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U.S. Open

ALISON HUGHES AND THE COMPLEXITY OF CHAIR UMPIRING

Matt Zemek

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Mohamed Lahyani and Carlos Ramos made headlines at the past U.S. Open, but they made headlines in very different ways. The two men acted at the opposite ends of the tennis spectrum: Mo was lenient with Nick Kyrgios, while Carlos Ramos was very strict with Serena Williams.

Mo did not produce an officiating performance which was in direct compliance with the rule book or in accordance with good optics for a chair umpire. Getting down from the chair is something the umpire shouldn’t do unless absolutely necessary, and what Mo did with Nick did not seem to meet that criteria.

Mo’s intentions were good, but when he talked eye-to-eye with a player, the visual scene created the wrong appearance. Sports officials of all kinds do not want to create the wrong appearance.

Carlos Ramos, on the other hand, faithfully applied the rulebook to Serena Williams. Patrick Mouratoglou admitted he coached Serena. Later, the racquet abuse committed by Serena plainly occurred. Later, Serena’s language certainly gave Ramos reason to slap down a third code violation.

Naturally, many disagree with the application of a game penalty for the third violation, but even the most ardent Serena defender can admit that she put herself in jeopardy and that Carlos Ramos applies rules more strictly than most chair umpires.

The examples of Lahyani and Kyrgios — which were both explosive, both controversial, and both sources of great divisions on #TennisTwitter — show that chair umpires are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Lahyani’s optics were undeniably bad, but his intentions were very good. He was concerned about the welfare of a player, and by extension, he was concerned about the quality of the product on court.

That is a good instinct for a sports official to have. When I officiated basketball and a player showed anger and confusion at the calls I made on court, I would regularly try to take that player aside and explain to him why I made the call and what the player could do to avoid committing a foul or violation in the future. Sports officials need to be good communicators — not only with other officials, but with athletes.

That communication can relieve emotional stress and make sports more fun for everyone involved.

I have been saying this a lot, but it needs to be said again: While it seems very simple to say that referees in tennis or any sport should just apply the rules, period, trust me as someone who has officiated sports: IT’S NOT THAT SIMPLE.

Officiating IS procedurally and conceptually simple when making a call about whether a ball was in or out. It is not simple when trying to manage the emotions and expectations of the players involved. This doesn’t make Carlos Ramos wrong in his handling of Serena Williams, but it does raise legitimate questions about handing out game penalties late in a major tournament final.

In the pursuit of consistency, many reasonable people might want a major final to be officiated the same way that the round of 16 in Washington, D.C. would be officiated. Structurally, that claim makes complete sense. It is an idealistic view, and I do not look down on idealism — it is something to encourage in other human beings.

Yet, the realistic view — I can say this having been a sports official — is that no, all matches are NOT the same.

The World Cup final is not the same as an international friendly in August. Game 7 of the NBA Finals is not the same as Game 24 of an 82-game NBA season, played just before Christmas Day. Sports officials and umpires don’t merely make calls on where balls land, or whether racquets touch the net or not, or on whether an out call came before or after a player hit a shot, which might affect whether a point gets awarded or replayed.

Chair umpires in tennis don’t just officiate matches. They officiate SITUATIONS. This is why, even though Mo Lahyani did not follow the rule book, he did the kind of thing a good chair umpire should do. I can be relatively confident that when Nick Kyrgios sees Mo in the chair, he knows he has a man who will listen to what he has to say.

It is good for officials to be trusted by players. If officials are doing their jobs well, they will indeed build trust with the athletes they have to relate to on a constant basis.

Yet, at the same time, umpires do need to enforce the rules. We see this — and say this — all the time in tennis: “If the damn chair umpires would simply enforce the rules more often, we wouldn’t need a serve clock. If the chair umpires would simply enforce the rules all the time, a lot of these debates would go away.” This is why I can disagree with Carlos Ramos and yet totally understand and accept why he did what he did. I dislike what he did, but I can completely accept what he did.

Such is the complexity of sports officiating… which brings us to Sunday’s men’s final at the U.S. Open.

Alison Hughes has been a very good umpire for two decades. You did not see a major controversy erupt during the men’s final. You did not see a volcanic exchange with a player. You did not see tempers flare at any point. You saw a match in which the emotions of the players were managed as well as one could reasonably expect.

What ALSO happened on Sunday was that Hughes, on at least a handful of occasions, did not enforce the serve clock and hand out a time violation to Novak Djokovic.

Some will say, with complete and valid logic, that Hughes’s non-enforcement is part of the problem in tennis. I can’t ARGUE with that point. It is, narrowly speaking, unassailable. Rather than ARGUE with that point, though, I will simply present the other strand of thought which has to be part of any discussion about sports officials: While the rules do need to be enforced more consistently, Hughes created a completely harmonious experience for the players involved. More precisely, she did not do what several chair umpires have done, with or without the serve clock, in recent years: She did not hand out a time violation when a player took too long to serve on a key break point late in a set.

You have seen chair umpires do that. Players take extra time before a hugely important break point. Umpires who could have dinged the player for a time violation earlier in the match (at a less important scoreboard moment) but refused to do so then bust out the time violation in a very consequential moment.

One could say that the chair umpire — in such situations — is technically applying the rule and is therefore justified in giving the time violation. However, when following the rule book HERE means NOT following the rule book in other moments over THERE, the umpire creates an environment and pattern of inconsistency, which is the last thing players deserve or need.

