Moments after Evan King stepped off court, at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune, the American tennis player’s phone started buzzing. He had just lost his pre-quarterfinal match against Jay Clarke at the $50,000 KPIT Challenger, and wasn’t surprised by the racial hate messages he was getting on his social media accounts. “There were about four or five. It comes after every loss,” he says.
His opponent on Thursday, English teenager Jay Clarke, too, has been a regular target of online abuse.
Apart from other pressures that come from making it big on the tennis tour, the social media menace is proving to be a new challenge for the younger generation. It makes the boys of colour especially vulnerable to racial abuse. And according to both King and Clarke, this hatred is connected to betting. “I think it’s betting, to be honest. People betting on the matches. When you’re a lot higher, or have a similar ranking, or when you have a lot of chances and don’t convert, and when people put a lot of money on the matches, then they…” Clarke trails off.
“Someone in some remote country, somewhere in the world bets for you to win,” says King. “They obviously lost money and they pick crazy insults at you.”
The 25-year-old flips out his phone and offers a glimpse of the messages he’d been getting on Twitter since this morning. One reads: Stupid f****ng n****r. Hopefully you get pulled over by a cop and let nature take its course. F*** you!
“There’s a lot of cop killing that happens in the US right now, so that’s what they’re talking about,” explains the world No.197.
Both are lower-ranked players plying their trade in the Futures and Challengers events on tour currently, and both have to be active on social media to build awareness of their talent. “You want to have a bigger social media following to let the sponsors see you. But it also means that those people can also send you messages,” says Clarke, who is ranked 288 in the world.
The Derby resident was once the top-ranked British player in the junior circuit, and was already a familiar name when he started playing Futures. “I was beating some higher- ranked players, so when I went up quickly, people started betting for me to do well,” he says. “But nobody cares if I win or lose. They only care if they lose money.”
The abuse however, hasn’t been restricted to the lower ranked players. The likes of former world No.6 Gael Monfils, American Donald Young and the flamboyant Dustin Brown too have been subject to racist comments on social media, according to Clarke.
“If a white player loses they’ll just get negative comments towards them,” says King. “But since I’m black or African-American, I get that extra level. It’s unfortunate that we’re in 2017 and this still happens.”
So rampant is the online hatred that players have learnt to expect it and shrug it off most times. But it is especially difficult for players like Clarke, who is still only 19 and is making the transition to the seniors. Firstly, he has to face bigger and more experienced opponents, and deal with the defeats that are inevitable at this stage of his career. Then he has to keep calm when online racial abuse is directed his way.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF), the sport’s governing body, hasn’t been of much help to younger players. “Some of the tournaments sell rights to betting companies so they can bet, and then the messages start coming,” Clarke says. “But I think the ITF is devising a new scheme, next year or the year after that to put more prize money at the bottom of the game. Or maybe, try to stop betting in the Futures because that’ll be the best thing.”
Even though King has received an email from the ATP showing their concern regarding the abuse he’s faced, there isn’t much that can be done. “If someone’s Facebook page gets reported, that person will just create another one, and another one. So there’s no stopping it,” he says.
King, meanwhile, has tried to find some humour in the hatred. “When the messages started coming, it was almost a sign that I’ve made it, because people care about the result enough to insult me. They don’t want me to lose, they bet money on me to win. So in an odd way, they believe in me.”