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French Open hopes AI can help tennis players block threats

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  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Frances Tiafoe of the U.S. plays a shot against Serbia’s Filip Krajinovic during their first round match of the French Open on Monday.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Frances Tiafoe of the U.S. plays a shot against Serbia’s Filip Krajinovic during their first round match of the French Open on Monday.

PARIS >> Frances Tiafoe says he receives death threats via social media after he loses professional tennis matches. Jessica Pegula says the same. So does Donna Vekic — directed at both her and her family.

“Everybody gets them after a loss,” said Tiafoe, a 25-year-old from Maryland who was a semifinalist at last year’s U.S. Open and reached the French Open’s third round with a victory today. “It’s just how society is today. I know how that affects people’s mental health. That’s very real.”

Sloane Stephens, the 2017 champion at Flushing Meadows and 2018 runner-up at Roland Garros, says she often deals with racist messages directed at her online, and said some prompted the FBI to investigate.

“It’s obviously been a problem my entire career. It has never stopped,” said Stephens, who is Black. “If anything, it’s only gotten worse.”

In a bid to try to protect athletes from that sort of abuse at Roland Garros during the 15-day Grand Slam tournament that ends June 11, the French Tennis Federation (FFT) is paying a company to provide players with software that uses artificial intelligence to block these sorts of negative comments.

Every contestant in every category — singles, doubles, juniors, wheelchair competitors and so on, for a total of around 700 to 800 — is allowed free access to Bodyguard.ai for use on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. A few dozen players had signed up for the service as of the start of this week, according to Bodyguard.

“This is really important for us: for the players to be very comfortable and be able to focus on the competition. Tennis is mental. It’s really what you have in your mind that counts; you’re making 1,000 decisions during a match,” said FFT CEO Caroline Flaissier, who put the cost to the federation at somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000.

“We know that there is a lot of cyberbullying,” she said. “We have to address that major issue, so we thought let’s do a test.”

That includes monitoring social media used by the FFT and the French Open itself. An FFT spokeswoman said Wednesday that 4,500 messages had been deleted out of the 79,000 received on those accounts since May 21.

Yann Guerin, head of sports for Nice-based Bodyguard, said the company’s software — which is constantly updated by employees who might notice new words or emojis that should be part of the screening — needs less than 100 milliseconds to analyze a comment and delete it if it’s “hateful or undesirable.” He cited the example of one player who participated in qualifying rounds last week, before the start of the tournament proper.

“He lost … so he was disappointed. Then he checked his phone and was like, ‘Whoa,’” Guerin said, estimating that more than 70% of the comments that athlete received would fall under the heading of “toxicity.”

“Very bad,” Guerin said. “Not bad. VERY bad.”

That’s nothing out of the ordinary, according to players.

“It’s a big issue in tennis. We get these stupid and abusive comments all the time. And to be honest, we are tired of it,” said Daria Kasatkina, a 26-year-old from Russia who was a 2022 semifinalist in Paris. “People just do that and they don’t get punished. Nothing. Only we suffer from reading all of this (expletive).”

Several players, from various countries, described distasteful messages arriving via apps.

Usually accounts are flooded after a defeat — often, they say, from gamblers disappointed to lose money wagering on a match.

“Last week, I had three match points in the quarterfinals (at the Morocco Open) and I ended up losing in a tiebreaker. And that was probably the worst it’s been. Ever,” said Peyton Stearns, a 21-year-old American who won the 2022 NCAA championship for the University of Texas. “You keep seeing these notifications: Boom, boom, boom, boom. You have to go through it. You report. You block. It’s a hassle and it drains you mentally.”

There are skeptics, such as 2021 French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic.

“You think it’s possible? Do you really think it’s possible to stop those things? There’s always going to be something negative and it’s always going to be about the results,” she said. “When you’re winning, you get positive comments. When you’re losing, you get negative comments. That’s just the way it is. It’s in every sport and it’s not only for women or for men. That’s how the world is.”

Then there are players such as Tiafoe or the French Open’s 15th-seeded man, Borna Coric, who didn’t sign up for the AI service because they no longer get bothered by the vitriol.

“I was, for sure, upset the first couple of times,” said Coric, who is from Croatia. “But then you realize that those are not good people. And they would never come to your face and say it.”

Vekic voiced a similar sentiment.

“I wouldn’t say I got used to it, but it’s something that doesn’t really get to me that much anymore at this point in my career,” said Vekic, a 26-year-old from Croatia who lost today as the French Open’s No. 22 seed. “These people are gambling and I lose a match — and they lose money. So what does that really have to do with me at the end of the day?”

Still, every player the AP asked was appreciative of the FFT’s effort.

“It’s a nice way to kind of help us feel a little bit less pressure with the comments and stuff. It makes us more comfortable posting or sharing and talking about matches when we know we’re not going to get like 100 death threats after. It’s crazy,” said Pegula, a 29-year-old American who has reached five major quarterfinals and whose parents own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. “I mean, I get them, like, every day.”

The organizers of the year’s remaining two Grand Slam tournaments, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, are keeping tabs on how things go in Paris.

“We have relationships with the main social media platforms and we do take steps to flag comments that cause players concern,” All England Club spokeswoman Eloise Tyson wrote in an email. “We will be very keen to hear the feedback from the FFT and players regarding the technology they are using at Roland Garros.”

U.S. Tennis Association spokesman Brendan McIntyre said the USTA is “evaluating the product and determining whether this is something we would like to make available to players for 2023 and beyond.”

The No. 9-seeded Kasatkina, who faces Stearns on Friday, said she wasn’t sure whether she would sign up for the program in Paris. She tends to close the comments on Instagram before a tournament, anyway.

Then her eyes lit up as she considered another possible solution: earning the trophy.

“You get all these messages only if you lose,” she said, then added with a laugh: “If you win, then there’s only good things on social media. Everyone loves you so much.”

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