Friday 20 January 2012

Controversial Calls on Challenges

Within a span of about 48 hours, the 2012 Australian Open featured two matches that were absolutely scintillating, until a bad decision by an umpire in the fifth set of each managed to leave a bad taste in the viewers' mouth. Incidentally, both disputes involved the utilization of the 'Hawk Eye' instant replay system, though in slightly different ways.

The first match was the second round between John Isner and David Nalbandian, played on the Margaret Court Arena under the supervision of umpire Kader Nouni in the chair. This match had all the makings of a classic, as the players alternated in winning the first four sets, and then embarked on a 99-minutes deciding set. As neither player managed to grab a lead, and the set reached 7-7, one could start wondering whether Isner wanted to break his own 70-68 record. However, since the American was struggling with cramps, an upset seemed in order. At 8-8, Nalbandian got to an AD:40 three times - each one being a break point that would make him serve for the match, had he won it. The first two were missed in quite awful style - one ball went into the net, the other was shanked out wide. The third saw Isner unleashing an unreturned first serve that was called out by the line umpire, only to be overruled by Nouni in the midst of a loud cheering from the crowd.
Nalbandian, who hadn't heard the overrule, became confused, and only after speaking to the umpire and seeing Isner recommending a challenge - tried to challenge the call. But Nouni didn't agree, claiming it was done too late. The point (which the Hawk Eye on TV showed to be a fault!) was considered as an ace for Isner, who saved the break point, held and soon afterwards won the match.

The second match was the highly anticipated third round encounter between Australia's next hope, Bernard Tomic, and Alexandr Dolgopolov. With both players having a unique and crafty style, the match promised to be vastly different from the baseline rallies we're used to see on the ATP tour. No doubt, it lived up to our expectations - for four sets, it was all about backhand-slice-battles, dropshots, and all kinds of entertaining points.
Then, on a game point to Tomic in the opening game of the fifth set, one of Dolgopolov's shots landed close to the baseline. Tomic jumped out of the way, thinking it would be out, and as he hit the ball he raised his racquet in the acceptable gesture of "Challenge", looking toward the umpire - Carlos Ramos. A split second afterwards, realizing the ball was in fact good, he turned back to continue the point, but by then Dolgopolov didn't try to get the ball in, thinking play was stopped. However, since Ramos never saw Tomic's attempt to challenge, he didn't agree with Dolgo's claim that he was hindered (remember that rule?). Tomic didn't own up to making a challenge, got the point and the game.

The two incidents no doubt share a common theme - in both cases the umpire ultimately made a mistake in his ruling. However, they were completely different in everything else.

Nouni's decision, in my opinion, was just plain wrong. First of all, this wasn't a regular challenge on a line call - this was a challenge on his own overrule. When there are two contradicting calls about the same point, a challenge is almost expected. Considering the circumstances (if you watch the video, it's obvious that Nalbandian didn't hear the overrule at first), giving Nalbandian an extra second or two to decide seems reasonable. Moreover, you can see that David was challenging at the same time as Kader announced the score - so it was literally a matter of seconds.

In contrast, while Ramos' decision was wrong, I don't think he can be blamed for it - if he didn't see Tomic's gesture, there was no reason for him to do anything but give the point to Tomic. The culprit here is Tomic himself, without any doubt. You can see in the video that he said to the umpire "I didn't say anything", so I'm assuming Ramos asked him about it.While technically true - he didn't actually speak at the moment - it's still a blatant lie about his intention, which is clear from the slow-motion replay. In his post match press conference, he claimed that he turned his head to the umpire to see if he's going to overrule the (lack of a) call. Again, the video is clear - this isn't what happened.

The question of how those calls affected the results of the matches is debatable. Nalbandian stated himself that this isn't what lost him the match (his two misses on break points earlier support that opinion). Dolgopolov held his serve in the next game after the controversy. If you ask me, at least in the first case, I feel that Nalbandian could (and should?) have won the match if none of it happened.

What disappoints me the most, however, is how some of the media reacted to the second incident. Eurosport's show "Game, Set and Mats" with Mats Wilander and Annabel Croft surveyed some of the finest points of the first three sets, then skipped to the match point, and never mentioned anything about any possible controversy. Anyone who didn't watch the match was treated to heaps of praise on Tomic's wonderful game, maturity, mentality, and whatnot. Tomic might be a lot of things, but "mature" he's not.


  1. I wonder if perhabs Tomic didn't quite realized he had kinda raised his hand, not just looked at the umpire. He only raised it part of the way up, and lowered it back to keep on playing when he realized Dolgo was playing on.

    1. Not saying that it isn't a possibility, because it is, but it looks very unlikely to me. A wrong challenge would give the point to Dolgo, so there's a strong incentive for Tomic not to admit anything.