International Blog – Michael Dickens
American tennis player Tennys Sandgren’s fairy tale success at the recent Australian Open lasted into the second week of the fortnight, in which he reached the quarterfinals before losing to South Korea’s Hyeon Chung. However, his impressive run on the court in which he was the first American man to reach the quarterfinals since 2010 became overshadowed by what took place off the court. The controversy surrounding Sandgren and his use of social media covered past engagements with extremely conservative “alt-right” politicians and pundits – even conspiracy theorists. It also included a post that said his eyes were “bleeding” after visiting a gay club. And, there was a post that was critical of tennis great Serena Williams in which he used the term “disgusting” to describe her behavior.
As the 97th-ranked Sandgren’s tennis profile grew following each of his four victories in Melbourne, including his upset of Dominic Thiem, the fifth-ranked player in the world, his social media profile was explored and came under much scrutiny. While he may not have politicized the sport of tennis via Twitter while also following celebrities such as actor Hugh Jackman and heavy metal band Metallica, it was discovered that he followed people who attended alt-right rallies in the United States and showed sympathy toward an anti-Hillary Clinton conspiracy theory. (Clinton ran unsuccessfully against Donald Trump for President of the United States in 2016.)
“It revealed at a minimum associations most people find questionable,” said Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated and Tennis Channel. “In the middle of the Australian Open, he scrubbed his social media profile clean by deleting his tweets.”
After Sandgren’s social media views became public knowledge, he was asked repeatedly by the print and broadcast media covering the Australian Open if he had any concerns about being connected with any controversial figures. He answered matter-of-factly: “I’m not concerned about it.”
Whether it was felt Sandgren’s answer was satisfactory or not, the media kept asking questions of the 26-year-old journeyman professional from Gallatin, Tennessee, who had never experienced the intensity of the spotlight until now, in search of more answers. For instance, he was asked: “Do you feel you support some of the alt-right viewpoints?” He pointedly replied, “No, I don’t. I find some of the content interesting, but no. No, I don’t.”
Afterward, it became fair game for everyone to ask: Is Sandgren entitled to his opinions? “Absolutely,” said Werthem. Is he immune from the consequences and the blow back? “Absolutely not.”
Attacking the media after bowing out
Then, after Sandgren bowed 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-3 to Chung, he arrived at his final post-match press conference armed with a parting shot to the media and, soon after, was called out by Williams.
“You seek to put people in these little boxes so that you can order the world in your already assumed preconceived ideas,” said Sandgren, speaking in a monotone voice while reading a prepared statement from his phone. “You strip away any individuality for the sake of demonizing by way of the collective.
“With a handful of follows and some likes on Twitter, my fate has been sealed in your minds. To write an edgy story, to create sensationalist coverage, there are few lengths you wouldn’t go to mark me as the man you desperately want me to be.
“You would rather perpetuate propaganda machines instead of researching information from a most of angles and perspectives while being willing to learn, change and grow. You dehumanize with pen and paper and turn neighbor against neighbor. In so doing, you may actually find you’re hastening the hell you wish to avoid, the hell we all wish to avoid.
“It is my firm belief that the highest value must be placed on the virtue of each individual, regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. It’s my job to continue on this journey with the goal of becoming the best me I can and to embody the love Christ has for me, for I answer to Him and Him alone.
“I’ll take questions about the match, if you guys don’t mind. Thank you. If you have any questions about the match.”
For a moment or two, there was stunned silence throughout the interview room. Finally, reporters began asking him about his loss to Chung.
Serena fires back
The morning after Sandgren’s diatribe, Williams demanded an apology, not for herself but for “an entire group of people,” whom she believed deserved one. Thanks to social media, Williams was as much a part of the daily conversation of the Australian Open even though she was back in the United States – and thanks to Twitter, she weighed in from time to time during the fortnight.
While Williams congratulated Caroline Wozniacki, whom she is friends with off the court, on the occasion of her winning her first Grand Slam title, she was highly critical of Sandgren for the past comments that he made on his own Twitter social media account. Williams tweeted:
“@TennysSandgren I don’t need or want one. But there is an entire group of people that deserves an apology. I can’t look at my daughter and tell her I sat back and was quiet. No! She will know how to stand up for herself and others – through my example.” She added: “Maturity is being able to apologize and admit when you’re wrong because you know that your mistakes don’t define you.”
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) 24. Januar 2018
If Sandgren thought the media hounding he received in Melbourne was bad, it’s a safe bet it will be far worse by the time of the French Open and Wimbledon later this year.
Tennis Channel, one of two American broadcast networks who televised the Australian Open back to the United States, devoted several segments reporting about Sandgren’s social media fallout on Twitter during its daily, hour-long Tennis Channel Live at the Australian Open show.
“Tennis has its rules and regulations for everything from audible obscenities to the size of sponsor patches,” Wertheim reminded everyone during one of the segments. “But there are no fines and no rules and no playbook for the offenses of appalling tweets or holding views offensive to many.”
In another segment, during a round table discussion moderated by Tennis Channel presenter Brett Haber, Hall of Fame great Martina Navratilova, United States Davis Cup captain Jim Courier and Wertheim weighed in on the backlash caused by Sandgren’s use of social media. Here’s what each of the panel said:
• Wertheim: “This matter isn’t going away and he’s going to have to continue to answer for some of these views that he seems to endorse. He’s going to have to confront some of these players who have taken offense. There is a huge percentage of tennis fans who see this on social media who may be offended. He is entitled to speak how he wants to speak. He is not entitled to be immune from the consequences and we’re going to see continuing consequences here.”
