Ranking the Most Controversial Players in Tennis History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistAugust 7, 2013

Ranking the Most Controversial Players in Tennis History

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    Ernests Gulbis' comment to l'Equipe that "tennis today badly lacks characters” is a reminder that the sport has provided a number of controversial athletes over the years. But who were the most controversial tennis players in history?

    Sometimes players become controversial because of their words or actions. Sometimes they become innocent victims of controversy because of their situation. In most cases, a player must have been among the best players in his or her era to warrant enough attention to become controversial.

    A number of players barely missed making our list. Pancho Gonzales, Lleyton Hewitt, Billie Jean King, Andre Agassi, Sarah Gronert, Gottfried Von Cramm, Daniel Nalbandian, Margaret Court, Michael Llodra and even Gulbis were considered.

    But they did not seem to have the polarizing effect of the dozen players we selected. We begin with a spot devoted to controversial attire, then present a countdown of the 12 most controversial tennis players in history. 

Anne White/Gussie Moran

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    Anne White and Gussie Moran are included in a special category: tennis attire at Wimbledon.

    Though neither created lasting interest with her play or words, what each wore at the All England Club stirred a hornet's nest of controversy.

    Moran was a good player but she never reached the finals of a Grand Slam event. However, in 1949, designer Ted Tinling made a dress for the woman known as Gorgeous Gussie that featured a short skirt and ruffled panties. According to ESPN.com, it "set Wimbledon on its collective ear."

    "The titillation was that you only saw [the panties] about once every three minutes," Tinling told ESPN.com. "No one ever knew what they wore underneath in those days. No one would ever ask. You had photographers, for the first time in history, lying on their backs. Everyone went wild."

    Moran was mortified, and Tinling was banned from Wimbledon for 33 years.

    Thirty-six years later, White created a similar stir by wearing a a full-length, white body stocking at Wimbledon. (See photo above.)

    She was allowed to play with that body-clinging outfit that day, because it conformed with Wimbledon's edict that clothes be predominantly white. But after that 1985 match with Pam Shriver was interrupted because of darkness, the outfit was banned by Wimbledon officials. White finished the match with traditional attire the next day.

12. Jeff Tarango

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    If Jeff Tarango had won a few Grand Slam titles, he might be atop our list. As a player who was never ranked higher than No. 42, his outlandish on-court behavior barely gets him included.

    Every bit as combative with officials as John McEnroe, Tarango's created his greatest bit of controversy in 1995 at Wimbledon. After arguing with the umpire and yelling at the crowd to shut up, Tarango walked off the court in the middle of a third-round match, the Los Angeles Times reported. His wife added to the story by slapping the umpire in question.

    As a result, Tarango was banned from Wimbledon for a year and handed a record $15,500 fine for leaving the court and abusing umpire Bruno Rebeuh, whom Tarango described as "the most corrupt official in the game," according to a Reuters account.

    Two years later, at the French Open, Thomas Muster refused to shake hands with Tarango after an acrimonious match.

    "It is the first time I have ever done this, but I have my reasons," Muster said, according to Reuters. "We know the history of Jeff. He's not an easy guy and everyone knows that. I know I'm not always great, but anything I do like querying line calls is within the rules. I don't think what we saw today was very professional."

    Tarango continued to provoke intrigue with his unusual interviews at Wimbledon in 2011.

11. Bobby Riggs

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    Bobby Riggs was the best amateur player in the world in 1939, when, at the age of 21, he won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships and was a finalist at the French Championships.

    However, he gained more lasting notoriety years after he retired from the tour. He earned a reputation as a hustler and self-promoter, as described in an article in the Boca Raton News.

    Riggs attracted an avalanche of publicity by labeling himself a male chauvinist in the early 1970s, when the women's movement was in full swing.

    Claiming he, at his advanced age of 55, could beat the best women's players in the world, he challenged and beat Margaret Court in May 1973. His match four months later against Billie Jean King attracted considerably more attention, as more than 30,000 people attended the match at the Houston Astrodome.

