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You Can't Be Serious!
Posted Wednesday, September 8, 2004

by Bill Hogan


I wonder how much chair umpires are paid to preside over the tennis matches at the U.S. Open. Whatever it is, it's either way too much or not nearly enough, depending upon your point of view.

From the view I had in front of my television set during the Serena Williams – Jennifer Capriati quarterfinal match, it looked to me like chair umpire Mariana Alves should have returned any compensation she may have received for her efforts that night.


I don't watch much tennis, but I enjoy the U.S. Open – for obvious reasons. It's our national championship. There have been many memorable tennis matches in the history of the Open. And – even at the ripe old age of 45 – you never know when John McEnroe is going to go ballistic on a chair umpire.

When Alves woefully blew a call during the first game of the third set in the Williams-Capriati match, McEnroe was, very briefly, at a loss for words. Alves called a Serena backhand "out" - and awarded a point to Capriati – when the shot was clearly within the lines of the playing surface; so clearly that any amateur sitting in the stands or watching from a 5-inch black and white set at home could have made the correct call; even without the benefit of instant replay.

It took McEnroe a few minutes to process what had happened and then his commentary began to flow. Having watched Johnny Mac as a player in the '80's, I couldn't help but think that the myopically inept chair umpire was as lucky as she was incorrect.

Lucky that the blatantly bad call wasn't made in a U.S. Open quarterfinal match that featured a 24-year old John McEnroe. Had that been the case, I'm not sure she would have been able to walk out of Arthur Ashe Stadium without considerable assistance – or at least a police escort.

McEnroe's tantrums and tirades – usually directed at chair umpires – during his playing days were legendary. He had the ability to bring a grown man sitting in a chair six feet above the court to tears. "Can't you see anything?" he once screamed at an umpire, "that cost me the damn set."

He left linesmen quaking in their tennis shoes with the slam of his racquet, a steely glare and a pithy phrase like "how much bigger a point can you screw up!" And it didn't help to try and ignore McEnroe's tempestuous outbursts. Those who tried that tactic were likely to hear "Answer the question. The question, Jerk!"

McEnroe's epic championship battles with Connors and Borg and Lendl were often peppered with abusive rants aimed squarely at the umpire's chair. "You can't be serious, that ball was on the line…chalk flew up!"

"We're in shock and we're not even playing," McEnroe said about the call made against Serena Williams. "That was not even close," he opined in an abnormally reserved tone. It was obvious he was irritated but his commentary was restrained somewhat by the confines of the announcer's booth (and a contract with USA Networks).

The umpire's blunder had McEnroe so miffed that he complained about it all the way through Andy Roddick's easy fourth round win later in the evening. At one point, long after Serena had showered and left the tennis center, he wondered aloud whether all umpires were either near sighted or far sighted.

When McEnroe was winning U.S. Open Championships in the early '80's, tennis fans either loved him or hated him. He was loud, obnoxious and intimidating – especially to the poor sap charged with officiating his matches. I always found his antics somewhat amusing – though others would disagree.

Given the enormity of the situation – the third and deciding set against a formidable opponent with a spot in the semi-finals on the line – Serena handled herself very well. She questioned the umpire's call, but never went off the deep end. Considering how badly the umpire botched the call, nobody would have blamed her if she had.

That chair umpire is very fortunate that she didn't make that same call twenty years ago on center court in the third set of the men's final. I'm sure that John McEnroe – attempting to win his fourth U.S. Open Championship against Ivan Lendl - would have had a little more to say about the matter. For instance, "I'm not going to have a point taken away because this guy's an incompetent fool, you know that!"


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