Thursday April 12th, 2012

Caroline Wozniacki was upset with chair umpire Kader Nouni for an overrule he made on match point against Maria Sharapova at the Sony Ericsson Open. (Getty Images)

Last week, The Toss took a look at two effective counterpunchers still chasing their first Grand Slam title: Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska. Lindsay Gibbs made her case that Radwanska is more likely to win a major first, and the readers reluctantly agreed (38 percent for A-Rad, 27 percent for Wozniacki and 34 percent voting neither would win a major).

This week, tennis writer and blogger Chris Oddo returns to look at a topic stemming from a few recent controversies, one of which involving Wozniacki, a chair umpire, and a match-point overrule.

Today's Toss: Should chair umpires take a more assertive role in matches or a more hands-off approach?

Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me for The Toss this week, Chris. The last time I invited you into my house for a debate you crushed me rather handily in the readers' poll. So I'm bringing my A-game today. Much like Agnieszka Radwanska at the hands of Vika, I cannot afford any further humiliation.

This week's topic arises out of the chorus of complaints we've heard over the last few weeks regarding how involved umpires should be in matches. Rafael Nadal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga complained about the perceived trend among umpires to not actively overrule linecalls for fear of being proven wrong by Hawk-Eye. Then just a few days later, a chair umpire did overrule a call -- on match point nonetheless -- and Wozniacki complained that he should have stayed out of it because she had no more challenges to use while Maria Sharapova could have challenged the call.

Umpires are damned if they do, damned if they don't, damned the minute they start climbing that little chair of theirs. So what do we think about this?

First off, while we're on the topic of Hawk-Eye, let me just say I'm all about "production for use" (any Bruce and Hildy fans out there?). We have the technology. The fans and players (mostly) believe in the technology. All we have to do is use the technology. Enough of this "three correct challenges" allotment. Give the players all the challenges they want and if they abuse the system then give them a code violation. But in a game of millimeters, let's not let matches be decided on whether a player challenges or not, or in Wozniacki's case in Miami, whether they can or cannot. We have the technology and it's not intrusive. Let's use it.

As for the question at hand, I suppose it's a bit of a cop out to say that they should be as assertive as the match calls for them to be. But what I mean is, be assertive. My directive would be to call the match as they see it, regardless of what court they're on, which players they're dealing with, and what the scoreboard says. Calling a ball in or out is a split-second decision. Let's not complicate that by requiring umpires and linespeople to think "Gosh, golly, I think that might have been out but it's match point and I better be sure. Am I sure? I think so. I mean, I'm pretty sure." Meanwhile an entire set has been played while they're still working this out in their minds. Black and white, in or out, yes or no. Let's keep it objective. Call it as you see it.

Serena Williams was upset with a call by Shino Tsurubuchi at the 2009 U.S. Open, and lashed out in an outbreak that would cost her the match. (Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated)

One of the more polarizing umpire decisions we've had in the last 10 years was the famous foot fault called on Serena Williams at the 2009 U.S. Open. Serving at 5-6, 15-30 in the second set against Kim Clijsters, Serena did look like she toed the line during her serve and lineswoman Shino Tsurubuchi made the call.

"I think as umpires, if it's a foot fault, we should call a foot fault," Tsurubuchi told SI.com after the tournament. "But usually I am at the baseline and I wish -- I pray -- for players: 'Please don't touch that line!' I don't like to make that call because players are not happy. But if players touch the line, we have to make the call. But, yes, I pray, 'Please don't touch that line because if you touch the line I have to call it and I don't want to.'"

Tsurubuchi saw what she saw and made the call and we all know what happened next -- Williams was given a code violation for her conduct. Game, set, match Clijsters. What surprised me, though, was John McEnroe's commentary from the box. Now, McEnroe isn't exactly one to defer to an umpire's call anyway, but he could not stop going on about how "You can't make that call in that situation." I'm sorry, but I don't buy that at all. It's an official's job to make the call that's in front of them and that's what Tsurubuchi did. And credit to the USTA, ATP, WTA, ITF, and whatever other alphabet soup stood behind her afterwards and allowed her to continue officiating, sending a message to other officials that she did nothing wrong.

I'm all for this level of involvement and assertiveness by officials. What about you, Chris? Do you think I'm running the risk of umpire's taking over the game?

Chris Oddo: Courtney, let me preface anything I write here by agreeing wholeheartedly with something you mentioned: umpires are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Even when they make the right call, as you alluded to in the Serena foot-fault saga of ‘09, they can be chastised and threatened with bodily harm. But oh, imagine what happens if they are egregiously wrong! Then it’s off to YouTube you go, where the angry masses can study your ineptitude for eons. In other words, yeah, it’s a tough gig, and I sympathize with that.

That said, I think umpires do tend to manufacture many of their own problems by being trigger-happy on the overrule. Who could forget this year’s Australian Open, when Kader Nouni wrongly overruled on John Isner’s serve at break point, 8-all in the fifth set? The ball was called correctly “out” by the line judge, but Nouni overruled to give Isner the ace. To make matters worse, he got all uptight and denied Nalbandian -- who was confused about the whole affair and needed some time to process what was going on -- his right to challenge the call, saying it wasn't a timely challenge.

