Telegraph in libel win versus 'world's worst' tennis pro

He’s been falsely described as the world’s worst tennis player, but Robert Dee has been one of the world’s best libel litigants suing a string of newspapers for disparaging his skills with a racket and ball.

But now the Daily Telegraph has won a rare libel court victory against Dee over a story from 23 April 2008 headed: ‘World’s worst tennis pro wins at last”.

In a judgment issued today, following a High Court hearing in February, Mrs Justice Sharp ruled in favour of the Telegraph striking out Dee’s libel action against the paper.

Twenty three-year-old Dee has successfully sued dozens of news organisations winning tens of thousands in payouts and hundreds of thousands in fees for his lawyers.

The Telegraph carried two stories including a front-page piece which said:

“A Briton ranked as the worst professional tennis player in the world after 54 defeats in a row has won his first match.

“Robert Dee, 21, of Bexley, Kent, did not win a single match during his first three years on the circuit, touring at an estimated cost of £200,000.

“But his dismal run ended at the Reus tournament near Barcelona as he beat an unranked 17-year-old, Arzhang Derakshani, 6-4, 6-3. Dee, below, lost in the second round.”

Dee said the front page item was offensive and highly defamatory and would blight his potential future career as a tennis coach.

Lawyer for The Telegraph David Price, argued that it cannot be defamatory to state that a player has lost a tennis match or, that he has lost a large number on the trot.

He said that the risk of consecutive defeats is an inevitable part of sporting competition, as is the fact that someone has to have the worst playing record over a set period.

In her conclusion Mrs Sharp says: ‘The meaning complained of is a narrow one, confined on the face of it to highlighting what the claimant alleges is a purely factual error – i.e. that he had lost 54 professional matches on the trot (and these were the only professional matches he had played) rather than 54 professional matches on the trot when playing on the international tennis circuit…

“It seems to me, despite the way the matter has been pleaded, that the real complaint here is one of ridicule: that is, not merely of incompetence or lack of skill, but that the claimant was made to look ‘absurdly bad at tennis’…”

She said that a “reasonable and sensible reader” would not think the suggestion he was the “the world’s worst” tennis player was a “free standing and objectively verifiable allegation independent of his record of losses in the 54 matches played all around the world”.

She said: ‘In my view it is clear that it is being said, that the claimant was the world’s worst, in the sense that he had the world record for the longest losing streak of 54 matches on the international professional tennis circuit.”

Reuters previously revealed that it was left with legal costs of £250,000 after it contested a claim from Dee and then opted to settle.

In evidence to the Commons the agency said: “This was not a desperately important story, nor was it a story which required much in the way of investigation or defence in the event that it was eventually to come to court. The tennis player employed his solicitors on a no-win no-fee basis.

“Reuters was extremely keen to defend the allegation. It thought that what it had published was basically true. There were, as there always are, slight niggles over aspects of the report, but basically Reuters was very keen to defend the case, and wanted to defend the case; it wanted to show that its journalists had done a proper job.

“Eventually it decided that it had really no option but to settle because it was faced with potential costs of trial for this comparatively unimportant libel case of £1.2 million.”

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