Tennis Swearing: Controversial or necessary?

tennis swearing

Is tennis swearing a problem?

Those who run both professional tennis tours are equally anxious to make sure that the game presents a family-friendly image, with players showing competitiveness but not straying beyond the bounds of what the tours consider appropriate professional behaviour.

They hope this will mean that more parents are likely to encourage their children to play the game, and sponsors will be keen to support the sport.

Tennis swearing is therefore something they seek to stamp out, and this article will look at some of the issues surrounding the ways in which they attempt to do this.

Tennis Swearing Meaning

Don’t worry, I am not going to attempt to define a long list of swear-words here: rather, I will look at what constitutes swearing in this context. The ATP Code and WTA Rulebook both make a distinction between ‘audible’ and  ‘visible’ obscenities.

The former covers ‘the use of words commonly known and understood to be profane and uttered clearly and loudly enough to be heard’, while the latter is defined as ‘the making of signs by a player with hands and/or racquet or balls that commonly have an obscene meaning’.

Is Swearing A Code Violation In Tennis?

Yes, swearing is a code violation in tennis.

Neither audible nor visual obscenities are allowed by either tour, and a fine of up to $5,000 is applied for each violation.

If the violation occurs during a match, the Point Penalty Schedule will be applied as for other code violations, leading to scoreboard penalties and, ultimately, a possible default.

If the officials consider a really serious offence to have been committed (as usual, words like ‘flagrant’ and ‘egregious’ are used in the code of conduct), the offence will be redefined as ‘Aggravated Behaviour’ which can incur a larger fine and a suspension. 

Which Tennis Player Swears A Lot?

Whilst many players swear occasionally, one man is particularly renowned for his colourful turn of phrase, and that is of course the enigmatic Nick Kyrgios.

Nick Kyrgios
Nick Kyrgios” by Carine06 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The following video illustrates this, showing Nick advising a spectator that he would prefer them to be quiet, and the umpire administering a code violation due to the phraseology used to put this message across.

WARNING- this video contains profanity.

Kyrgios Earns A Swearing Violation

What Actually Counts As Swearing?

Some players of the past were allowed to behave in a way which would be unlikely to be allowed today, partly due to the fact that their outbursts were not easy to categorise as swearing.

The next video link shows some clips from a famous match at the 1991 US Open, where a 39 year old Jimmy Connors eventually overcame Aaron Krickstein. Connors calls the umpire all kinds of names, without really swearing, and uses any disputes to energise an already raucous crowd and get them behind him.

Connors Intimidates Umpire

It is highly unlikely that Connors was punished in any way for his behaviour, yet many would consider his actions far worse than those of Kyrgios in the previous video. This reflects the difficulty in defining the kind of behaviour that should be penalised, but also shows the extent to which officials were intimidated by the combination of Connors and a New York crowd.

Why Do We Worry About Swearing?

If you think about it, it is a little odd that certain words with no racial or homophobic implications are still considered taboo. The obligatory apology from TV companies when their microphones pick up what they might term ‘bad language’ seems rather archaic. This requirement can also lead to more trouble.

Sadly I cannot find a video of this incident, but, a few years ago, one of the UK sports channels was covering a Dan Evans match.

Dan made an error and muttered something barely audible under his breath. The commentators then began to debate whether they would need to issue an apology, but they did not realise that their microphones were still on.

Dan Evans
Dan Evans” by Peter Menzel is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

What this meant was that, instead of moving on quickly from Evans’ muffled self-criticism, we were treated to one of the commentators, in disapproving tones, pronouncing loudly and clearly that ‘he said ‘Hit the ******* ball!’. If anything here was likely to offend the viewers, it was not Dan!

It is commendable that the tours try to keep the game as family-friendly as possible, but perhaps things need to be kept in proportion. It is hard to imagine that many tennis viewers are mortally offended by a player letting slip an impolite word at a moment of extreme stress.

TV companies should perhaps only consider apologising for the most ‘egregious’ offences and cease exaggerating the significance of a poor choice of words.

Multi-Lingual Swearing

This is another difficult area, as officials might not realise if a player is swearing in a language they do not speak. A classic example of this came in a Wimbledon final featuring Steffi Graf many years ago, when Steffi shouted a rather impolite German word beginning with ‘S’ at the top of her voice, and there was no reaction from the umpire, who presumably had not understood it. These days, officials tend to be multi-lingual and are better placed to pick up these incidents.


Here is a recap of tennis swearing;

  • Tennis swearing is disapproved of by the professional tours, and is punished accordingly.
  • A fine of up to $5,000 per incident can be applied.
  • Code violations and penalty points can be applied during a match.
  • Umpires need to be aware of players swearing in different languages.
  • Some TV companies can overstate the significance of ‘bad language’.

How do you feel about swearing in tennis? Let us know via the comments.

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