How the world of tennis became a target for online abuse and death threats

‘Basically, it’s just about killing you. Or burning your whole family.‘

Jan Choinksi is a German-born British tennis player with a current world ranking of 342. Ever since he made his professional debut in 2016, he has received thousands of abusive messages from trolls. 

‘I get at least 25 or 30 per match,’ Jan estimates. ‘It’s pretty devastating to lose anyway, then to know you’re going to have to deal with those as well is really… annoying.’

While Jan’s choice of words to describe how it feels when someone threatens the life of your family may seem slightly underwhelming, it’s probably because relentless trolling is nothing new for athletes – especially tennis players. 

British tennis star Heather Watson spoke out about it after she was sent death threats in 2015 when she was set to face the then five-time champ, Serena Williams, after becoming the first British woman to reach the third round of Wimbledon in over a decade. 

‘I’ve had death threats,’ she said at the time. ‘I’ve had people threatening to kill me and kill my family, wishing that I get cancer and die a slow, painful death. Horrible words I couldn’t even think up in my head, to be that mean.’

Such an admission prompted other players, including fellow Brit Johanna Konta, to reveal they too had suffered vile online abuse, while Rebecca Marino, the former top 40 player from Canada, admitted she’d retired prematurely from the game two years earlier, citing social media bullying as a factor behind her decision.

While online abuse is certainly rife in sport – especially for female athletes, with a BBC survey revealing earlier this year that a third of elite sports women had fallen victim to it – tennis players have ended up being specifically targeted. 

According to George Bellshaw, Metro.co.uk’s tennis correspondent, the status of the sport as one of the most high-profile individual events in the world represents a significant factor in the levels of abuse.

‘Compared to others, where a whole team can be responsible for a bad result, the tennis player is always entirely “responsible”,’ he explains.

And while football may be the most popular game to bet on by far, with nearly half of gamblers taking a punt, tennis comes in at number three, after horse racing. 

On top of that, it’s a sport that continues throughout the year, starting with the Australian Open in January and ending with the ATP Finals in London next week, which means it also holds potential for a slurry of never-ending abuse.

‘There are tonnes of betting markets within tennis,’ adds George. ‘Some have argued it’s too intrinsic and lends itself to gambling addiction in the sense that you can bet on every single game and point, so every single moment matters. I’d imagine that adds to the intensity for someone gambling large amounts of money.’

With nearly 1.4million problem gamblers in the UK, their ‘highly emotional’ state combined with their ‘disinhibition’ creates the perfect storm for trolling, says Professor Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University.

‘When you go online you let your emotional guard down,’ he explains, even likening trolling to the actions of a perpetrator of domestic abuse. 

‘When a gambler loses they need someone to blame. In the heat of the moment their actions might not seem illogical to them and it’s not even in their mind they might get caught for it. They just have to lash out at someone, anyone, other than themselves – when of course, it’s only them to blame for losing the money.’

Mark adds there are three reasons people troll: ‘Amusement, boredom and revenge,’ he says, adding, ‘they also do it because they think they can’t be identified, but of course, the reality is that the internet is probably the least anonymous place in the world. They wouldn’t say half the things they do if they were expected to do it face to face.’

In fact, one troll, when eventually tracked down and visited at home by police after being reported by the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals), was said to have apologised profusely for their actions. They then went on to explain that they were drunk while admitting they had lost money on the player concerned.

One of the first messages Jan, 24, ever received was via Facebook, from a man threatening to kill his whole family. 

‘He hadn’t even bothered to use a fake profile,’ he remembers. ‘I looked him up and found out he was a tennis coach in Germany, so it was really shocking to know it came from someone in the industry.’

Jan adds that as awful as it is, he’s far from alone. ‘Every player I speak to gets abused after matches.’

However, over the years the threats have got increasingly more violent. 

‘They’ve said everything imaginable and even sent pictures of people being beheaded. It’s really, really bad,’ he says. 

‘You just know you’re going to get the messages even when you weren’t favourite to win the game.

‘I’ve had people send pictures of betting slips where they’ve lost money, so it’s most likely someone betting for or against me and I’ve not won or lost in their favour.

‘I really don’t understand how they even find time to bet on players they don’t know,’ Jan adds.

’It’s like a random thing, they look you up on the internet and place a bet.’

When American tennis player Ellie Halbauer first started receiving abusive messages she initially thought it was funny.

‘Everyone got them and most were just aimed at us being female players,’ says the 23-year-old who currently ranks at 305. 

‘It all seemed just so ridiculous how serious some people reacted if I lost a game or beat an opponent.’

Ellie first turned pro when she was 16. Like Jan, it was the catalyst for her abuse. 

‘But what went from someone calling me stupid or telling me to stop playing tennis ended up in hundreds of threatening messages through social media and even to my personal email – and that really scared me,’ she admits.

The abuse was so persistent that Ellie ended up deleting all her social media accounts. 

‘But then I started getting phone calls, people Facetiming me, so I blocked all the numbers,’ she says. 

