Chicago junior tennis rallies against decline in sportsmanship

By Erin Barney

The world would have forgiven Novak Djokovic if he threw his racquet after losing to Sam Querrey in the third round of Wimbledon Sunday.

Fans have understood when Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Andy Murray and countless other pros took anger out on their equipment, and would have given the No. 1 player in the world the same pardon. They felt his pain, and would have shared in his outrage and frustration at the loss.

Fortunately, they didn’t have to. Djokovic opted for Wimbledon’s longstanding tradition of sportsmanship.

“I don’t want to take anything out of the victory for my opponent today,” said Djokovic in his post-match press conference. “He played very well and he deserved to win.”

But this year, these honorable moments have been few and far between, and Chicago’s junior players have felt the effects. When they began mirroring the bad behavior, the city stepped in.

The Chicago District Tennis Association identified a lack of sportsmanship among the district’s junior players as a major concern. Matches became increasingly laced with four letter words rather than respectful play— a shift that is not surprising given the poor examples set by professional players, who have been caught using performance enhancing drugs and intentionally losing matches. In the wake of these scandals, Midtown Athletic Club’s instructors have reworked their curriculum to include lessons in morality.

In January, BuzzFeed News and BBC reported an investigation of 16 pros who lost matches when suspicious bets were placed against them. In other words: match fixing.

“The landscape has changed,” Association of Tennis Professional’s president Chris Kermode told ESPN in January. “We’re in a different world,” he added.

While Kermode and the rest of professional tennis scrambled into damage control, Vasiliy Guryanov, director of Midtown’s junior competitive program, was just trying to complete a REM sleep cycle.

“I was up worrying about my juniors and what they would think,” Guryanov said.

Shortly after the story broke, Guryanov joined Chicago district officials at a sportsmanship meeting. There, they agreed on messaging to use with juniors moving forward: respect oneself, respect the opponent and know the rules of the game.

“This is what makes the sport great. It’s a great teacher of these things,” said Bill Lange, chairman of the district’s sportsmanship committee. “But it also leaves the door open for some bad behavior. They can take a whole game away from someone by making a bad critical call.”

Midtown’s Anastasia Goncharova, 17, suffered that exact type of loss two years ago. Her opponent called the winning shot wide, a stroke that to this day, the Evanston sophomore swears kissed the line. Her mentality was wrecked for the rest of the match.

“I knew I was supposed to just let that go, erase my memory and move on,” she said. “I just couldn’t get there that time.”

Goncharova admits she wanted to make a scene in retaliation, anything to rattle the girl’s psyche like hers was. But she didn’t, and Midtown has since taught her the value of her moral victory that day.

Casual mentions of sportsmanship during water breaks turned into full-blown morality lessons at Midtown after the district meeting. Coaches revisit matches during which they took the high road, harping on the concept of winning clean.

“We do all the talking and all the teaching,” Guryanov said. “From there, it’s up to them to grow and make their own choice and say, ‘This is going to be my game.’”

Another decision he hopes they make without hesitation is to say no to performance enhancing drugs. Maria Sharapova provided a timely, unfortunate, bridge to that subject.

In March, the 29-year-old Russian was charged with an anti-doping violation for her failed drug test at the 2016 Australian Open. Allegedly, Sharapova was unaware that meldonium, a drug she had been taking for over 10 years for health concerns, was placed on the banned substance list beginning Jan. 1. She received a two-year suspension from the International Tennis Federation as a result.

To discourage the juniors from ever turning to PED’s, Guryanov found a way to show them they can be just as successful and stay legal using MYZONE technology.

The MYZONE belts track calories burned and heart rate and displays them as effort points on a TV monitor during lessons. Each level of intensity is reflected by a different color: red corresponds to 90 to 100 percent effort, while blue means they are pretty much standing still.

“Whatever you do, don’t let them catch you in the blue,” said Hallie Leblebijian a sophomore at Lane Tech College Prep high school.

Just two months of training with a MYZONE belt transformed Leblebijian’s ground strokes from inconsistent to punishing, according to her coaches. Her peers have seen similar results, and question why anyone would feel the need to enhance their game with illegal substances. Targeted training is legal, effective and the only option Leblebijian would consider, she said.

“It hasn’t been easy, they [the coaches] are pretty tough on us,” Leblebijian said. “But seeing your rankings go up, your tournament results go up, it just makes your experience so much better.”

Guryanov hopes his juniors realize they don’t need to break rules to win, which so far, seems to be the case. Since adding morality lessons and MYZONE belts to the curriculum, seven of his 15 players have won sportsmanship awards in major tournaments.

Last month, Goncharova became the most recent recipient.

“It’s nice to be recognized for something we work so hard for,” she said. “The real hard part of tennis is to respect the game by keeping your emotions in check. That’s the real win.”

The winning continues off the court. Lange, who has also coached junior tennis for 49 years, said players learn a sense of accountability and develop an ethical code, attributes that are fiercely sought after in the business world. His players have gone on to succeed in every field from management to law because of the integrity they developed in junior tennis.

“In tennis, you’re running with a good bunch of people,” Lange said. “We’re around to catch the good and bad acts and teach them what’s proper. That’s the true beauty of the sport.”

Photo at top: Juniors at Midtown Athletic Club’s junior competitive program pause mid-lesson to talk about moral challenges players may face in the sport. (Erin Barney/MEDILL)