Nick Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas greet each other post-match
Nick Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas after their third-round clash at Wimbledon

In the long-awaited tennis match between Nick Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round of Wimbledon last week, we did not just witness some great tennis. We also witnessed much unsporting behaviour. Does this mean we are seeing a return to the bad behaviour of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Ilie Nastase?

Although both Kyrgios and Tsitsipas displayed bad behaviour, it is worth trying to understand each player’s behaviour, as their acts may have different causes and motives.

Tsitsipas breached the rules twice for smashing the ball away into the crowd, a behaviour for which he later apologized and admitted that was wrong. This act was the result of both frustration and anger. After a successful first set, Tsitsipas appeared to have difficulty focusing on the game and controlling his emotions. While his behaviour of smashing the ball away was clearly unacceptable, it can be explained as the result of provocation and intentional unsettling tactics used by his opponent.

Commonly known as ‘gamesmanship’, the practice of unsettling one’s opponent using time wasting tactics such as delaying one’s serve, complaining, or verbally provoking them is common in other sports. A famous example of this is the headbutting of Marco Materazzi by Zinedine Zidane in the World Cup 2006 final, which resulted in France’s Zidane being sent off and Italy winning the World Cup. The aim of this practice is to make the opponent angry, lose focus, and ultimately impair his performance as our research on antisocial behaviour, which encompasses gamesmanship, shows. The practice appears to have had the intended effect in this case - it made Tsitsipas angry, leading him to act in an unacceptable manner.

Although Tsitsipas’ behaviour was clearly inappropriate, more worrying was the conduct of his opponent. Kyrgios was clearly rude to the umpire questioning his decisions and competence, an act for which perhaps unsurprisingly, unlike Tsitsipas, he did not feel the need to apologise."

Professor Maria Kavussanu, University of Birmingham

Although Tsitsipas’ behaviour was clearly inappropriate, more worrying was the conduct of his opponent. Kyrgios was clearly rude to the umpire questioning his decisions and competence, an act for which perhaps unsurprisingly, unlike Tsitsipas, he did not feel the need to apologise. Kyrgios could not see anything wrong with his conduct, which means that he is likely to repeat it in future matches. Indeed, this behaviour was fully in line with Kyrgios’ past behaviour.

Why do some players feel the need to verbally abuse others, showing no respect for the referee or their opponent? At the root of this behaviour are an individual’s values acquired at a young age by modelling the behaviour of others in one’s social environment, such as parents, coaches, and peers. Importantly, by not being punished or even by receiving reinforcement when they display bad behaviour – for example, by spectators, one’s coach, parents, or other players - young people gradually learn that such behaviour is acceptable.

Athletes’ experiences in sport, particularly at a young age are very important for instilling the value of respect for others and minimising unsporting conduct. Coaches play an important role in this process. Through the way they interact with athletes and the behaviours they reward, coaches create a “performance” motivational climate, that is an environment where only the top athletes are noticed, and a winning-at-all-costs attitude is reinforced. Our research shows that this type of climate, most common in male sport, is associated with unsportsmanlike behaviours such as being aggressive to the referee and verbally provoking one’s opponent.

What can we do to stop this behaviour? In world-class tournaments such as Wimbledon, the only way to curtail such actions is to impose very significant consequences on the players. A fine of a few thousand pounds means very little to professional tennis players, who make millions, and does little to change behaviour of some athletes. A more radical solution is needed such as a default or exclusion from future tournaments. This will teach both elite athletes and young tennis players, who see top athletes as role models to be emulated, that respect for opponent, umpires, and spectators is how sport should be played.