The Sixth Set

Madrid Open Recap: The Life of a Chair Umpire

The 2013 Mutua Madrid Open provided a strange week of tennis at the Caja Mágica, or Caja Trágica if you prefer. Plagued by a litany of upsets, overly rowdy and obnoxious spectators, late nights that left everyone cranky, as well as the occasional player/umpire drama, there is little doubt why Madrid is consistently the least favorite Masters location. There must be something about the switch from blue that makes everyone see red. After all, isn’t it generally considered a more tranquil color? If the players were considering a boycott this year, I can only imagine what the umpires are planning for next year. Here’s why…

Victoria Azarenka vs. Ekaterina Makarova, Second Round

Umpire: Mariana Alves

Issue: Victoria Azarenka was called for a point penalty after smashing her racquet midway through the third set against Ekaterina Makarova, having been unaware of a previous code violation where she supposedly cursed at a group of spectators. Azarenka proceeded to rip into Alves.

Verdict: It’s been nearly a decade since Alves cost Serena Williams her U.S. Open quarterfinal, against Jennifer Capriati, with repeated line call blunders. The Portuguese chair umpire was removed from all future matches at that year’s U.S. Open and it looks like some people like to rub salt into old wounds. If Azarenka did indeed let an audible obscenity slip during the match, there is no discussion. The rule’s the rule. She deserves to be penalized a point. It’s clearly been a frustrating couple of months for the Belarusian, who was out of action since Indian Wells with an ankle injury, and she let her emotions get the better of her. The former world number one crossed the line in undermining Alves’ authority during their heated exchange. It was in poor taste and considering Azarenka failed to win a game thereafter, she may have shot herself in the foot. Everything considered, Alves remained composed and did a good job explaining the situation and not being intimidated by Azarenka’s verbal jousts.

Rafael Nadal vs. Benoit Paire, Second Round

Umpire: Fergus Murphy

Issue: Time violation called on Nadal at 4-2 40-40 in the opening set.

Verdict: Having repeatedly criticized the ATP this year for their more stringent enforcement of the 25-second rule, it’s no surprise Nadal lets his voice be heard whenever he receives a warning and subsequent violation. The Spaniard went 28 seconds between points on this particular occasion and Fergus Murphy gave him a warning. Nadal did not react to this initially, but exclaimed that Murphy “does not understand the game anymore” during the following changeover. I’m still not entirely sure Nadal understands that the chair umpires are just doing their jobs and have no authority here. The higher powers at the ATP headquarters may not “understand the game anymore,” and may be misguided in their decision to strictly enforce a rule without any accommodation for extraordinary circumstances, but the umpire is in no way culpable here. Recently retired chair umpire Steve Ulrich explained it best to Tommy Haas during Indian Wells: “We have no judgment this year…That’s what they’re telling us.”

Novak Djokovic vs. Grigor Dimitrov, Second Round

Umpire: Carlos Bernardes

Issue: Time violation called on Djokovic, down break point at 3-3 in the first set

Verdict: In this instance, I have to side with Djokovic. To give a player a time violation on a break point after repeatedly failing to penalize him throughout the game is unacceptable. Djokovic even said, “I have no problem if I’m going over the limit, but you should tell me after the second time.” That was awful timing on Bernardes’ part and could have cost the world number one a critical break early in the match. It was an example of an egregious error in judgment by Bernardes, in a situation where the chair umpires aren’t permitted any. If the rule is going to work, it has to be implemented fairly and consistently. If that means penalizing Djokovic every point of the game, then so be it. You can’t hold your whistle and wait until a critical juncture before saying something.

Rafael Nadal vs. Mikhail Youzhny, Third Round

Umpire: Cedric Mourier

Issue: Erroneous line call on a Youzhny serve at 6-2, 3-1 40-40 not overruled by Mourier

Verdict: Where did they find that linesman? The guy looks like he just starred in a Blues Brothers sequel and clearly his sunglasses didn’t help much. Where’s Juan Martin del Potro when you need him? Youzhny hit a first serve that clipped the tape and clearly landed out, but neither the linesman nor chair umpire Cedric Mourier saw it. Nadal was cruising up a set and a break at the time so it had little impact on the match itself, but it nonetheless served as a comical interlude in a rather one-sided affair. Notice the Nadal facepalm. Hey, at least Mourier apologized to Rafa a few days later. That you don’t hear about very often.

David Ferrer vs. Tommy Haas, Third Round

Umpire: Fergus Murphy

Issue: Haas asks pleads with Murphy to check a ball mark during the changeover at 3-2 in the first set, Murphy refuses.