‘When it’s silly stuff, people saying “girls shouldn’t play this sport”, it doesn’t bother me – but it does when they start talking about my family or threatening to kill me.’

Talking about the worst messages she’s received, Ellie says they’re always the ones that relate to her family. 

‘They’ll say “I hope your parents die of cancer soon”. Now we’ve got the pandemic, they’re saying “I hope you get Covid”, but that doesn’t worry me. It’s when they target my family that it hurts.’ 

But while she’s able to block out the abuse when on court, it has had an affect on Ellie outside of the game. ‘As I’ve deleted all my social media accounts it means I can’t have a normal life like my friends who use those sort of platforms all the time,‘ she says.

According to psychologist Mark Griffiths, gambling companies need to be taking more responsibility. 

‘They need to educate people who gamble to play responsibly, so that they don’t lash out if they lose,’ he explains. ‘A lot of problem gamblers turn what are clear losses into near wins by convincing themselves that they would have won if it hadn’t been for a specific reason, such as a controversial decision by the umpire, that may have changed the outcome of the bet.

‘Gamblers don’t constantly lose, they constantly nearly win and that is psychologically rewarding. In most areas in life, looking on the bright side is an adaptive strategy but not in the case of gambling.’

Ellie adds that she feels social media companies should also step up and intercept abuse. 

‘Nobody should be able to send you a message if you haven’t accepted a friend request,’ she says. ‘It shouldn’t even be allowed to end up in your spam.’

While the ATP and the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) have guidelines in place for such abuse, ‘they tell us to report them quickly so they can try and catch them,’ explains Ellie, she adds that the trolls have ‘so many accounts, it feels impossible to keep up.’

However this year has seen a definite shift in the sporting world’s fight against social media abuse. 

We saw the launch of BBC Sport’s Hate Won’t Win campaign, after their survey discovered almost double the amount of elite sports women were victims of social media abuse than they were five years ago. 

With more than 33million social media users worldwide the broadcaster admitted they felt they couldn’t report on such a statistic without looking at what more could be done inhouse to tackle the issue. 

What resulted was a new policy on dealing with trolls, from blocking people who bring hate to comment sections to reporting the most serious cases to authorities. 

Meanwhile, the ATP continue to work closely with a number of social media platforms, together with the other governing bodies of tennis, as well as Theseus, a risk assessment firm.

‘Online abuse of players through social media channels continues to be an area we are monitoring closely,’ explains ATP spokesperson Simon Higson.

‘The growth of social media combined with increased attention on the sport across various digital platforms has led to players being exposed to receiving abuse, threats or unwanted communication, particularly from disgruntled gamblers.

‘This issue has been on the rise in recent years and it is important that our players are able to understand what they are receiving, why, and what actions they are advised to take. 

‘Players are encouraged to report any communication of any concern and there are clear reporting processes and follow-ups in place for them throughout the year.

‘Ultimately our work with Theseus is designed to help reduce the impact of this behaviour for our players, on their performance as well as their personal and professional lives.’

Global data firm Sportradar, which tracks betting patterns and information from a range of sports, also spent the summer trialling a new technology at the Exo-Tennis Series across Germany and the US, in a bid to stop anonymous online abuse.

‘We identify social media trolls by using the handles of various abusers to locate further details,’ explains Andreas Krannich, Managing Director of the company’s Integrity Services.

‘Our Intelligence and Investigations team can then locate other social media handles belonging to these individuals and the information retrieved from this process can include the user’s real name, their location and telephone number.’

Once their investigation is complete, the idea is that the intelligence team can then share findings with event organisers so they can pursue an appropriate course of action, whether that’s making account usernames public or passing on intel to social media companies in order to remove individuals from those platforms.

‘In extreme cases, where the threat level is high, the organiser can report their findings to local law enforcement and pursue legal action,’ says Andreas.

According to the data firm these trials have shown just how important such technology will become in the fight to eradicate online abuse. 

‘In the first trial we detected the identities of 21 abusers in 12 countries with several files sent to local police forces, while in other cases social media platforms were alerted to shut down the trolls’ accounts,’ explains Andreas.

And although the Integrity Services department has been loss-making for over a decade, he feels that the priority here is that all stakeholders in sport take responsibility to ensure they contribute to a healthy sporting landscape. 

‘We see this as another step towards that end,’ Andreas says. 

Ellie and Jan both helped conduct the trials, passing on the abusive messages they received. ‘They found a few of the guys behind them,’ says Jan. 

While Ellie would like to see those behind the abuse punished in some way, she feels that they should also face a ban from social media and people who send death threats should receive additional help. 

Meanwhile Jan says that although he doesn’t know what the consequences were for his trolls, he feels their names should made public and that they are suitably punished. ‘Something like a big fine,’ he says. ‘That way they will finally think twice before they troll rather than just get away with it.’

Get help

If you need gambling support or advice you can call the National Gambling helpine on 0808 8020 133 or visit BeGambleAware here.

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