Lawyers for the tennis player suing the Daily Telegraph after it described him as being “ranked as the worst professional tennis player in the world” have estimated that legal costs for the case could run to £500,000.
Robert Dee is suing the newspaper for defamation over an article which appeared on its front page on April 23, 2008, under the headline: “World’s worst tennis pro wins at last.”
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The three-paragraph story was accompanied by a photograph and drew attention to the “full story” on page 20 of the sports section.
Dee claims that the article means that until his win at the Reus tournament near Barcelona he had lost 54 consecutive professional tennis matches during his three years on the professional tennis circuit, and thus proved himself to be the world’s worst professional tennis player.
The newspaper denies that the words complained of are defamatory, disputes the pleaded meaning, and says the front-page story should be read in conjunction with the full story in the sports section.
It is pleading justification, arguing that the story refers to matches and tournaments which contribute to a world ranking, and that tennis matches having nothing to do with a world ranking would be irrelevant to the central thrust of the article.
But Dee has declined to tell the newspaper whether the 54 consecutive defeats he suffered and to which it referred were in tournaments which qualified as being in “the international professional circuit” and/or the “world circuit” or “the circuit”.
The newspaper applied to the High Court for him to be told to respond to the questions.
Mr Justice Eady said: “The object of any libel action is to restore reputation. It is difficult to see what the claimant hopes to gain from this litigation.
“It may be true that the newspaper was ‘having a laugh’ at his expense, but it is not immediately apparent how the claim is likely to restore or enhance his reputation.”
Dee’s solicitors had lodged a costs estimate of more than £500,000 – not including a success fee or insurance premium, the judge said, adding: “To an outside observer, it may seem difficult to understand how the case could give rise to such expenditure.
“Nevertheless, against that background, it is especially important to see to what extent the issues can be effectively narrowed and both sides’ cards placed on the table as soon as possible.”
Mr Justice Eady said it would be for the judge or jury to decide the meaning of the words.
But if the newspaper won on meaning, it would have to show that the Spanish matches did not affect the central message of the story, he said, adding: “For that purpose, the question needs to be resolved of whether they formed part of the international professional circuit.”
The issue was whether the Spanish matches were on “the circuit”, however it might be defined – and the answers given so far in correspondence shed no light on that matter.
The judge added: “I see no reason why the claimant should not offer further clarification on these matters. It has not been suggested that he is unable to do so.
“It is important to place as many cards as possible on the table at this stage. There is nothing to be gained from arguments about whether a request for further information is the right mechanism to adopt. I shall simply direct that the questions are to be answered constructively, rather than merely by way of non-admission, so that the Defendant can know the full extent of the real dispute.”