Verdict: This was as comical as it was baffling. I’m no expert on the science of ball marks, and whether or not you can discern where a ball lands even if it hits squarely on the line, but the fact that Murphy refused to get out of his chair was very confusing. Was it a matter of principle or is the Irishman a really lazy guy? Who knows. Tommy Haas isn’t an amateur player. Give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s been around long enough to at least warrant the respect to oblige him. The majority of chair umpires aren’t typically as reluctant to come down from the chair. Baffling indeed.

Andy Murray vs. Gilles Simon, Third Round

Umpire: Carlos Bernardes

Issue: Bernardes gets an earful from Simon about talking to him during the match, while also trying to address a wet court.

Verdict: Poor Carlos. First, at 3-2 in the second set he was engaged in a heated argument with an adamant court maintenance worker, who wanted to water the court during the changeover. Then, between the second and third sets, when Murray left for a bathroom break, he gets an earful from Simon that he doesn’t like when Bernardes talks to him during the match, and that nobody does for that matter. The diminutive Frenchman begins to lecture Bernardes as to why he annoys him. All the while Murray is confused why the court is suddenly wet and Bernardes is trying to address the now slippery lines. Phew. First, chill out Gilles. It’s not his fault you were up a set and a break and can’t seal the deal. Second, where is the tournament referee to step in and tell the maintenance guy that the middle of a set may not be the best time to deluge the court? Anyway, I applaud Bernardes for not getting frazzled and being able to laugh off Simon’s disrespectful remarks.

Rafael Nadal vs. David Ferrer, Quarterfinals

Umpire: Damian Dumusois

Issue: Time violation called on Nadal at 1-2, ad in

Verdict: Again, a dumbfounded Nadal didn’t agree with the chair umpire’s time violation ruling (in this instance it’s Damian Dumusois) and let his voice be heard. During the changeover, the Spaniard brought up a great point that the players are expected to play long grueling points on clay and quickly bounce back within 25 seconds, while not compromising their level of play. “Do you think the last three points are good for the show?” With courts becoming progressively slower on the ATP Tour, having such a turnaround between points creates a questionable dynamic. While Nadal’s gripe was legitimate in theory, again, the chair umpire is the wrong audience to direct his argument and his dismissive and condescending thumbs up to Dumusois, when the Frenchman was attempting to reason with the Spaniard, only made matters worse.

This was quite the harrowing week to be a chair umpire in Madrid. Why can’t everyone just get along?


  • [...] Madrid Open Recap: The Life of a Chair Umpire – via Features a few of Rafa’s disagreements with umpires this week. [...]

  • RZ says:

    I really wish Nadal would just get over it and play within the time rules! If Djokovic was able to speed up without any issues, I don’t see why Nadal can’t. It’s not as if every single point played is that strenuous.

    • dmm says:

      Nadal and Djokovic have both been called for time violations and both have complained about it, so I don’t see why you think Djokovic has been able to speed up without any issues and Nadal hasn’t.

      And the fact that every single point isn’t strenuous doesn’t seem to have any bearing on this because Nadal doesn’t violate the time rule after every single point, only the particularly strenuous ones.

  • Dee says:

    Djokovic has not adjusted. If you read the post, you will know that Novak also complained about a time violation warning. Lots of players get warnings, many of them get warnings and most of them complain. How about wishing that they all get on with it?

  • Max says:

    The time limit rule is for fair play as if it isn’t enforced, it gives a massive edge to the defensive players.

    Yes, long rallies please the crowds but it’s unfair if someone like Nadal knows he can play from 10ft behind the baseline as the umpire will give him the time to recover. If he has to respect a time limit, he can’t do that which is only fair.

    For someone labelled as humble, Nadal’s actions show something very different as he doesn’t seem to think the rules apply to himself.

  • [...] The tennis world descended on Madrid, Spain last week for the 2013 Mutua Madrid Open and the Spanish capital suddenly transformed into a graveyard for the top players. Men’s world number one Novak Djokovic was stunned in the second round by upstart Grigor Dimitrov and second-ranked Roger Federer succumbed to Kei Nishikori. Among the WTA’s top seeds, Victoria Azarenka was ousted by Ekaterina Makarova and Agnieszka Radwanska was dismantled by British sensation Laura Robson, 6-3 6-1. Also, American rising star Madison Keys, a lucky loser, shocked No. 5 seed Li Na 6-3 6-2 in the first round. Despite the catalogue of upsets, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams emerged victorious on Sunday, capturing their third and second Madrid titles, respectively. Nadal extended his winning streak to 10 matches, winning his fifth title of 2013. Williams, meanwhile, won her 19th match in a row and fourth title of the year. Both players have separated themselves as the prohibitive favorites heading into the year’s second Grand Slam. For more on the Mutua Madrid Open, check out my recap of player/umpire disputes. [...]

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