing to participate in a top tournament during a global pandemic. These nonchalant comments clearly demonstrate extreme bias toward Djokovic and an unwillingness to apply the rules of tennis equally to all players, regardless of their world ranking.

These commentators got caught up in Djokovic’s typical melodramatic behavior instead of giving Sinner appropriate recognition. Despite what these commentators might say, the 2024 AO confirmed several things. First, Djokovic is mortal. He has weaknesses, and opponents can conquer him. Second, Sinner is capable of rising to the occasion under pressure. Finally, Carlos Alcaraz, the 20-year-old Spanish sensation, is not fully at peak form. His performance in the quarterfinals was disappointing.

One other takeaway from the AO that commentators neglected to mention is that Sinner and Roger Federer — the GOAT in my humble opinion — share a great deal in common. Sinner has a strong coaching team, led by Darren Cahill, who is known for coaching Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi and Simona Halep, all of whom won Grand Slams or reached world No. 1 under Cahill’s guidance. Federer too employed a strong coaching staff, including Severin Lüthi and Ivan Ljubičić. Both have received major endorsement deals, with Federer signing with Lindt, Wilson, Rolex and Uniqlo throughout his career and Sinner signing with Nike, Rolex, Lavazza and Gucci. Finally, both have strong global fanbases.

Sinner is well-positioned to win more Slams and become world No. 1, despite commentators’ enduring support for Djokovic. With a strong team behind him and an unparalleled skillset, Sinner will surely make a name for himself within the tennis world and outside it. He will garner the attention Federer did. He will transcend tennis and become a renowned athlete known all over the world. In due time, he will likely become the GOAT, a reality that commentators need to accept. Tennis commentators need to remove their biases from their match commentary. Their job is to commentate the facts of the match, not share their biases toward specific players.