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On The Firing Line
George Plimpton
November 15, 1976
Abused by the players, sniped at by the crowds, tennis officials have been known to go out to call a match as if they were being ordered into the trenches. Why do they suffer so gladly? For money? They get $5.80 a day at Forest Hills. For love of the game? For love of the self?
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November 15, 1976

On The Firing Line

Abused by the players, sniped at by the crowds, tennis officials have been known to go out to call a match as if they were being ordered into the trenches. Why do they suffer so gladly? For money? They get $5.80 a day at Forest Hills. For love of the game? For love of the self?

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Flo Blanchard suspects that much of such court behavior is the result of the tremendous pressure put on today's players. "In the old days," she said, "if a player wanted to enter a tournament, why he just let us know he wanted to play. Now everyone fights for his life on the circuit—if he doesn't win a certain number of matches, he's out. In such a situation specific points during a match can mean a great deal to his welfare; you can imagine how important the decision of a linesman can be."

Tennis professionals grouse openly about the officiating. Too often, they feel, their concentration and the tempo of the match are thrown out of kilter by the calls and by a nagging suspicion that they are going to be hurt by a bad call or an insecure umpire. They think many of the officials are too old, especially to call lines. Tiriac once described their age as being "between 50 and death." Invariably, the touring pros would prefer to have their matches marked by young, professional umpires and linesmen, teams that would follow the tournaments much as basketball and baseball are provided with their officials. Arthur Ashe, who is the chairman of the rules committee of the Association of Tennis Professionals, points out that, "There is no reason to expect that an insurance salesman can come in from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who's umpired a couple of municipal park tournaments, and sit up there in the chair at Forest Hills and be a first-rate official. He doesn't have the constant experience. We need people who do nothing else, who officiate just as much as we play tennis."

With others Ashe has proposed that to help keep a firm hold on matches, umpires should have the right to impose penalty points. For example, if Nastase stalled serving at the start of a game, carrying on and flagrantly breaking a rule, the umpire could call out (without a point being played), " Mr. Nastase, the score is now love-15." But when the idea was suggested at a recent ATP meeting and a show of hands was asked to gauge support, of the 74 members present only three put their hands up. The chief reason for this reaction, Ashe believes, is that the players have so little confidence in present-day officials that they despair of giving them that sort of authority.

The economics of professional officiating is another stumbling block. Along with an umpire and a net-cord judge, important matches traditionally require 10 linesmen. During the two-week span of the U.S. Open, Bill Bigelow dispensed officiating functions to more than 150 officials, some of them—which would indicate their eagerness to participate—coming at their own expense from as far away as Puerto Rico and Hawaii. Though the number diminishes as the draw narrows to its final events, Bigelow has figured out that, including travel, more than a thousand man-days are involved in officiating a major tournament. Obviously, an equitable payment for that amount of work done by professionals (in other sports, officials' salaries range up to $40,000 a year) would cut deeply into the prize money available for the athletes.

Ashe stills insists that it can be done, perhaps with a cut-down team of six officials, each responsible for more than one line, helping each other out on critical points, much as officials in basketball and baseball work together.

As for the cost, Ashe speaks of it as being "part of the cost of doing business...really like spending money putting up bleachers. In fact," he says, "you should have good teams of officials before you have the bleachers."

Many officials agree. One of them took me aside in the Pen and whispered that he didn't think that more than 10 of the 150-plus volunteers at the U.S. Open could qualify as respectable officials. "To begin with, they should all be forced to take eye and reaction tests," he said. "I suspect some of these people tap their way out here with canes. Oh, we have some real beauts." He began telling me about an umpire in a tournament on the West Coast who in mid-match was discovered to be belligerently drunk. In the middle of a point in the third set, a paper cup on the umpire's stand had toppled off and burst in a spray of ice that rolled out and sparkled on the court.

"Damn!"

The umpire's voice boomed out over the amplifying system. The crowd was startled, and even more so to hear the umpire call for a ball boy to run up to the clubhouse and fetch him down a bourbon and soda.

"And bring a straw!"

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Related Topics
  ARTICLES GALLERIES COVERS
Flo Blanchard 1 0 0
George Armstrong 3 0 0
Tennis 2333 0 74
Forest Hills 141 0 2
Ilie Nastase 62 0 1