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Tennis has learned nothing in 40 years

Matt Zemek

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On August 30, 1979, a chair umpire properly enforced the rules of tennis. As a result of properly enforcing those rules, chair umpire Frank Hammond (shown in the cover image for this story) was asked to step down from the chair, to be replaced by tournament referee Mike Blanchard.

Yes, this was the Ilie Nastase-John McEnroe match at the 1979 U.S. Open. Two bad-boy players played in front of a lubricated nighttime crowd, but in the ultimate plot twist, John McEnroe was not the offending party. Ilie Nastase was.

McEnroe was happy to let Nastase implode. Even Johnny Mac knew a good situation when he saw one. He receded into the background while “Nasty” lost his cool, as he was wont to do.

This could have been a night when tennis properly responded to a situation, and in truth, Hammond — regarded as one of the best chair umpires of his time — handled the matter as well as one could hope for. He gave Nastase a little leeway, but once he saw that Nastase had no interest in playing, he defaulted him.

Ah, but there was a large crowd which wanted to see more tennis. More precisely, there was a large crowd at a U.S. Open tournament which had moved from the old Forest Hills complex to the brand-new USTA National Tennis Center just one year earlier, in 1978.

The U.S. Open could not have a disappointed crowd on its hands. That was more important than properly defaulting a player for being an unrepentant jerk and refusing to play tennis.

Hammond did the right thing… and was essentially punished for it.

Blanchard — the tournament referee — and tournament director Billy Talbert set a horrible example.

The match continued. McEnroe won. Tennis lost.

That match could have and should have been a time when tennis regrouped and realized that Frank Hammond set a gold standard for chair umpires. Tennis could have changed course and made it a priority to both protect and empower chair umpires to enforce rules when players try to magnify conflict instead of reducing it.

Tennis did not do so.

Now, 40 years later, the sport still enables bad boys and allows their behavior to continue. As Andrew Burton said last year after the Mo Lahyani-Nick Kyrgios incident at the 2018 U.S. Open, the message is clear to chair umpires: Don’t take any risks.

That message was sent last year… and it was originally sent as soon as Mike Blanchard and Billy Talbert pushed aside Frank Hammond in 1979.

Tennis still doesn’t get it.

Tennis deserves all the scorn in the world for failing to show a spine and failing to display any meaningful leadership.

Nick Kyrgios isn’t blameless or innocent, but 40 years of awful leadership (if you can even call it “leadership”) are primarily responsible for this mess.

The sport, as a collective entity, learned nothing from a hot-tempered August night 40 years ago. What Ilie Nastase started, John McEnroe continued… and Nick Kyrgios carries today.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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