Tennis has cleaned up its act.
Gone are the ugly days of the spitting, racket-bashing, tantrum-throwing brats.
That’s the verdict of the men charged with restoring decorum to the courts: the chair umpires.
The officials, once the main target of the abuse, say the new climate is due to improved umpiring and line-calling, the enforcement of code-of-conduct regulations and the emergence of a new generation of better-behaved players.
“You don’t see the real blowups on the court which tennis was famous for four and five years ago,” said Richard Ings, a 24-year-old Australian who is one of the six full-time umpires on the tour.
“There are some players who won’t say ‘boo’ and will accept any decision,” he said during a break at the Italian Open. “And there are some players who have a reputation as being difficult. But there are no more players going crazy every match. I think that everyone would accept that things are much quieter these days.”
Luigi Brambilla, the chief umpire at the Italian Open, credits both the players and the officials for the revival of tennis etiquette.
“There is no more outrageous conduct because both the officiating and the behavior of the players have improved tremendously,” said the 57-year-old Brambilla, who has umpired at nine U.S. Opens and eight French Opens. “The players recognize now that the umpires and the linesmen are much better and there is no more room for bad behavior.
“I’ve umpired three generations in tennis, starting with (Rod) Laver, (Cliff) Drysdale and (Ilie) Nastase, then onto (Jan) Kodes, (Vitas) Gerulaitis and the young (Jimmy) Connors, and now (Andre) Agassi. The second generation is almost finished. The new generation knows the officials and realizes there is no sense to complain.”
The players were on their best behavior during the two weeks of the Italian Open, a tournament which has had some famous incidents over the years, including the expulsion a few years ago of Argentina’s Jose Luis Clerc for vehemently protesting during a doubles match.
There were contested calls throughout the tournament, sometimes forcing the umpire to climb down from his chair and examine the mark himself. But there were no protracted arguments, as the players invariably accepted the call and returned to position for the next point.
Alberto Mancini didn’t so much as blink when French umpire Bruno Rebeuh gave him a warning for receiving coaching from the stands and later assessed him a penalty point for kicking his racket after an error. Even though the penalty cost him a crucial game, the unruffled Argentine went on to beat Andre Agassi in a five-set final.
In order to combat the rash of incidents that were giving the sport a bad name, the Men’s Tennis Council in 1985 instituted a system of full-time certified chair umpires to officiate at all major Grand Prix tournaments around the world.
There are currently six MTC umpires: Ings, Rebeuh, Gerald Armstrong of England, Rudy Berger of West Germany, American Richard Kaufman and Paulo Pereira of Brazil. They each officiate 32 weeks of tennis a year, working the four Grand Slam events together and splitting up the others. At least two are on hand at each tournament.
“Before you often had an umpire doing just one tournament a year,” said Ings, who was hired at the age of 21 and has umpired more than 1,000 matches in the three years since then. “That led to a lot of cronyism. That doesn’t exist any more.”
The umpires have code-of-conduct rules to help them keep the peace on the court. Under the system, a player receives a warning for a first violation, is penalized a point for the second infraction, loses a game for the third and forfeits the match on the fourth. About a third of the code violations result in fines, which range from a few hundred dollars to $5,000.
“The code-of-conduct is not designed as punishment,” Ings said. “It helps to control the match.”
It’s not always sweetness and light, though. At the Indian Wells tournament in March, Ings defaulted Robert Seguso for his behavior during a match against Agassi.
“Incidents like those are far and few between, but it’s still not roses every day,” Ings said. “We still have good times and bad times. It’s a job that involves making instantaneous decisions. There are always big points in a match, so you’re going to get a reaction from a player. You just have to accept that it’s impossible to make a decision that makes everybody happy.”
The umpires prefer not to discuss the behavior of individual players.
“We try not to categorize the players at all,” Ings said. “You don’t want to have pre-conceived ideas. A guy with a bad reputation can be really nice, and a guy with a good reputation can get out of the wrong side of the bed once in a while.”
Working full-time, the umpires say, allows them to establish a professional on-court relationship with the players.
“We see them week in and week out,” Ings said. “We know them and we know how they react. And they get to know how we work. They know they can’t get away with certain things. That professional familiarity makes our job a lot easier.”
For obvious reasons, the umpires are forbidden from socializing with the players off the court.
“Saying hello is okay, but you could never umpire a guy who was your friend,” Berger said. “And if you did, you’d probably be enemies the next day.”