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Friday, January 20, 2012

Tension at the Australian Open between Players and Officials

Can you feel the tension at the Australian Open? It is not necessarily the five set matches, the heat, or the fuming Marcos Baghdatis destroying four straight rackets. The players and the officials have butted heads numerous times.

The most notable confrontation occurred in the second round match between David Nalbandian and John Isner. In the fifth set at 8-all and break point down Isner served what was first called out (correctly) but was overruled as an ace by chair umpire Kader Nouni. Nalbandian did not hear his call at first, then asked, and was told by Nouni that it was an ace. 

At that point Nalbandian checked the mark and a few seconds later asked for a replay. Nouni denied Nalbandian a replay because he said he took too long to request it. This has been an issue since replays were introduced. Players will stare at the mark, ask their friends in their box if it was in or out, and then request a replay.

In this case, however, it seemed Nalbandian was well within his time since the overrule was not at first heard by Nalbandian, and he should have had the opportunity to challenge the call. What ensued was an argument between Nalbandian and Nouni and even a discussion with the tournament supervisor to no avail. Isner won the point and held serve. Isner then immediately broke serve and won the match. To Nalbandian's credit he said that the overrule did not cost him the match, but then also doubted Nouni's ability to umpire "these kinds of matches" and called the overrule "stupid". 

There is certainly tension within the ATP Tour right now as players openly talk about striking. Players certainly do not feel they have control over the decisions being made about scheduling, for instance. So, the increased tension at the first slam should be no surprise. There has always been tension between players and officials. However, with recent incidents such as Serena Williams outbursts at the US Open it seems officials are less willing to talk the grief from players. Milos Raonic questioned a call during his second round win and immediately was reprimanded sternly by the chair umpire. It was reminiscent of major league baseball where the umpire will quickly and outwardly get defensive and react to the player. I think some umpires in baseball have gone too far with defensiveness when questioned, just as the players often go too far in the way they "show up" the umpire.

Looking forward to the rest of the Australian Open it would not be surprising if more issues between players and officials arose. The tension is there, you can feel it. Players believe that the officials are not doing their job and relying on the replay system. Players believe that the chair umpires do not want to be wrong and be overruled. And, while the officials really do not discuss these things publicly I am sure they would say that players are getting way too argumentative about calls, especially when the players are often wrong!

Cooler heads need to prevail here. The players need to respect the chair umpire and lines people, and also respect the spirit of the replay rule by quickly asking for the replay. Chair umpires should also be careful of not taking these outbursts from players personally (which may be hard to do when you have former players such as Jeff Tarango blasting them in the media). They need to avoid the defensive and emotional reactions that are commonplace in baseball now. Otherwise, the frustrations will continue to mount between players and officials leading to even more of these incidences.

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