‘Are you an idiot?’ Culture of umpire abuse in tennis

Outbursts, although infrequent, are welcomed by the fans and are even encouraged by coaches at a junior level.

serena umpire
The 21-time grand slam champion has a history of outbursts against umpires [Getty Images]

Serena Williams is arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time, having six US Open titles to her name and another 15 grand slams.

But alongside the silverware, her legacy in the Big Apple remains linked to one of the more infamous moments in the tournament’s history.

On a steamy September evening four summers ago, Williams, then chasing a fourth title, faced Australian Sam Stosur in the 2011 final. Serving at break point down midway through the second set, she launched into a forehand, seemingly for a winner.

But before the ball had passed Stosur, Williams let out a loud scream of ‘come on!’.

Citing the USTA’s deliberate hindrance rule which prohibits players from calling out while a point is still in play, Greek umpire Eva Asderaki awarded the point, and the game, to Stosur. Williams was livid.

Abuse galore

“My colleagues and I hear things like ‘you’re such an idiot’ and ‘are you blind’ all the time, it’s quite routine especially at the men’s events.

“Because we’re young, it’s hard to get the respect. Of course it affects you when you’re not used to it, it makes you question yourself.

“Supervisors try to look out for umpires and roam around matches where the players have a reputation for bad behaviour.

“I once had a French player repeatedly abuse me in his own language. I didn’t know what he was saying but the supervisor was waiting for it, and fined him $150.”

Romanian umpire Moisi Dragos

“Don’t look at me,” she shouted at Asderaki during the next changeover.

“If we’re ever walking down the street, stay on the other side. You’re totally out of control. You’re a hater and you’re unattractive inside. What a loser.”

Williams was fined $2,000 but has remained largely unrepentant. In May 2012, she lost in the first round of the French Open with Asderaki once again in the chair.

“She’s not a favourite among players,” Williams sniped afterwards. “I really had a flashback.”

Since the gradual introduction of Hawkeye, such player-official spats, typically sparked by line-call disagreements, have become increasingly infrequent. When they do occur, it often leads to a surge of traffic across the web.

A YouTube video of Williams abusing a line judge during the 2009 US Open has received nearly 300,000 views.

Jimmy Connors, who terrorised many umpires during the 1980s, has since said most of his antics were deliberate as he knew it added entertainment for the crowd.

Nick Kyrgios, who was accused of calling umpire Mohamed Lahyani “dirty scum” at Wimbledon, has admitted that some of his colourful on-court antics have been aimed at ‘putting on a show’.

“While Williams and Kyrgios were out of order, it does definitely add to the drama of the occasion,” tennis fan Iain Stewart, who has followed the tour for the past three decades, told Al Jazeera.

“Connors and John McEnroe were very entertaining. Automatons hitting tennis balls with no emotion is not much fun. You like to see some interaction with the crowd, opponent, even the umpire.

Prior to Hawkeye, line-call conflicts were omnipresent on the tennis courts [Getty Images]
Prior to Hawkeye, line-call conflicts were omnipresent on the tennis courts [Getty Images]

“So while these incidents should be condemned by the authorities and fines imposed where necessary, they’re also good for the sport as they certainly get people interested.”

But while such incidents provide both a gladiatorial spectacle and a stream of viral videos for the fans, they also set precedents which seep into the culture of the lower levels of the sport.

The smaller professional tournaments and junior events are the hidden side of tennis, the rungs of the tour where media and spectators are rarely present and umpires are far less experienced.

“I’ve seen a player get very personal and made the umpire cry after telling her how bad she was at her job and that all the players knew she was the worst umpire around,” British player Naomi Cavaday said.

Cavaday competes on the ITF circuit, the tier below the main WTA Tour.

“This was just because she didn’t agree with her decision. There’s usually two or three full-on temper tantrums at each event I go to. I’ve heard umpires tell the referee ‘I really don’t want to chair his match, I felt really intimidated last time’.

Walking off

“I’ve even seen an umpire have enough of the abuse in a match and replace himself, walking off to the laughter of the taunting player before the final set began.”

At a recent futures tournament in India, the bottom level of the men’s professional circuit, an Israeli played was defaulted after making sexual threats to the female umpire.

But such was the psychological impact of the incident, that umpire has since quit tennis for good.

“Female umpires can have a particularly tough time when they officiate at men’s tournaments,” Himanshu Malik, an umpire who works at professional tournaments throughout Asia, told Al Jazeera.

“That’s because some players see them as potentially vulnerable and so they will say anything to try and undermine their confidence.”

Staying calm is key to resolving the situation, according to Malik [Gary Prior/ALLSPORT]
Staying calm is key to resolving the situation, according to Malik [Gary Prior/ALLSPORT]

At futures tournaments, there are no line judges so umpires are responsible for making all the calls, leaving them exposed. The intent of such abuse is to put pressure on the umpire, so the next time there is a tight decision to be made, it will go in their favour.

With little prize-money, and most players failing to break even each week, it’s another level of gamesmanship to try and gain an extra edge.

Umpires can issue code violations, point penalties and game penalties, leading to varying levels of fines, but it takes a lot of experience to know when the rules can be applied, which is why players tend to target new officials.

“It can make you extremely angry but you have to try and blank it out, have confidence in your decisions and not let it affect you,” Malik added.

“To be an effective umpire, it’s all about having the right temperament, staying calm while they throw their anger at you and show that you’re strong. You have to show them that you’re not nervous and not afraid of making decisions.”

And high-profile umpire altercations on the main tour only make the job tougher.

“Players like Williams and Kyrgios are role models for the guys at the lower levels.

“So some of them will definitely copy them. It also encourages their coaches to advise them to argue with the umpire as they believe it makes it more likely for things to go their way.”

Follow David Cox on Twitter: @dcwriter89

Source: Al Jazeera