Sunday, June 14, 2015


It's been a rough treble of weeks for Rafa Nadal - actually, it's been a rough treble of months.  First, he lost 6 times on clay in one season for the first time in 10 years, and he also dropped to his lowest ranking in 10 years.  Aside from one shining moment in Buenos Aires, his season has, to say the least, been less than spectacular.  He lost twice in a row to Fabio Fognini, once to Andy Murray, and for the third time this year, at Roland Garros, to Djokovic, who then proceeded to do him the indignity of losing the final to some Swiss guy.  To be fair, he hasn't been himself this year, and one has impression that, as unthinkable as this was for a decade, this year the Djoker wasn't the only one who would have taken care of the King of Clay in Paris.

But something else is happening to him...something off the court.  Quietly, but persistently, there seems to be a distinct questioning of something that heretofore was entirely off-limits:  Rafa's sportsmanship.  For a guy who always rubs out the mark, and always speaks glowingly of any player (that smiles at him in the locker room) there seems to have been this year, more than a few rumblings about some things which up to now the tennis world has simply accepted as the fleas that come with the dog.  So lately, I'm not sure if Rafa Nadal would be better referred to as Carlito Moreno...or Charlie Brown in Spanish.

In his match with Jack Sock in the 4th round, a new statistic was revealed that I'd never seen before:  they indicated he had gone over the time limit on 100% of his serves, as opposed to 2/3rds of the time for the American.  There has also been a lot of concern about his very public request not to have Carlos Bernardes umpire any more of his matches - a request that reared it's ugly head (for no apparent reason) at Roland Garros this year, despite having been made in Brazil over 2 and 1/2 months earlier.  It's hard to imagine that his dwindling fortunes this year did not contribute to a new found interest in things that would certainly have been swept under the rug in years past.

Now, I have always felt that Nadal does indeed gain a competitive advantage by taking so much time in between points, and this is no innocuous infringement, despite the humor of all the idiosyncrasies he he manages to cram into 30 seconds.  After all, it must be very difficult to physically recover entirely after the long drawn out points he frequently plays, which is a key to his success over aggressive ball-striking opponents in particular.  And I have always found it to be incredibly self-serving of him to react angrily to umpires correctly applying the rules and giving him time violation warnings.  

In Madrid last year, he complained that it wasn't good for the show if they properly applied the rules - implying that his brand of tennis is more entertaining and as a result an exception should be made when he's played a particularly entertaining point.  But this does nothing to assuage the concern for how frequently he goes over the limit after serving an ace, a service winner, or hitting an effective 1-2 combination.  As such, I think it's perfectly appropriate for him to be cited more frequently for these clear violations.  But this year, something ugly has happened, which I also think is incredibly inappropriate.

In Brazil, after accidentally putting his shorts on backwards, he served (and won) the first game of the set, then quickly ran to the sidelines to change his shorts back round the right way.  It was a moment of levity, or so we thought, until Carlos Bernardes noticed that his opponent was ready to serve, and Nadal, having chosen the short changeover after the first game to correct his livery, wound up interrupting the server's pace, which is against the laws of the game, and he was promptly (and correctly) cited for a time violation.  Nadal, incensed, complained intensely to no avail, and then publicly requested that Bernardes not do any more of his matches.  It is at this point that I must draw the line, and say that Nadal has let himself and the game down with this request.

I understand that some players just don't get along with some umpires - it happens, and is perfectly normal - but the minute you start allowing players to determine which umpire will and won't do their matches, that for me is beyond the pale.  Nadal shouldn't be picking and choosing umpires - I disagree with that entirely. That's not fair to the other players or the umpire. Also, he should have to publicly articulate his problem with an umpire so that it can be determined whether his problem is a reasonable one. A reasonable problem is that the umpire frequently makes overrules that are overturned by hawkeye. An unreasonable problem he might have, is simply that the umpire applies the rules properly. Bernardes isn't doing these matches because he's a chump, and as far as I can tell, Nadal's only problem is that Bernardes doesn't bow to the pressure to accommodate all his idiosyncracies - that is Nadal's problem, not the umpire's.

Some have argued that this sort of request shouldn't be made public - I disagree entirely with this as well.  The last place these things should be addressed is behind closed doors, because that compromises the integrity of the officiating. What else is being said behind closed doors that may favor one player (who takes forever between points and gets illegal coaching and take dubious injury time-outs and argues when he is wrong on the application of the rules)?  Is there to be a separate set of rules just for him that we don't know about? I think that's not on.