    King, according to an ESPN.com article, "undressed the self-proclaimed 'male chauvinist pig' before a worldwide television audience estimated at almost 50 million," 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

    "For a male chauvinist, he did a lot of good for us," Rosie Casals said in a Los Angeles Times obituary on Riggs. "We'll always remember him in the best possible way. I always said he did the most for women's tennis."

10. Ilie Nastase

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    A 1972 Sports Illustrated article on Ilie Nastase carried this headline: "Bad Is Beautiful." The subhead read, "Presenting Ilie Nastase, paradox from Rumania: at most times a joyous companion, bon vivant and ladies' man, but with a racket in his hand a rascal — a baiter of opponents and officials alike."

    One paragraph of the story described the controversy he wrought:

    He is a nonpareil showman, an utterly exasperating gamesman, a pouting, crying genius with a racket in his hand and a curse on his lips. He is a magnificent enfant terrible any self-respecting sport would be glad to call its own. At a given moment Nastase will out-charisma Ali, out-sex Namath, out-temperament Fischer and out-bad anybody you care to suit up. 

    Nastase mocked other players, and an angered Clark Graebner once climbed across the net, grabbed Nastase by the shirt and threatened to smack him in the head with his racket, according to the Sports Illustrated story. Other players did not seem bothered by Graebner's actions.

    Nastase went his own way. He was one of just two ATP members who defied the union's boycott of the 1973 Wimbledon tournament. The other, Briton Roger Taylor, was under pressure to play in his home country.

    Nastase's behavior might not be so controversial if he hadn't been such a good player. He won two Grand Slam singles titles and he was a finalist in three others.

9. Martina Navratilova

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    Martina Navratilova was one of the greatest tennis players in history, and to many people today, she was simply ahead of her time.

    When she was a dominant tennis figure in the 1970s and '80s, she was indeed controversial.

    "Her public perception advanced from animosity to acceptance to adulation," said an ESPN.com article.

    Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford wrote, according to that article"To have achieved so much, triumphed so magnificently, yet always to have been the other, the odd one, alone: lefthander in a righthanded universe, gay in a straight world; defector, immigrant; the (last?) gallant volleyer among all those duplicate baseline bytes."

    At age 18, she defected from Czechoslovakia soon after reaching the semifinals of the 1975 U.S. Open.

    She transformed her body early in her career through diet and weight-training into a sculpted, muscular frame that was almost unheard of for women at the time. It helped make her almost unbeatable on the court.

    In 1981, at the height of her career, she told the truth publicly about her sexual preferences.

    "But Navratilova's honesty cost her millions in endorsement opportunities because of corporate homophobia," according to ESPN.com

    More controversy followed in the early 1980s when Navratilova began a relationship with Judy Nelson, who was a wife and mother at the time. The relationship ended with a much-publicized court case, as recounted by the Daily Mirror.

    All of the incidents gained more attention because of her tennis skills. She is ranked as the second greatest women's player of all time by the Tennis Channel.

8. Serena Williams

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    Serena Williams is the best player in women's tennis today and one of the best in history. Being an African American in a largely white sport also placed her under a microscope, making her more susceptible to both subtle and overt forms of racism. For that and other reasons, controversy surrounds her.

    Some of the controversy was produced by her father, Richard Williams, who presented his daughters, Venus and Serena, back in 1995 as "the ghetto Cinderellas of the lily-white tennis world," according to The National.

    Williams' three-second C-Walk (or Crip walk from the gang of that name) after the 2012 Olympics evoked outrage from some corners. Foxsports.com columnist Jason Whitlock wrote, "What Serena did was akin to cracking a tasteless, X-rated joke inside a church. Serena deserved to be called out. What she did was immature and classless."

    She has been booed at several tournaments, and racial slurs have been hurled at her from crowds.

    She has had outbursts on the court, the most famous coming at the 2009 U.S. Open, when she was called for a foot fault on a crucial point.

    Serena screamed at the lineswoman, "I'm going to shove this [deleted] ball down your [deleted] throat," CBSSports.com reported.

    It resulted in a penalty point that gave the semifinal match to Kim Clijsters.

    Yet her tennis skills, business acumen, personality, physical appeal and other ingredients caused Business Insider to rank her as the world's second-most popular female athlete in 2012.

