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Tennis has an anger-management problem, and it’s getting worse

Irina-Camelia Begu inadvertently hit a child when she bounced her racket on the clay in frustration. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

PARIS — On an obscure court at Roland Garros, in a women’s singles match that drew scant attention, 63rd-ranked Irina-Camelia Begu thrust herself into the global spotlight as the latest example of the ugly, potentially injurious on-court outbursts plaguing pro tennis in recent months.

Irked over losing her serve in a pivotal moment, Begu, 31, tossed her racket on the French Open’s red clay, and it ricocheted into the stands and toward a small child, who burst into tears. The chair umpire summoned the supervisor to adjudicate, but Begu was allowed to play on, later cited for unsportsmanlike conduct, despite the fact that her racket “brushed” the child, according to a statement from the tournament director.

Just two days earlier, Andrey Rublev, the French Open’s seventh seed, also got a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct after he smashed a ball in a rage that almost hit a groundsperson.

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At Indian Wells in March, Nick Kyrgios slammed his racket so hard after a loss that it nearly hit a ballboy. Jenson Brooksby did much the same the next week at the Miami Open, throwing his racket at a ball kid. He was assessed a point penalty and a $15,000 fine rather than being defaulted.

In February, after losing a doubles match in a tournament in Acapulco, third-ranked Alexander Zverev bashed his racket against the umpire’s chair. He was disqualified from the singles event as punishment and fined $40,000. But after an ATP investigation, he skirted a suspension.

None among the sport’s current crop of bad actors invented bad behavior on a tennis court.

John McEnroe was a master tantrum-thrower throughout his career. For Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase, profane tirades and obscene gestures were simply part of the playbook through the 1970s and 1980s, designed to fire up the crowd as well as themselves and rattle their opponents.

But the recent spate of fits is different, with a physical component that some believe calls for a firmer hand.

“It’s more violent; it’s absolutely more violent,” said Mary Carillo, who trained alongside McEnroe as a junior and won the French Open’s 1977 mixed doubles titles as his partner. “These guys have taken it up a notch.”

Two-time Grand Slam champion Tracy Austin called on the ATP to “step up” its response.

Hall of Fame inductee Pam Shriver, a frequent tennis commentator, also feels tournament officials and the ATP need to take a firmer hand — particularly when players verbally abuse the crowd, as Denis Shapovalov did at the recent Italian Open, screaming “Shut the f--- up” at fans who booed his prolonged rant at the chair umpire.

“I think there hasn’t been serious enough consequences in some situations,” Shriver said. “Swearing to a crowd is totally unacceptable because that’s who’s providing your livelihood — the fans.”

Regarding Zverev’s attack on the umpire’s chair, Shriver argues it warranted a suspension from the next few tournaments.

One American player, 14th-ranked Taylor Fritz, however, thinks tennis would be better served if players were given more latitude to express their emotions — not less.

“I think it would be cool to see the kind of hype around tennis grow,” Fritz said this week at the French Open. “One thing we can do on tour is be more accepting of kind of like crazier attitudes and stuff like that going on. I feel like any little thing can kind of get someone fined or get someone in trouble, so I maybe would like to see more kind of just openness for players to be crazier.”

That’s what his generation responds to, he noted.

“Maybe letting players get away with a bit more would be a bit exciting,” Fritz said.

That, in Carillo’s view, is the rub.

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Unlike team sports, in which a star athlete can be ejected for an egregious offense and replaced by a backup, tennis is individual-based. If a chair umpire ejects an out-of-control player, that ends the match, penalizing ticket-buyers and broadcasters alike.

And because players know this, they see little reason to police their own behavior — even if they’re capable of doing so.

“That’s the tricky part,” Carillo says. “The players who are acting out know, looking at the umpire, ‘Are you going to throw me out? Do you know how much booing is going to happen when you throw me off this court?’ I think that gives them extra agency. They think, ‘Why not push it all the way?’ ”

Most pros at the top of the sport, however, come to realize that controlling their anger is ultimately in their interest.

For Rafael Nadal, a five-time recipient of the ATP’s sportsmanship award, behaving on court is something he learned as a child.

“My uncle, my family, never allowed me to break a racket, never allowed me to say bad words or give up a match,” Nadal once explained. “Probably when I was a kid, they didn’t care much about winning or losing. Of course, all the parents and family, my uncle [who was also his coach] wanted me to win every single match. But probably that was not the most important thing. The most important thing was the education and the fact that I grow with the values, with the right values.”

For second-ranked Daniil Medvedev, who is still haunted by an epic meltdown he had as a 14-year-old junior, it has been a process.

“At one moment, I understood that it can negatively affect your tennis,” Medvedev said. “But I definitely didn’t understand it [at 14]. It was much later. … I’m still learning because I have some tantrums, if it’s the right word, sometimes on the court. Usually I’m not happy about it. The most important is either to know how to react or, better, how not to do them and just stay focused on the match.”

Begu, who won Thursday’s match in three sets, went to the stands afterward and held the frightened child in her arms as photographs were taken.

In her news conference afterward, she said she was sorry for the incident and called it “an embarrassing moment for me.”

“You hit the clay with the racket, but you never expect to fly that much,” Begu said.

Hours later, the French Open released a statement recounting the sequence of events after Begu threw her racket. It read:

“The racket bounced over the bench into the spectators’ area. The racket accidentally ended up in the spectators’ area where it brushed a young spectator. After an initial scare the spectator turned out to be OK. The Grand Slam supervisor spoke with the parents who were with the child, the parents confirmed that the child was fine and not injured. According to the procedures, a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct was issued.”

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On the court: Tennis has an anger-management problem, and it’s getting worse.

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