There will always be a problem when a player takes himself to be more important than the laws of the game he plays - when that happens, it becomes a competition tilted in his favor, which is particularly tragic when if he just shaped up and played within the rules, he might still be be just as successful. But when Nadal chooses to make a different set of rules for himself (and anyone who agrees with him) that's not fair to the game or his opponents, nor ultimately the viewers.

Now, in response to this controversy, Jon Wertheim posted the following letter from an anonymous umpire, who attempted to play down the ghastliness of all of this:

"I found it interesting that it has gotten so much attention as this situation is relatively common through all levels of tennis. All chair umpires, from college through the futures, challengers and ATP/WTA have a “no list” of players whose matches they don’t want to officiate, generally due to an issue that arose in a recent match. Most of the time umpires will only put a player on the list for a few weeks to give tensions time to defuse—in rare circumstances, perhaps after repeated issues, it might be permanent. This happens all the time, and most of the time the player doesn’t even know about it. 

A player making the request, like Nadal did, is much less common, but is usually honored just like if the umpire had made the request. So much of being an effective chair umpire depends on having the confidence and respect of the players, and if a recent incident is in the back of a player’s mind, it can cause there to be a lack of confidence in the official before the match even starts. Our goal as officials is to give players a fair match without unnecessarily becoming part of the match, and you never want something from a past match to affect a future one—from either the player's or official's side. There are many qualified officials at all of these tournaments, so keeping one player away from a specific official, doesn't burden the officiating assignments too much and generally makes for a smoother match for all involved."

That's an email from an (anonymous) umpire expressing an opinion that because this goes on all the time from umpires, it should elicit no concern when a player does the same.  My opinion is that this is illogical, and that he has compared two unlike things - if an umpire doesn't want to do a match, he loses the match.  If a player doesn't want an umpire to do his match he too should lose the match. That is logically consistent. If an umpire said "find me another player" we would say that is ridiculous, and we should say the same about a player saying, "find me another umpire".

I also find it disconcerting that if this kind of illogical and unjust request is accepted behind closed doors, it begs the question, what else is accepted behind closed doors?  More importantly, if Nadal or any other player who wants to exclude certain officials from their matches, is truly justified, they 
should make the request publicly. In this I applaud Nadal's openness, just not his specific request, which is, in my opinion, completely unjust.

You can't have your cake and eat it too - you can't publicly make an (unjust) request and then not expect to be publicly called to task for it.  By the same token, you can't admit that private agreements are made to affect the assignment of officials based on anything other than their quality as an official, and then insist on your indignation when the logical question of "what else is decided (in private) that is not based on merit, but rather on convenience, that we don't know about" is asked. I mean, you can, but it'd be ridiculous to do so.

As a paying fan, I would like to be in a position to determine for myself whether this constitutes a reason to doubt the integrity of the officiating.  If Bernardes applies the rules properly (as far as I or anyone else watching tennis can tell - and this would include his colleagues and the tournament referees who assign umpires) then what gives Nadal the right to exclude him from his matches?  And if the only reason is because he does his job properly, that's a damning commentary on Nadal, not Bernardes.

In Brazil Nadal made it clear that he feels Bernardes puts more pressure on him than any other umpire. But Bernardes has not been cited for any faulty judgment or application of the rules. It could be argued (which I believe is the case) that Bernardes applies the rules more stringently to Nadal than other umpires do, but should he be excluded for applying the rules - is this what passes for a good reason to exclude the umpire?  Finally, what is entirely absent is the any citation of a rule that any player can refuse any umpire. That it happens (and I'm sure it does) is neither proof that it is legal or fair.

I have enormous respect for Rafael Nadal and what he's done in the game of tennis, but it has to be said that what he has achieved, he has achieved with some under the radar, but persistent, cheating.  It's always been perceived as an innocuous kind of cheating, but the more you look at what he's done in the past, not only is the criticism of him to be expected, so too, in my opinion, should the slight diminution in respect for him that has resulted from all of this.  After all, he has received illegal coaching all his career, and neither he nor his Uncle even try to hide or deny it.  That is, in my opinion, not on.  He has frequently taken inexplicable injury time-outs in the past, when things weren't going his way, and last year that caught up to him in Australian Open final.  And finally, he persistently and knowingly has taken well more than the allotted time limit between points (which is cheating) and has argued vociferously against it, to the extent that he has now banned an umpire for simply applying this rule.

He'll probably get out of this rut one way or another, because he's too great a player to be on the outside looking in for too long...but at least the "real" Charlie Brown's disrespect was entirely undeserved.

I am no longer convinced that this is the case with Carlito Moreno.

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