    Perhaps more indicative of the interest in her is that she was the second-most Googled female athlete in 2012, according to totalprosports.com, after being No. 1 in 2010 and 2011.

7. Jimmy Connors

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    Jimmy Connors attracted fans with his tennis excellence, down-and-dirty toughness, overt passion and rebellious attitude.

    His attitude and behavior alienated others.

    Shortly after the release of his controversial autobiography, The Outsider, USA Today described Connors in the following way: "Defiant, anti-establishment and obstinate, Connors clashed with tennis' powers that be, turning fans and fellow players against him at the beginning of his career."

    His clashes with Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe and the ATP-created adversarial relationships, and his profane actions and words on court annoyed many. But he won eight Grand Slam singles titles, and many fans loved his combative nature. He was a crowd favorite when he reached the semifinals of the 1991 U.S. Open at age 39.

    Steve Siebold said in the Huffington Post: "This book [The Outsider] is written in the same style that Connors' played tennis: bold, daring, unapologetic, and at times, a little over the top. But here's the bottom line: Jimmy Connors never cared about what people thought about him."

6. Martina Hingis

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    By age 16, Martina Hingis had won a Grand Slam title and earned the world's No. 1 ranking. But a lot of what she said and did brought as much attention as her tennis exploits.

    She was quoted in German-speaking news conference in 1999 as saying French pro Amelie Mauresno "is half a man," according to Reuters.

    Perhaps still recalling that quote as well as Hingis' frequent battles with officials during the 1999 French Open finals, the crowd whistled, booed and jeered Hingis through much of that match against Steffi Graf. Hingis served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, but ultimately lost and left the court in tears as the crowd booed, according to the CNN/SI account.

    Hingis said in a 2001 Time magazine article that the Williams sisters had advantages because of their skin color.

    "Being black only helps them," she said in the article, according to the Daily Mail. "Many times they get sponsors because they are black. And they have had a lot of advantages because they can always say, 'It's racism'. They can always come back and say, 'Because we are this color, things happen'."

    Hingis retired in 2002 at the age of 22, causing surprise that she would leave the game so young despite injury problems. Then she returned and retired again in 2007. The latter retirement was particularly controversial because it came after she tested positive for cocaine, according to The Guardian.

    In 2013, at age 32, she said she is making another comeback, though she plans to play only doubles on the tour, according to Associated Press.

5. Jennifer Capriati

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    Everything Jennifer Capriati did seemed to create headlines and controversy.

    She was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 13.

    She beat Steffi Graf to win an Olympic gold medal in 1992 at age 16.

    In 1994, at 18, she was out of tennis and into legal problems, according to an ESPN.com article. She was cited for shoplifting and arrested for marijuana possession. She entered a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility. Her tennis career seemed to be over.

    Capriati then made an amazing comeback. After losing in the first round of the 1993 U.S. Open, she played just one tournament match before returning in February 1996. From that point, however, she won three Grand Slam singles titles and was ranked No. 1 in 2001.

    More controversy ensued, though.

    She was a member of the Federation Cup in 2002, but was kicked off the team after a disagreement with non-playing captain Billie Jean King.

    In 2010, she was hospitalized for taking an overdose of pills. The Daily Mail initially reported it was a suspected suicide attempt, but it was later reported to be an accidental overdose.

    In 2013, she faced charges of stalking and battery involving a former boyfriend, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

    Along the way, her father, Stefano Capriati, was criticized for pushing his daughter onto the pro circuit at age 13, perhaps causing some of her problems, according to a USA Today article.

    As LZ Ganderson said in a 2012 ESPN.com commentary, Capriati always seems to be fighting demons.

4. Suzanne Lenglen

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    Suzanne Lenglen never lost a completed Grand Slam tournament match on the court and dominated women's tennis in 1920s. But she was known as much for her controversial lifestyle.

    The headline on a 1982 Sports Illustrated story about Lenglen read, "Suzanne Lenglen drank, swore and had lovers by the score — and played tennis incomparably, losing once in seven years."

    She drank cognac during her famed 1926 victory over Helen Wills, according to the Associated Press account.

