Thursday, March 01, 2007

Professional Tennis, Amateur Umpires

Last week I went to Belfast to watch some of my childhood heroes play tennis.

The Blackrock Tennis Legends Tour takes place each year, but this was the first trip to Ulster, and it was hosted at the Belfast Odyssey Arena as the kick-off event for the whole tour.

I loved watching McEnroe and Connors when I was younger. They inspired me and excited me, producing some of the best matches I have ever seen - even to this date. Unfortunately Connors was not in this tour, nor was my other tennis idol, Ivan Lendl, but John McEnroe was, along with Henri LeConte and Pat Cash, which went some way to making up for Connors's absence.

As expected the tennis was high class, and the showcase doubles matches in particular were great fun. Henri LeConte stole the show in the doubles - mock-arguing with the umpire about the pronunciation of his name (which he changed a few times), and ambling around the court as if he was bored waiting for a bus, making faces at the audience and ballboys.

Pat Cash and Karl-Uwe Steeb (Charlie to the locals) were the prime jesters in the singles matches. Their sense of fun and enjoyment in the game ensured that the audience were happy to shout and cheer as they played. Pat Cash paused several times to pose for the ladies or shake that still-firm booty for the crowds.

McEnroe was as fired up as ever. The first set of the match I watched was fantastic - to a point. There were of course tantrums at line calls and umpire decisions. However, at some point the mood turned, and the tantrums became more vitriol than bluster. I wasn't particularly surprised to note this, and heard a few comments around me as people began to realise this wasn't just the usual display of frustration on court. McEnroe was really angry.

The situation came to a head when McEnroe sat down and refused to play on. He told the umpire he was forfeiting the match and threw his racket on court. The crowd laughed at first, and the was a mixture of cheering and jeering. It was very awkward, because most of us could see that he was correct in his initial point of argument. Most of us however had never had the chance to see a player of his calibre play live before, and may never see it again. We wanted to get the most of the time we had with him. I was seated close behind him, and tried to shout encouragement, telling him he could still take the match. Others did the same, and finally he returned to the court. Unfortunately he initially punished his opponent for the delay and disagreement, although his problem actually lay with the linespeople and umpire. Play soon returned to 'normal', but he lost the match after putting less effort into the second set. The crowd were quieter also; concerned about pushing him that last bit too far, perhaps.

The argument was over line calls - what else? But the point he tried to make was valid. The linespeople did not call loud enough. In fact, on several occasions they did not bother calling out at all - just raising their arms for the umpire to see - if she was looking in the right direction. The same umpire overruled a point in a match between Steeb and Cash the next day - despite the fact that Steeb admitted it was out, Cash could clearly tell it was out and the linesman had pointed it out. She overruled all three people because she had been unable to hear the linesman's call (which I heard from the opposite side of the court). The point had been an important one, but thankfully both players recovered well.

Last month I watched the Australian Open Tennis Tournament, and was embarrassed for my home town at the difference in quality of the match peripherals. The players had to remind ballgirls to pass balls down the court after games; the ballgirls and ballboys threw badly to the players as they waited to serve; the linestaff with one noteable exception called too quietly when they called at all; the scoreboard was repeatedly incorrect; and the umpires regularly corrected themselves for awarding points to the wrong player. Some of the linestaff and ballgirls looked as if they really wished they were elsewhere, and didn't pay appropriate attention to the match or players. After a point all this began to seriously detract from the matches, and both the audience and players became more subdued as several matches progressed, losing the fire to frustration at poor judgements.

Pat Cash made a point of thanking the audience, and promised they would return. I was overjoyed to hear this, because I would not have been surprised if he had complained at he amateur nature of the court staff and vowed never to return. I am glad he feels that the audience, us lovers of the game, are worth the additional chance, and I can only hope that the venue takes note of the problems raised those nights and does better next time.

Photographs and more to follow.

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