They held a tennis match here Friday night and an ethics lesson broke out.
At every venue, in every sport, with every interview, the chatter is about the Olympic spirit. How it feels, what it means, what it brings to the world. But it is usually only that. Chatter. Then, right before our eyes, a U.S. tennis player, James Blake, makes it real.
This was a competitor, critiquing the sportsmanship values of the competition. He was on an international stage, and he didn’t shy from it. He may have been correct in his assessment of what happened. He may have been wrong. But the values inherent in the discussion were truly an Olympic moment.
Blake had just lost a semifinal match in men’s singles. He battled for 2 hours 52 minutes against Fernando Gonzalez of Chile. The match had started slowly and turned into superb tennis. The final score was 4-6, 7-5, 11-9. In the last set, Blake and Gonzalez became two warriors, swinging out, going toe-to-toe. Every game was a barrage of big serves and winning ground strokes.
Blake had three break points in one game early and Gonzalez saved them. Blake had three match points at 5-6 and Gonzalez saved them. In the final game, Gonzalez had four match points and Blake saved them all before finally returning a serve into the net.
So it was over. Gonzalez got to the gold-medal match Sunday and Blake will play for the bronze Saturday.
Turns out, it was far from over.
On the first point of the 18th game of the final set, with Gonzalez serving at 8-9, Blake tried to pass a charging Gonzalez by hitting it right at him. Gonzalez swerved, the ball landed long and Blake quickly realized the point had been put up for Gonzalez.
He walked to the umpire’s chair and a long discussion ensued. Soon, it became obvious that Blake thought the ball had nicked Gonzalez’s racket on its way out, and if so, should have been his point.
Unable to get any satisfaction from the chair umpire, who claimed not to have seen the ball touch Gonzalez’s racket, and by the rules, could not call for a replay on this, Blake eventually turned and looked at Gonzalez, back on his baseline, then walked slowly back to receive the next serve.
He looked bothered, and it didn’t take long afterward to find out why. In his news conference, he called out Gonzalez. It was stunning. Athletes almost never do that, preferring the smooth and easy to the controversial.
He said his shot hit Gonzalez’s racket. He said “in golf and tennis,” you are expected to call situations like that on yourself.
“Fernando looked me square in the eye and didn’t call it.”
Had Blake stopped there, it would have been seen as little more than an athlete, angry at a loss. But Blake turned it into a seminar on sports ethics. And what better platform than the Olympics?
“I’ve spoken all week about how much I’ve enjoyed my Olympic experience, how much I love the other athletes,” he said. “These guys go out and compete their hardest. Win fair and square. Lose fair and square.
“So this is a disappointing way to exit the tournament, when you not only lose the match, but lose a little faith in your fellow competitor.”
Blake said that Gonzalez “clearly knew” the ball had ticked his racket and said that had been confirmed when he got off the court and received several e-mails from friends who had seen a replay.
“I’ll still have fond memories of the Olympic experience,” Blake said. “But . . . it is a little disappointing. It disappoints me a little more in my competition, than the whole Olympic spirit, because I haven’t seen anything like that in these Olympics.
“We know when it [the ball] touches us. And he knew that. You call it yourself because it is the right thing to do.
“Should I expect him to do that? Maybe not. Maybe I shouldn’t expect people to hold themselves to high standards of sportsmanship. But yes, I did expect a little more in the Olympics. We are competing under the banner of this event, to promote sportsmanship, to promote goodwill amongst countries.”
Gonzalez, of course, was taken aback at what hit him in his news conference.
“We are out on the court for two hours,” he said, “and I didn’t feel anything. It was just one point.”
He also said that, if he was “100% sure about it” hitting his racket, he would have called it on himself.
“There is an umpire,” he said.
Blake would argue that the umpire wasn’t the issue.
“If the roles were reversed,” he said, “I’d call it on myself because I would know, if I ever didn’t. . . . I’d still be that same little kid, and if I came off the court and my parents saw me do that, I wouldn’t have the racket back in my hands for weeks.”
It is hard to determine what kind of ripple effect this will have. But the message was important. And the person delivering it, to an Olympic movement that certainly can benefit by hearing it, could have no greater credibility.
Bill Dwyre can be reached at email@example.com. For previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.