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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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The officials' enclosure at Forest Hills—often referred to as the Pen—is in the back rows under the players' marquee. It contains about 50 chairs, which are usually occupied by men in dark blazers and gray trousers, who are very often smoking pipes as they wait to be assigned to matches. Their view of the stadium court is almost invariably blocked by people standing in the aisle in front of the enclosure, most frequently tennis players in sweat suits. But though there is a certain amount of craning of necks and shifting of seats to see what is going on, most of the officials seem content to sit back and gossip among themselves, recalling their experiences down on the court and indulging in their favorite verbal activity—backbiting. It is very lively in the Pen, the volume of noise not unlike that of a cocktail party. Indeed, when the umpire officiating in the stadium calls for quiet over the loudspeaker system, he is often attempting to hush up his own kind chattering away under the players' marquee.

The officials came in for considerable comment during this year's U.S. Open—critical, for a plethora of curious line calls and for an umpire's occasional loss of control over a match, and sympathetic, for being victimized by overwrought players, especially Ilie Nastase. I thought it would be interesting to spend a couple of days hanging around the Pen to see how the comments had affected the officials and hoping that I might get a chance to call a line myself—a Nastase match?—to gauge what the pressures were.

The officiating control center is the umpire's desk, which is at one end of the officials' enclosure; it is presided over by Bill Bigelow, the chief umpire, and his lieutenant, Flo Blanchard. Flo is the wife of Mike Blanchard, the tournament director, who has been the premier umpire in the U.S. for years and whose slow theatric throb from the chair (he can draw out "Love-40" and shiver the afternoon air with it like a battery of bassoons) is one of the most distinctive and familiar sounds in professional tennis, right up there with Jimmy Connors' grunt when he hits the ball and Nastase's cry of "Dio!" when he misses one.' Flo Blanchard and Bigelow took me in hand, though they were not so sure about my calling a line in a Nastase match. Perhaps, to see why, I should talk to some of the officials who had been involved in a Nastase confrontation. They introduced me around. A typical official was Jerry Manhold, a mild-mannered gentleman who owns a life insurance business in New Jersey that specializes in installing pension plans for small corporations. Two days earlier, he had left his home not long after daybreak for his office in Madison, N.J., where he worked for a couple of hours. At 9 a.m. he set off in his new Plymouth sedan for Forest Hills, arriving about 11 o'clock. He carried a brown paper bag that held his lunch—a ham and cheese sandwich, which his wife had prepared, and a peach. After he parked, he walked across the grounds of the tennis club and checked in at the umpire's table. He was given chair No. 10 for the Nastase-Pohmann match in the stadium—of the 12 positions assigned officials this was the seat at the end of the doubles lane on the south end of the court near the players' marquee and under the parapetlike broadcasting booth with the television cameras sticking out like howitzer muzzles. "It is like being under the gun," Manhold said, "because they can peer down the line and second-guess you with stop-action on your call!" But Manhold did not anticipate any problems. It was his 15th year of officiating at Forest Hills. A fine club player himself (he played No. 1 for Syracuse in 1937-41, and has been the senior champion at his home club, Orange Lawn), he does not think calling a line is an especially taxing job. "Watching one little line and one little ball is not a problem," he remarked succinctly. "It's a question of being comfortable sitting there in the chair and paying attention."

The trouble began in the first set when Nastase complained that he thought a spectator's call of "Out!" was actually a linesman's call: he had quit on the ball. He wanted to have the point played over. George Armstrong, an English official sitting in the umpire's chair, made a ruling in his favor, which was considered very questionable.

"It was wrong," Flo Blanchard said later. "It's unfortunate if a fan yells like that, but we think a player ought to be able to tell if the call is coming from a linesman right behind him, or someone up in the stands. Only the linesman's call can be operative. It's tough luck, but otherwise a player could have a confederate up there in the stands calling 'Out!' every time he thought his friend was having trouble on crucial points."

Jerry Manhold's confrontation with Nastase came at the end of the second set. "The ball in question landed square on the line," Manhold recalled. "It was the odd game, 5-4, and the line had been swept while the players were resting during the changeover, so it was an easy call. But there were two marks outside the line and Nastase saw them. I have never heard a man scream like that except in terrible pain. It was an absolutely shocking sound. I was quite stunned. He stormed around my chair. It was like being in a blizzard. He tried to signal the umpire that my partner on the line on the other side of the net did not agree with my call—which was not so. I took him to the spot. It didn't appease him at all. He shrieked and pointed at the other marks. There wasn't anything I could do except continue to signal the umpire what I thought."

By this time the crowd was in turmoil. Objects were hurled out of the stands as the fans' attention—and Nastase's—began to focus on the umpire.

George Armstrong was paying his first visit to the U.S. He is a civil servant from Eastbourne with 25 years of experience as a tennis official. On his arrival he had gone immediately to Philadelphia where he served as an official in the Federation Cup matches in the week preceding Forest Hills. He is a spare, lively man with a small gray mustache and the faintly pink mottled face of someone with fair skin who has spent too much time in the sun. When he appeared at the umpires' table, Bill Bigelow assigned him to the umpire's chair for the Nastase-Pohmann match; his credentials were excellent—all those years of officiating, including umpiring two final matches at Wimbledon. Forest Hills was very honored to have him.

"The main problem was the crowd," Armstrong said about his experience. "Oh, yes, quite a departure from Wimbledon. I kept saying over the public-address system, 'Quiet, ladies and gentlemen,' but [he looked aggrieved] I could not make myself heard. I said, ' Nastase, please play!' but because of all that racket he could not hear me. Finally, he came over to the chair. He called up, 'I accept the call. It is 30 all. But come and look at the marks.' I shouted down at him, 'If you accept the call, sir, there's no point in my looking at your marks. Please play!' "

Armstrong shook his head, recalling with dismay the awesome sound of the crowd: it was as if the amphitheater with its great welter of noise had been tilted against his ear like a bowl. He was remembering, too, the litter of flung programs, the tennis balls tossed down and the oranges rolling helter-skelter and lopsidedly across the geometric perfection of the tennis court.

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