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:
@alexkuznetsov87 are you that hopeless dumbass who lost today against hobby tennis player pouille ?-- Michaelsen (@Michaelsen2) May 28, 2013
Sixteen minutes later, another tweet arrived, this time from an account with the description: "It's constructive criticism, nothing personal."
@alexkuznetsov87 Nice loss in the first round today pal. No wonder everyone thinks you are garbage.-- Clock Counter (@ClockCounter) May 28, 2013
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."