French Open turns to AI to help players block hate messages
PARIS, France (AP):
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 semi-finalist at last year's US Open and reached the French Open's third round with a victory on Thursday. "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 analyse 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 per cent of the comments that athletes 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 semi-finalist 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.