Players and coaches across many disciplines of sport face abuse and harassment both on-court and online. Despite sports such as tennis holding the well-established rule that the audience must remain silent, players and coaches face a barrage of disrespectful and irritating comments during games.
Often during drawn-out games players respond to such comments, calling out poor audience behaviour or defending their actions. Such responses can however become legal issues where the incident is widely reported and gives rise to a defamation claim.
Defamation is the publication of material that harms one’s reputation by changing how a reasonable person feels about someone. Although the most common form of defamation seen in professional tennis is through spoken statements, it can also occur through publishing written material, photographs, and even drawings. Depending on the facts of a case, some common defences to a defamation claim include: the defendant proving the material was substantially true, or it was an expression of an opinion rather than a statement of fact. If someone successfully claims they have been defamed, they can potentially receive monetary compensation or a public apology. Notably, for a defamation claim to be successful, a person’s name does not have to be mentioned.
This was the case in the Grand Final at Wimbledon in 2022, where Nick Kyrgios described a spectator as someone who “looked like she had about 700 drinks”. When complaining about her to the umpire, Kyrgios described her behaviour to be distracting and that “nearly cost [him] the game”.
The woman in question later initiated a defamation claim against Kyrgios, alleging that his claim was “a reckless and entirely baseless allegation” and caused her and her family “distress”. The claim resulted in Kyrgios paying approximately $35,000 to a children’s charity of the spectator’s choice and offering an apology for his comments.
Prior to the 2023 Australia Open, Tennis Australia sought to prevent players being heckled by spectators by enabling stadium security to remove those who interrupt players during matches. This new enactment was particularly useful in the second-round match between Novak Djokovic and Enzo Couacaud in this year’s Australian Open.
On 19 January 2023, Djokovic referred to a spectator as “drunk out of his mind” and noted the spectator was clearly not there “to watch tennis”. The Mirror reported the spectator to be a part of a group dressed as ‘Where’s Wally’, all of whom were removed for heckling and trying to “get into his [Djokovic’s] head”.
The Australian Open is familiar with such instances as Rafael Nadal was involved in a similar situation 2 years prior. In a second-round match, a spectator took aim at his pre-serve routine saying he needed to “get over [his] OCD rituals”. In his post-match interview, Nadal speculated that the woman in question may have consumed too many drinks of gin or tequila.
These instances display a pattern between the treatment of professional tennis players and their ability to respond to such behaviour without fear of being sued for defamation. These kinds of behaviours have often been described by players to be “distracting” and “provoking”. However, without the full knowledge of the individuals, players lend themselves to being liable for defamation claims as the incidents are often widely reported across various news outlets.
Ultimately, players must take care when commenting on spectators’ behaviours, namely surrounding their alleged alcohol consumption. As we have seen with Nick Kyrgios, one comment said in the heat of the moment can render a player liable to a defamation proceeding and possible substantial fine.
If you would like legal advice or representation in relation to a defamation claim, contact Sanicki Lawyers or call us on (03) 9510 9888.