It had been a very good spring for Alex Kuznetsov. The former junior tennis standout, now 26 years old, had stagnated outside the top 200 in the rankings. In April, as a result, he faced the indignity of having to qualify to gain entry into the Sarasota, Fla., event on the minor-league Challenger circuit. Improbably, Kuznetsov won that tournament and then reached the quarterfinals in subsequent Challenger events in Savannah, Ga., and Tallahassee, Fla.. Those strong performances improved his ranking from No. 271 to No. 171 and earned the American a wild card into the French Open—just the fifth time he’d gained passage to the main draw of a Grand Slam.
Kuznetsov’s run ended in the first round in Paris, as he fell to French wild card Lucas Pouille in straight sets. A few hours after the disappointing loss, Kuznetsov received a tweet with an impolite rhetorical question:
Sixteen minutes later, another tweet arrived, this time from an account with the description: “It’s constructive criticism, nothing personal.”
It’s no secret that Twitter can be a cruel place. But why pick on a guy who’s ranked No. 171 in the world and who overachieved by even making it to the French Open?
Social media vitriol is easier to understand in a team sport, where fans have a lot invested in the outcome. It’s not shocking to hear that Quincy Pondexter was told he was “the definition of trash” after missing crucial free throws in the playoffs, or that the Redskins’ Graham Gano would get a lot of heat after botching a big kick.
In the case of Alex Kuznetsov, it’s possible that these trolls were just, well, trolling—the Twitter user Clock Counter has also taken the time to assail various point guards and baseball pitchers. But the most plausible explanation for the attacks leveled at Kuznetsov and his little-known tennis-playing ilk is that there’s money on the line. Oddsmakers had made Kuznetsov a marginal favorite against Lucas Pouille. When he lost, he faced the wrath of those who had bet on him. While not all insulting post-defeat tweets mention gambling directly, tennis players believe that’s typically the motivation.
“I just automatically assume that they’re gamblers,” says No. 210 Peter Polansky, a friend of Kuznetsov who says he also gets his share of angry messages. “Only that one time did someone say that—‘You owe me money.’ “ (I sent messages to the accounts of all the Twitter users cited in this article. I have yet to hear back from any of them.)
Polansky says most of the messages appear to come from Eastern Europe or Latin America and that he also occasionally gets threatened through his Facebook account. “Some guy messaged me on Facebook, and he was just like, ‘You suck, how can you lose to Tennys Sandgren at home?’ ” recalled Polansky, referring to a message he received after losing in the finals of a small tournament in his Canadian hometown. The message continued, in Polansky’s recollection: “You’re a shit tennis player, and come to my city in Croatia, I’ll kill you.”
In countries where online sports betting is rampant and legal, tennis is one of the most attractive sports to bet on. There are always matches being played, and none of them will end in a draw. Not only can you bet on who will win and by what score, but also who’ll take the next set, the next game—even the next point. While a lot more cash gets bet on big matches and big events, it’s also possible to gamble on Futures events. That’s the tennis equivalent of single-A baseball, where the difference in earnings between a first-round winner and loser can be as low as $68 ($172 to $104).
The combination of pervasive online gambling and social media means that a losing bettor no longer has to be content to scream at the television, annoying just those within earshot. Now, it’s easy enough to type an athlete’s name into Twitter and send your anger to the vibrating pocket of the offender, no matter where he or she is in the world, no matter how famous he or she is.
Kuznetsov, who because of his ranking rarely plays on the main tour—and is rarely favored even on the Challenger tour—could only recall one previous case of Twitter abuse before his loss in Paris. “They’ve been nice to me so far,” he says. For Tim Smyczek, who’s ranked No. 115 and is more often favored to win matches, abuse has been more common. Smyczek, a Milwaukee native who lost in his first match in the French Open qualifying draw, occasionally quotes and comments on the tweets he receives.
Smyczek says most of the players he knows on the Challenger circuit are, like him, able to laugh about this stuff. “I don’t know of anybody that really takes it seriously, which is good, because they say some pretty horrible stuff sometimes,” says Smyczek. “And if you did take it seriously, it’d be easy to really be hurt by it. But you just gotta take it for what it is—it’s probably somebody who lost money that they didn’t have to lose, and you know, they’re upset. It’s almost, if you think about it, it’s almost kind of flattering that somebody would think you’re a sure thing—‘I’m gonna lay money down on you, and there’s no way I lose.’ You can take the positives out of it.”
There have, though, been several instances of players, both male and female, pleading for the tweets and Facebook messages to stop. That includes Rebecca Marino, a 22-year-old Canadian who retired from the sport in February as she battled with clinical depression and suicidal thoughts that she said were sometimes worsened by the death threats she received from gamblers.
“The Internet definitely scares me,” Marino told me earlier this year. “And it also makes me really sad that, you know, people can sometimes take things too far, and they don’t really fully grasp the effects of words.”
Obscure though these players may be, their results have swung untold millions of dollars in wins and losses for bettors, far more than the prize money they play for. Smyczek says a former Scotland Yard detective now working with the International Tennis Federation’s Tennis Integrity Unit once told him that a first-round match he’d played at the Indian Wells ATP tournament generated more than $1.5 million in wagers on one betting site alone, with likely millions more on other sites.
While Indian Wells is one of the biggest tournaments on the tour calendar, Smyczek expressed disbelief that people are betting on his matches at all, especially on Challengers that sometimes have fewer than 10 people in the stands. “I’ve had to try my best to kind of bite my tongue a couple times, because I’ve gotten messages after Challenger doubles matches,” says Smyczek, laughing. “And what kind of—who bets on that sort of thing?”
Higher-ranked players who lose in upsets get irate messages, too. After her third-round loss at the French Open, Petra Kvitova fielded missives from a guy who lost a bet and some fellow who called her “an amateur mentally.” Nicolas Almagro was called “an embarrassment.” Someone else told him to kill himself. But the difference between lesser lights like Kuznetsov and Smyczek and relative stars like Kvitova and Almagro is that the more popular players also get messages of condolence or encouragement after a tough loss. If you’re a top player, kindness has been earned. If you’re closer to the bottom and someone else has paid the price for your loss, cruelty comes free.