Back in the days when I started getting hooked on to tennis, the only way to get close to the professional players was to watch them live in the stadium, or perhaps at a rare promotional event. Fans would hope that they are one of the lucky ones to get an autograph or perhaps one of the sweaty wrist bands thrown into the stands after a match. For a young fan in an emerging (third-world in those days) country like India, even that was an elusive dream since there weren’t any ATP or WTA events in the country and we did not produce many (read as any) noteworthy players.
But the rise of the Internet and social media has changed all that… FOREVER. It’s never been easier to communicate with your favourite tennis star, even if they are legends like Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams. With official Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, it’s as easy as sending an SMS to your friend. Asking your favourite player a question, getting them to wish you on your birthday or asking them to re-tweet one of your tweets is commonplace these days. Most of the top players in the game today have their own twitter accounts, bridging the gap between them and their fans to an internet connection and a smart device.
But like any other new powerful tool, the rise of social media has its downside too. For every genuine fan sending a word of encouragement and support to their favourite player, there are some others sending out rude, nasty hurtful messages – hiding behind the veil of anonymity that these social media platforms provide.
Sports fans can be a fickle lot – putting you on a pedestal when you are successful and bringing you down just as quickly when the going gets tough. A vengeful fan can easily tag a player’s twitter handle in a tweet, which means it is more likely than not that the player will read that message. Sure, once you have read a nasty tweet from someone, you can block that person from sending you another message. But by then, the damage is already done.
In recent times, women tennis players seem to be the target of such cyber-bullying. Earlier this week, 22 year old Canadian Rebecca Marino, once ranked as high as no. 38 in the world, revealed her struggles with online criticism – saying that it was one of the reasons she took a seven month break from the sport last year.
“Things were being written about me, and I’m quite sensitive about that. And I’m quite nosy, so I’ll look it up. And then I’ll realize I shouldn’t have looked it up. With professional athletes, people put them on a pedestal sometimes, and they forget that they’re actually a person still. I have a tendency to bottle things up. So I would hold it in, and then I would carry it out on court and it would affect my on-court side as well.”
Soon after the interview was published in the New York Times, Marino decided to permanently delete her Twitter account. Marino posted this final message to her followers on Monday night – “Honestly, I’ve had enough of the internet, twitter and Facebook. I am now deleting everything. Heck I should even throw out my computer. Thank you to all the wonderful fans for your support. You are the reason I keep going and staying positive. So goodbye twitter!!”
Marino is not the first female tennis player to have second thoughts on using social media to interact with fans. In 2011, Australian Jarmila Gajdosova was on the back end of some severe criticism after a 6-2, 6-0 loss to Vania King in the first round of the US Open. Angry fans even went as far as accusing the Slovak-born Gajdosova of marrying Australian tennis player Sam Groth only to gain Australian citizenship (Gajdosova married Groth in 2009 but divorced him in early 2011) and the opportunities (read as wildcards) that would come her way.
Gajdosova was hurt by the online backlash and said back then she was considering deleting her Twitter account. “Unfortunately I do take it personally because I do care and I do not appreciate people talking about me this way. It is not fair to the people who support me because I must have got about 500 messages from people outside of that saying they are sad. I have not shut it yet, I just announced it first that I am hurt and I still am.” Gajdosova changed her mind eventually and is still on Twitter.
Several athletes have said that they do not read what’s written about them in the media – if only to protect themselves. Soon the same may extend to the social media world as well. Some players, like Marino, may leave Twitter, others may become guarded in their interactions and some may only tweet and choose not to read what the fans tweet to them.
If the trend continues, the dynamics of player and fans interaction on social media will change once again. And both parties will be for the worse. The players could lose out on support from their fans when they need it the most. And the fans could be devoid of that one small acknowledgment from their idol that could have made their day and marked their life.