September 8, 2018


At U.S. Open, power of Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka is overshadowed by an umpire's power play (Sally Jenkins, September 8, 2018, washington Post)

Chair umpire Carlos Ramos managed to rob not one but two players in the women's U.S. Open final. Nobody has ever seen anything like it: An umpire so wrecked a big occasion that both players, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams alike, wound up distraught with tears streaming down their faces during the trophy presentation and an incensed crowd screamed boos at the court. Ramos took what began as a minor infraction and turned it into one of the nastiest and most emotional controversies in the history of tennis, all because he couldn't take a woman speaking sharply to him.

Williams abused her racket, but Ramos did something far uglier: He abused his authority. Champions get heated -- it's their nature to burn. All good umpires in every sport understand that the heart of their job is to help temper the moment, to turn the dial down, not up, and to be quiet stewards of the event rather than to let their own temper play a role in determining the outcome. Instead, Ramos made himself the chief player in the women's final. He marred Osaka's first Grand Slam title and one of Williams's last bids for all-time greatness. Over what? A tone of voice. Male players have sworn and cursed at the top of their lungs, hurled and blasted their equipment into shards, and never been penalized as Williams was in the second set of the U.S. Open final.

25 Years Later, McEnroe Reflects on an Ejection (He Can Be Serious) ( Christopher Clarey, Jan. 23, 2015, NY Times)

Loopholes and the potential for conflict still exist: See Serena Williams's threatening a lineswoman at the 2009 United States Open after being called for a foot fault, one facet of the rules that is still not covered by electronic surveillance. And temperamental players still exist: the Australian Nick Kyrgios was fined for racket abuse and an audible obscenity during his first-round victory at this Australian Open.

But there is no man or woman who challenges authority on a match-in, match-out basis as McEnroe did.

By 1990, he was already on his way down: five years removed from his last Grand Slam singles final at the 1985 United States Open. Yet there had been recent cause for optimism: a victory at the WCT Finals and a semifinal run at Wimbledon in 1989. He even arrived in Australia early, taking part in the Hopman Cup, the team event in Perth, which began the day after Christmas in 1989 and ended on Jan. 1. Because the Hopman Cup began in 1989, the old rules on disqualification still applied instead of the new rules that had been approved for the 1990 season.

Under the old rules, disqualification was a four-step process: warning, point penalty, game penalty, default. Under the new rules, it was to be a three-step process: warning, point penalty, default.

Difficult as it is to believe, McEnroe said he had been unaware of the imminent change, and in Perth he flirted with disqualification, in a quarterfinal match against Paolo Canè of Italy.

"The whole incident in Melbourne really began at the Hopman Cup," said Peter Bellinger, the tournament referee at the Australian Open from 1983 to 2005. "Some of the officiating at the Hopman Cup wasn't as good as it could have been, and at one point John refused to play on and was taken through the three steps of the code, which was a game penalty."

In Melbourne, McEnroe cruised through his opening three rounds without losing a set. Richard Ings, a chair umpire at the time, worked one of his early rounds and said he considered reminding McEnroe of the code change, but ultimately did not.

"The rule changes were always posted in the locker room," Bellinger said. "But he obviously didn't read them."

Then on the first Sunday -- Jan. 21, 1990 -- McEnroe took to the court against Pernfors, a speedy Swede and former member of the top 10.

Armstrong was in the chair and he gave McEnroe his initial warning early in the third set when McEnroe glared at a lineswoman after a questionable call and bounced the ball upward on his racket strings in front of her.

Armstrong later gave McEnroe a point penalty for racket abuse after he threw and cracked his racket in the sixth game of the fourth set, when he was up two sets to one.

"He had an edge in that set, but I still felt like I was going to win the match and even that set," McEnroe said. "I missed a shot I should have made, and I sort of threw the racket on the ground and caught it. I wasn't trying to break it, but I didn't throw it at like a linesman or a ball boy. And then I caught it. Players do it all the time, but you heard a crack and I guess technically in those days the umpire could be discretionary on the warning. And then all of the sudden it was a point penalty, and my recollection is that was when I went up and said, 'Hey it's 120 degrees out here. Maybe you could cut me some slack.'"

McEnroe argued his case and called for the Grand Slam chief of supervisors, Ken Farrar, who soon arrived on court with Bellinger.

After failing to change any minds, McEnroe turned away from the chair in the direction of the baseline, muttering an expletive in a comment that has no place in a family newspaper.

"I don't know how well people even heard it, because it was sort of under my breath anyway, but he heard it," McEnroe said of Farrar. "And maybe the umpire heard it, and then that was all she wrote."

McEnroe braced himself for the game penalty, but instead it was a match penalty. Today, McEnroe views his default as the price he had to pay after years of favorable treatment.

Posted by at September 8, 2018 10:26 PM