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WTA Tennis




Cummings and Goings XXIII by Jim Cummings

October 22, 2009 03:18 PM

The Perfect Storm

A bad night suddenly got a lot worse for Serena Williams and when she was called for a baseline foot fault on a second serve at 30 all in a game she needed to stay in the semi-finals of the US Open; she lost it - her composure and the match. What followed was one of the ugliest scenes I have ever had the misfortune to witness on a tennis court. It was hard to believe what was happening before our very eyes. The call triggered a perfect storm of emotion from Serena and the threats she made to the base line umpire sprinkled freely with the f-word earned her a point penalty . It was an ugly, ugly  scene.

She dug herself a hole she could not get out of.  Serena had  gotten an earlier warning for racquet abuse. Unlike the USTA sequence of penalties which is point, game default; the pro sequence is warning, point and a game for any subsequent violation. Technically, Serena was not defaulted. She received a point penalty on match point. In this case, though, the result was the same. I have been writing this column for about 10 years and nothing has raised more questions than what happened that night.

Let's start with the foot fault call. Was the call correct? I would bet on it. Every year, the call goes out from USTA to all certified officials for expressions of interest in working the US Open. Not counting the foreign umpires, there are about 3,300 officials certified by the USTA. From those that respond, about 250 are hand picked to work based on their level of certification, performance ratings and evaluations and experience. From this pool, a select number are chosen to work the later high profile matches of the tournament. For the semi-finals of the women's singles, you can rest assured only the best of the best are selected. At the Mid-Atlantic Senior League Championships held the first weekend of October at the Tennis Center at College Park, I had an opportunity to talk with Ernie Mosby who serves on the US Open officials selection committee. Ernie spoke highly of the umpire who made the foot fault call and told me she was probably the second best official in Japan. Be sure she saw a foot fault. We are taught that if you think it is a foot fault; it is not. You have to know it is a foot fault. She knew. Unfortunately, there are no replays to backup the call, but there is a shot on YouTube that shows the foot pivoting toward the line. It is not conclusive, but...

John McEnroe is quoted as saying you can't call a foot fault at that point in a match. What else don't you call then? It was not, as he said, a terrible time to make that call; it was a terrible time for a professional player to foot fault. That McEnroe would say this is  not surprising to me.  I remember a match I was on where he pitched a bitch about 2 foot faults a baseline umpire had called on him. On the changeover, the chair umpire motioned to me and the baseline umpire to switch positions. It is a procedure called "for the good of the match" used to defuse a potential problem. Guess what happened the next time McEnroe served on my side? You guessed. He threw up his hands in his famous "they are out to get me" display, went on with the match...and stopped foot faulting. I suppose I am still on his evil list. There hasn't been  a knock on my door, nor am I expecting one. Every now and then after a  junior match, I will tell a player on whom I have called a foot fault or two that he and McEnroe have something in common. That always grabs them and then you can hear their eyeballs click when I tell them I have called foot faults on both of them.

When the tirade ended, the chair umpire called the line umpire up to report what had happened. Shortly after, she summoned the Referee, Brian Early,  (who was accompanied by a tour supervisor) and consulted with him before assessing the loss of point code violation. One thing that sticks out in my mind is Serena asking him "You would do that to me?" when he told her of the penalty. Obviously, the enormity of what she had done escaped her. 

By:  Jim Cummings 10/12/2009

Jim Cummings Bio:
   Born in Marinette, WI
   Boyhood friend of the Cook family
   Played varsity tennis for UW-Madison in the 50s
   Officiated at over 25 US Opens as a chair and line umpire
   Served on USTA's Rules Committee when Jack Stahr and Nick Powel were Chairs
   Active senior player and Referee
   Presently helps edit the Friend At Court