• Navratilova: “Roger Federer said it right, that you need to tell personal stories. We tell our personal stories through our social media. When you tweet stuff, it’s going to be out there forever and you can’t delete your way out of it. You need to own up to who you are, but Tennys didn’t want to talk about anything but tennis. So, I say this to him: ‘OK, so what about your Serena tweet saying that it’s always a good day when Serena loses?’ … You know what? That’s never OK.”
• Courier: “I agree with everything you guys are saying, and I would just sort of put an ending on this. This is a real shame on a lot of levels for tennis. In-fighting in the sport is not good; this is not a good look for tennis in general. He had a wonderful two weeks on court, and it’s really been marred by this scenario. It’s not going to be sweet at all when he leaves here. When he gets home, he’s thinking of turning his phone off and regrouping with his family. It’s a real shame. This has been something we didn’t see coming necessarily, but I guess maybe if you followed him on social media, maybe you would have. I didn’t. I’ve spent time with him. He’s been a practice partner with the David Cup team. Respectful, nice, humble, all that stuff. You’re not free of the consequences of your free opinion.”
• Haber: “You know he did try to sort of paint it as if the public has mischaracterized what he thought and said over the years. The only thing that bears pointing out is that some of the things he has said and tweeted are unmistakable. And to name a couple – and I think it’s necessary because without this, there is no context for what he’s defending. He said among other things he once stumbled into a gay bar and said ‘nobody needs to see that.’ He also said that ‘the U.S. Open should be moved out of New York to the South because the South knows what real patriotism is all about.’ Some people perceive that as a dog whistle toward anti-semitism. There are things that he said directly that make it very difficult to infer that he was painted inaccurately.”
• Navratilova: “We aren’t talking about who you follow. We’re not talking about what you retweet. We are talking about what you tweet yourself, and Tennys made that pretty clear. He needs to own up to that stuff and back it up.”
• Wertheim: “He had a platform to apologize and renounce. He will no doubt have continued platforms, for better or worse. This is not a story that has ended.”
While the coverage Sandgren received from American broadcast and print outlets, such as Tennis Channel and The New York Times, seemed balanced and fair, at least one U.S. national newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, which is owned by the conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, recently stated in an editorial, “Stop Politicizing the Courts,” that “the off-court onslaught may have contributed to his mental fatigue during his quarterfinal match” and that Sandgren was right for “blasting reporters for distorting the truth to create sensationalist coverage.” It went on to comment that “Mr. Sandgren’s hazing is just another example of the media’s herd mentality and politicization of sports journalism. Can’t people enjoy a tennis match without ideological interference?”
While the increase in Sandgren’s profile on court will include an improved world ranking (he’s moved up to No. 55 this week) following his Australian Open success, his profile off the court will forever be changed because of his social media behavior. He was asked to comment about it at his last press conference. “I have no idea. I have no idea. I’m going to go home and enjoy time with my family, turn off my phone, you know, just really reflect on the last two weeks, reflect where my life has gone to, where I’m at, where I am in this stage at 26, who I am as a person, who I want to continue trying to be, where I want to go in the sport, where I want to go as a man,” he said.
“I constantly try to be introspective as to what’s going on in my life. This has been a lot of information to digest in the last few weeks. So I need to take ample time to do so so I can move forward correctly.”
Role model Federer
Perhaps, Sandgren can learn a thing or two from Roger Federer, who just celebrated his 20th Grand Slam title in Melbourne, on how to use social media responsibly and in a positive way. For instance, after winning his first match of the Australian Open, Federer tweeted out:
“Being back on Rod Laver Arena was so nice after last year. Thank you.”
In recent days, there were photos of Federer playfully celebrating his winning the Hopman Cup with fellow Swiss Belinda Bencic, and a selfie he took with the Norman Brooks Challenger Cup championship trophy moments after winning the Australian Open. Also, he could be seen recently poking fun at himself when he tweeted to actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, “Hey @TheRock, am I doing the “Smoldering intensity” right?”
Being back on Rod Laver Arena was so nice after last year, Thank you 🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/deWFYFtvWF
— Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) 16. Januar 2018
Certainly, Federer knows how it keep it both light and happy for his 11.4 million Twitter followers.
Looking back, what should have been for Sandgren an unlikely feel-good story on the court, instead, became obscured by the political firestone off the court – and he has only himself to blame. He brought upon himself the unwanted repercussions that dogged him during his final days in Melbourne. In my opinion – and one that is shared with many others in the media – Sandgren should own what he tweeted or renounce it. But don’t just delete it and then preach at others for just reporting what you tweeted. It doesn’t work that way, Tennys.
Going forward, regardless of his future success on the ATP Tour or in Grand Slams, Sandgren will be forever remembered for deleting his tweets, like this one from September 12, 2016, in which he stated: “I just don’t know how a country that practices systematic racism elected a black pres. twice.”
“If nothing else, it’s a vivid demonstration of this modern-day reality,” Wertheim reminds us. “At some level, you are what you tweet. As a wise man once said, ‘Dance like you mean it; tweet like it will be read aloud one day.'”
After Tennys Sandgren returned from Australia to his family home in Tennessee, to his credit, it seems, he has been thinking things through. On Saturday, he tweeted a long, meandering confessional apologizing for his past social media behavior. In part it read: “What I thought was something harmless and innocuous, I see now as being understandably hurtful and confusing. I am sorry for that. … I would like to thank my critics and detractors for their help in keeping me intellectually honest in the image of the man I want to be. I would like to thank the diverse legends in the tennis community for their patience and understanding, and most importantly their example in what it truly means to fight and never give up. Especially as they faced injustice.”
— Tennys Sandgren (@TennysSandgren) 27. Januar 2018
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.