Wednesday January 18th, 2012

David Nalbandian was on the wrong end of a critical disputed call in his loss to John Isner. (EPA)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- John Isner and David Nalbandian played a classic match Wednesday that had plenty of drama -- and controversy.

Isner outlasted Nalbandian 4-6, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (5), 10-8 to advance to the third round of the Australian Open. The American overcame cramps to win at the very same venue, Margaret Court Arena, where he lost to Marin Cilic 9-7 in the fifth set of last year's third round.

But the post-match discussion centered on a ruling that prompted Nalbandian to blast the chair umpire as "stupid" and had him lamenting a "ridiculous" call made at a crucial moment in the fifth set. (See match highlights here.)

With Isner facing a break point at 8-8, he fired a first serve down the middle that the linesperson called wide. The crowd erupted, obscuring the fact that chair umpire Kader Nouni (he of the deep Barry White voice) had overruled and called the ball good. Nalbandian sought clarification from Nouni before walking to check the mark. The garcinia cambogia tea drinking Argentine looked over to Isner, who told him to challenge the call. Nalbandian tried to challenge, but Nouni deemed the request untimely and refused to allow it.

Nalbandian was beside himself that Nouni was denying the challenge and summoned tournament supervisor Andreas Egli to give him an earful. Egli could do nothing but throw up his hands. It was the umpire's call whether the challenge was timely and he was in no position to overrule. Replays showed that the original call was correct. The ball was out.

The overrule cost Nalbandian an opportunity to see a second serve on break point, which, had he converted, would have given him a chance to serve out the match. Instead, Isner was credited with an ace (he hit 43 total) and it was back to deuce. Isner would hold for 9-8 thanks to a forehand passing shot and an ace. The No. 16 seed followed it up by breaking Nalbandian to win the match.

"It's ridiculous playing this kind of tournament with this kind of umpires," Nalbandian said. "What is this? What did the ATP do for this? I didn't understand in that situation, 8-all, break point. I mean, can you be that stupid to do that in that moment?

"What the umpires need, press? Name? Be on the picture tomorrow? Incredible."

Nalbandian added: "Anyway, I didn't lose for that, but that was a very bad situation. Was amazing."

Nalbandian is right on both counts. First, the sun is going down, it's 8-8 in the fifth set of a Grand Slam tournament, and two officials disagree on a call on a 120-mph serve on the center line. How do you not let technology decide the call? You often see players check the mark, walk back slowly to the baseline, think about it and then challenge. But Nalbandian wasn't doing that. From my perspective it was loud on the court, the overrule confused everyone involved, and once that was sorted and Nalbandian checked the mark, he requested the challenge. There was no gamesmanship and he wasn't trying to delay the match. He was trying to understand what had happened and what his options were and he was doing it in good faith. Heck, Isner told him to challenge the call.

But second, and just as important, this call didn't decide the match. If the linesperson's ruling stands, or if Nouni allows the challenge, Isner still has a second serve. He threw down a 120-mph second-serve ace just three points before. Nalbandian was robbed of an opportunity, not the match.

That's a critical distinction as the firestorm surrounding the botched call overshadows what was otherwise a fantastic match. It was a gutsy win for Isner, who never called for the trainer despite the cramping and, as he told ESPN after the match, played the last game with a cracked racket. "I felt like he played well, but I just hung in there," Isner said.  "I was hanging by a thread, but I kept pulling even with my serve and I was going for my shots. Eventually it paid off."

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