Commentary

Nothing can stop those tennis tirades

Originally Published: January 18, 2012
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

McEnroe nostalgics, relax. When HawkEye was introduced in 2006 as a system of verifying line calls for tennis matches, there was some concern that the departure of bad calls would take the temper tantrum with it, depriving the sport of one its trademark sources of sideshow entertainment. It's a lot harder to argue with a machine than contest a split-second ruling from a line judge or umpire. Yet after nearly six years of replay, tennis players show no sign of running out of things to get worked up about.

For all the botched late-match calls HawkEye has thankfully spared us from -- however compelling the accompanying tirade, that's no way to decide a hard-fought match -- the system isn't immune from starting an on-court controversy or two itself.

This was painfully apparent on Wednesday, when a five-set thriller between John Isner and David Nalbandian was hijacked by an argument over the use of the replay. Isner, serving down break point at 8-8 in the fifth set, had his serve called out and then overruled by the umpire. The noise of the crowd meant that Nalbandian didn't hear the overrule, and between figuring out what was going on, checking the mark left by the ball and signaling for a replay, he was ruled to be too late for a challenge. The Argentine argued with the chair and the referee, but to no avail, and went on to lose the game and was then immediately broken. Though the match didn't last much longer, the controversy carried on well afterward -- especially when the unofficial replay showed the ball had indeed been out.

[+] EnlargeDavid Nalbandian
Mark Dadswell/Getty ImagesEven though the computer was on David Nalbandian's side, the chair umpire was not.

Challenges are meant to be made in a "timely manner," but this is within the umpire's discretion, and players are usually given some leeway when deciding whether to use up one of their limited number of challenges on a particular point. In fact, the usual grumble is that players are given too much time, often being allowed to wander up and check the mark or look to their boxes for opinions. But even then, was this match, at this stage, really the time to start a crackdown?

"I didn't understand -- in that situation, 8-8, break point. I mean, can you be that stupid to do that in that moment?" demanded Nalbandian afterward.

The ability to call up a computer image helps protect against human error, but it doesn't entirely take subjective judgment out of the process. To start off, there's the player's decision about whether or not to challenge in the first place -- only a limited number are allowed per set. Then the umpire has to decide whether the challenge was requested in time. This can sometimes be tricky when a player decides to stop in the middle of a point -- this must be done immediately after the ball lands -- but, until Thursday, wasn't a big issue on the radar.

Plus, there's always the possibility of computer error -- the system was unavailable for Victoria Azarenka's first-round match, and the wrong image was shown during another encounter earlier this week.

Putting aside the Isner-Nalbandian match, however, the availability of HawkEye has been important in reducing the number of show-court matches affected by disputed line calls -- a good result for sport, if not for show business. But there are plenty of other calls umpires make that players can still get upset about -- just think back to Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final, when she let loose on the umpire after losing a point for calling out during the rally. At the U.S. Open the previous year, Williams got even more fierce when called for a second-serve foot fault that put her match point down. It was so fierce, in fact, that she also received a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, which lost her the match.

Another favorite is arguing whether a point should be replayed after an incorrect call -- a situation that happens far more frequently thanks to HawkEye. The umpire decides whether the shot wrongly called out would have been a winner or whether the player had a play on it, at which point the player on the losing end will vigorously protest either that his speedy self definitely would have gotten the ball back, or that there's no way his slowpoke opponent could have retrieved the ball. And it's not always without merit, either, since this is one of the most subjective judgments umpires make. "I would've had to have alligator arms not to get to that ball," Andy Roddick once protested.

In fact, showing anger and then arguing about it might be the biggest source of extended tantrums these days. Roddick managed to spend a good portion of his first-round loss in Cincinnati berating the umpire for giving him a warning when he hit a ball into the stands.

In addition to the officials, misbehaving fans can get players worked up. That's what the usually mild-mannered Philipp Kohlschreiber apparently did in the Auckland semifinals before the Australian Open. The German engaged in a back-and-forth spat with a fan and also fired two balls into the stands during the match. And the closest Mr. Nice Guy David Ferrer has ever come to creating a scandal came when he (gently) lobbed a ball into the stands at a crying baby in Miami.

And if nothing else, there's always the scoreline. Also on Wednesday night, Marcos Baghdatis sat down during his second-round loss to Stanislas Wawrinka and smashed, one by one, four gleaming blue rackets. It was an arresting sight. "They were all in one go, so it might only be one fine," commentator Todd Woodbridge suggested, trying to look at the bright side.

You can take the emotion out of a line call, but you can't take the emotion out of tennis.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.