Quite frankly, it was bogus. Talk about a sisyphean struggle. You earn a break point against John Isner, he misses his first serve, and some meddling umpire decides on a whim to give him an ace. I’m surprised Nalbandian didn’t need shock therapy after that one.

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I’m in favor of using the overrule judiciously. Sometimes it’s necessary. The goal is to get the call right and I understand that. But what Nouni did in this match, and what too many umpires do in too many matches, is sabotage their own good intentions with their desire to micro-manage a match.

Haven’t linespeople been marginalized enough by the advent of Hawk-Eye in recent years? It must be demoralizing for them. They have the best vantage point to make the calls, while the umpires, way up there in their ivory towers, might as well be in a luxury suite they are so far from the balls they are often overruling.

As entertaining as it can be at times, it’s just not necessary for umpires to get involved in this way anymore. The challenge system is in place, and we’ve got good hardworking linespeople all over the court. Let’s let them do their thing.

Nguyen: Oh, boy. Don't get me started on that Nouni call against Nalbandian. I don't mind that Nouni made the overrule. That's fine. You call it how you see it. But here's my problem with the call: It was an absolute outrage he didn't let Nalbandian challenge, because by his watch -- which clearly does not move by any normal metric of time as measured by humans -- Nalbandian had taken too long to call the challenge. That was the wrong call, given that because of the noise of the crowd -- and the fact that Nouni doesn't exactly enunciate when he speaks -- Nalbandian seemed to have had no idea what had happened. So Nalbandian used up his allotted time to challenge by trying to clarify what the initial call was? Seems way off.

But you bring up a good point in this example, Chris. Nouni did exactly what Tsurubuchi did with Serena. She called it how she saw it. In Nouni's case, not only did he see the line call differently, but he blocked the ensuing challenge. Taking too long to challenge is as subjective a call as they come, not dissimilar to a hindrance call. Here's what the ATP rulebook says on challenges (page 299):

Each player (team) will have three incorrect challenges per set, plus one more in a tiebreak. Challenges must be made in a timely manner and can only be made on point-ending shots or when a player stops play. If, for any reason, Electronic Review of the call is unavailable, the original call will stand.

Most of tennis' rules are pretty clear: time violations, code violations for racket abuse, ball abuse, or swearing, even let calls. All are purely objective (though umpires are still selective in invoking them). So maybe it's time to to make the rules completely objective (i.e., define how long is "a timely manner" to challenge) and tell umpires to enforce the letter of the law.

How do you think that would fly, Chris? Andy Roddick, John McEnroe and Marat Safin have argued over the years that Hawk-Eye has actually taken all the personality and fun out of the game because there is no more arguing with the umpire and having a fit on court. Are we anesthetizing our sport to death with this almost clinical desire to always be right?

Oddo: There lies the irony, Courtney. Here we are talking about ways to eliminate controversies that might be caused by less than perfect officiating, when in reality we know that we’d miss them if they were gone.

Alexander Dolgopolov was upset when the chair umpire didn't stop play when Bernard Tomic challenged a call mid-point at the Australian Open. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

In a way, Hawk-Eye has actually served to add an element of confusion, and thus suspense/drama, because we now regularly witness odd occurrences that require very intuitive officiating and leave larger than usual amounts of grey area when it comes to how to actually enforce or interpret them. We have linespeople falling asleep at the wheel (why should they care as much if their calls aren’t the last word?) and players raising their rackets in the air mid-point as if to challenge, then deciding against it if they suddenly find that the ball they inadvertently hit ended up putting them at an advantage in the point (see Bernard Tomic vs. Alex Dolgopolov, Australian Open).

In other words, the further we advance technologically, the more unsolvable the quandaries seem to become. It may sound sad, but it fosters some pretty compelling debate, so should we really complain?

So, to address your concern that we might be anesthetizing the sport with our clinical desire to perfect it, I say it’s impossible. There will always be something for players and umpires to freak out over, no matter how clearly defined the rules of engagement are. Just look at the example you brought up before: Tsonga ends up miffed when the umpire isn’t overruling the bad calls he gets against Nadal, even though he’s now -- in our wonderfully enlightened, technologically advanced era -- afforded the opportunity to challenge and right the wrong himself.

Players will always find something to gripe about, especially the ones who lose, as Tsonga did in that match, and umpires will always be in danger of becoming the object of somebody’s bizarre, angst-ridden meltdown.

In the end I think the chair umpires should focus their efforts on laying out clear guidelines for the players and being consistent. These are complicated times, and I think they have their hands full just trying to navigate their way around the fact that the technology and humanity sometimes mix like oil and water.

They don’t need to compound their problems by trying to do too much. They should back off, manage the intricacies of the system, and only overrule if they’d be willing to bet their lives on the call. You decide: Sound off in the comments and vote in the poll above to let us know how you think officials should approach their roles.

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