Hughes, in Sunday’s final, was consistent in cutting the players slack on the serve clock. That consistency created a match largely free of anger between players and umpires. The headlines about the men’s final were about the tennis, and about Djokovic winning his 14th major title, tying the great Pete Sampras. Djokovic received what Naomi Osaka was denied: the right to savor and be centrally praised for winning a major, instead of being overshadowed by other stories.

The major tournaments are now over for the 2018 season. As this poorly-governed sport prepares for the 2019 Australian Open, tennis has a lot of communicating to do with players, coaches and chair umpires, to get everyone on the same page. In that process of communication, consistency across umpires needs to become a central topic of conversation.

However, the idea that chair umpiring can be reduced to empirical observations ALONE — removing ANY judgment calls or ANY discretion used in managing the emotions of players and the situations they inhabit — is simply not realistic, and not in accordance with principles of good chair umpiring.

The climate and culture enveloping chair umpires and tennis players — in 2019 and beyond — needs to seek certain points of balance. If chair umpires are to be expected to apply rules more consistently, they need to do so in round-of-32 matches in Umag as well as Wimbledon quarterfinals.

If players get used to more precise and regular rulebook applications in ATP 500 events or WTA Premier tournaments, it will not come across as an unwelcome jolt if chair umpires are equally strict at the majors.

This also applies to the scoreboard as well: If chair umpires are going to strictly apply the rules at 5-5 and 30-40 in the second set, they need to apply the rules equally at 2-2 and 30-0 in the first set. They CAN’T become noticeably MORE strict in the more important moments of the match.

They either need to set a consistent pattern the whole way, or — in the Alison Hughes playbook — be spacious and understanding in important, tension-soaked moments.

I end this piece with two bottom lines:

Point No. 1: There will ALWAYS be room for — and a need for — chair umpires, as with any sports officials, to exercise good judgment and handle gray areas.

Much of sports officiating is about making black-and-white calls regarding the ball and a white line. However, some of sports officiating is about managing the emotions of the flesh-and-blood players on the playing surface. Managing emotions can never be fully eliminated from sports officiating, which is why Mo Lahyani and Alison Hughes — though following a VERY different path compared to Carlos Ramos — did their jobs well and hardly committed anything close to a cardinal sin.

Mo was immersed in controversy because the player he communicated with, Kyrgios, is a lightning rod for controversy. Hughes rightly didn’t receive any criticism because she created a harmonious match in a major final. I respect what they did just as I respect Ramos for trying to apply the rule book more regularly.

They have different points of emphasis, but I can approve of how all three umpires did their jobs, because umpiring is a lot more complicated than meets the eye.

Point No. 2: Can we see how counterproductive the serve clock really is? It is plainly apparent how useless this reform has turned out to be.

First of all, the men’s final was a relatively routine straight-setter. It had an extremely long game late in the second set, but Djokovic won the first and third sets without too many problems. He was in firm control of the match most of the time.

The middle games of the second set represented his one rocky period in the match. Yet, the men’s final lasted over three hours. Friday, the first set and two games of the Nadal-del Potro men’s semifinal took 85 minutes. Nadal played a 4:23 four-setter against Karen Khachanov. The list goes on.

The serve clock’s central — and only — purpose is to reduce the length of tennis matches. Tennis matches did not become noticeably or meaningfully shorter at the U.S. Open. That alone should end the argument about whether serve clocks are necessary.

However, let’s add more to the discussion. Other points need to be made here.

The fact that the USTA slowed down the courts makes the long match times stand out. If the top players had faster courts to play on, the length of points would be shortened and players could be more aggressive with their shots. On a tour which already has a lot of medium-pace hardcourts and red clay in the European spring, why would the sport want an even slower major hardcourt tournament in the latter part of the season, when it is well known that players have accumulated a lot of mileage and are less fresh compared to the year’s first major hardcourt tournament in Australia?

Shouldn’t the U.S. Open — coming at a later point in the tennis year — have every incentive to become a fast-hardcourt tournament?

That wouldn’t merely shorten match times, to be clear. It would reduce strain on players by creating less attritional tennis and rewarding more shotmaking tennis. To think that the serve clock performs a meaningful function, but then make the courts very slow, is the height and epitome of tennis idiocy, the kind of short sighted thinking which is sadly prevalent in this sport.

One other item before we’re done with the serve clock discussion: If we are going to expect chair umpires such as Alison Hughes and Carlos Ramos to officiate a tennis match AND coaching violations, forcing them to look at the serve clock gives them yet another complicated responsibility which is unrelated to following the flight of the tennis ball.

If we are going to help chair umpires in tennis, we — meaning the sport at large — should make their jobs SIMPLER, not more complicated. Yet, if the serve clock doesn’t meaningfully shorten the length of matches, it represents nothing other than an extra layer of distraction and complication, making a chair umpire’s job TOUGHER, not EASIER… which will only increase the chances of more controversies arising in the future.

We will see if this is the last tennis officiating column I write at Tennis With An Accent in 2018. Why do I have the feeling that it won’t be?

Probably because in November, some news story will emerge about how tennis will try to treat the 2019 season.

Say this much, however: If we are going to praise Carlos Ramos for faithfully applying the rules, we should also praise Alison Hughes for creating a harmonious experience in the men’s final.

It is only fair… which in the end, is what chair umpires always try to be, but within their own context of prudential judgment and discretion.

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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