    In her only Grand Slam loss other than pre-match withdrawals, she retired after losing the first set to Molla Mallory in the 1921 U.S. Championships. She was booed by the crowd for not finishing. Lenglen, who left the match in tears, later claimed she had whooping cough, and, because of the crowd response, never played in the U.S. Championships again.

    One paragraph in that Sports Illustrated article captured the intrigue surrounding Lenglen:

    Everything else about her was cause for furious debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Was she heroine or harridan? Was she courageous or corrupt? Was her infamous temperament a byproduct of genius or just the manipulation of an overweening arriviste? Did she purposely keep Queen Mary waiting at Wimbledon? Did she quit rather than lose to Molla Mallory at Forest Hills? Could she have survived a third set against Helen Wills at Cannes? Was she rich? Was she broke? Was she in love, engaged, about to be married? Was it cognac in the little silver flask from which she drank at the changeovers? And by the way, between us, exactly what did she wear beneath those silk tennis dresses of hers?

3. Renee Richards

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    Renee Richards revealed in 1976, while taking part in women’s amateur tennis competitions, that she was once a man, according to a New York Times story.  The sex change had occurred in 1975, according to Sports Illustrated, and Richards' revelation set off a media frenzy.

    "Richards is still physically a man, and that gives her a tremendous and unfair advantage," Rosie Casals, a prominent pro player, said at the time, according to the Sports Illustrated story. "[She] has to be stopped." 

    Richards was not interested in competing in the women's tour until she was told she should not try.

    In 1976, the United States Tennis Association tried to prevent her from playing in the women’s events at the U.S. Open. She went to court and won the right to play in 1977, according to The New York Times story.

    She was 43 years old by the time she started playing on the women's pro tour, and her ranking rose as high as No. 20.

    Richards, who was born Richard Raskind, may not have sought controversy, but as a transsexual playing in Grand Slam women's events, it was unavoidable.

    As Raskind, he competed in the men's singles at the U.S. Championships five times, getting to the second round in 1955 and 1957. As Richards, she competed in the women's singles at the same event (which was then the U.S. Open) five times, getting to the third round in 1979.

2. Bill Tilden

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    Bill Tilden dominated men's tennis in 1920s and much of the 1930s. He was as big a star as Babe Ruth or Jack Dempsey.

    But his legacy is tainted. He was attracted to young boys in his later years, according to a New York Times article. He was virtually broke when he died in 1953, at age 60.

    "As a public figure, perhaps a more apt comparison for Tilden is to the pop star Michael Jackson, whose musical legacy, while unassailable, was mitigated for some by his conduct," The New York Times wrote.

    Tilden was sentenced to a year in jail in 1946 for contributing to the delinquency of a 14-year-old boy, according to the New York Times, and he was arrested again in 1949 for making sexual advances to a young male hitchhiker.

    Tilden was controversial even during his playing days. As noted in excerpts from Frank Deford's book Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and Tragedy, the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association threatened to ban Tilden, who wrote for various publications and had an adversarial relationship with the USLTA while still in his prime.

    He also was accused of being arrogant and inconsiderate, according to a CNN profile.

    Tilden was even the non-playing captain for the German Davis Cup team that faced the United States in 1937, just a few years before the U.S. involvement in World War II.

    The fascination with Tilden is as much about the controversy as it is about his tennis excellence.

1. John McEnroe

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    John McEnroe became famous in tennis circles for being the No. 1 player in the world through much of the early 1980s while winning seven Grand Slam singles titles.

    But he became a pop culture icon because of his outbursts on the court. His publicized tantrums targeted himself and the crowd but mostly officials, and those emotional outbursts identified him as much as his tennis excellence did.

    His on-court demeanor polarized fans, some enjoying the show and his rebellious style in an otherwise staid sport, while others found his behavior immature and repulsive.

    McEnroe was nicknamed SuperBrat by the British tabloids, according to an ESPN.com story, which recounted some of the things McEnroe did to alienate the tennis establishment.

    "He is the most vain, ill-tempered, petulant loudmouth that the game of tennis has ever know," The Sun wrote, according to the ESPN.com account.

    A few of McEnroe's most famous outbursts are available on this video.