May 12, 2022  ·  Barbara Wyatt

Third set tie-break. Pete was serving at 11-11. Arturo, his partner at the net, turned and gave him the nod, “We can do this.” Pete hit a power serve and the ball hit inside and deep. The opponent extended his racquet, lunged, and managed a sloppy return off the rim. “Whap”, the sound from the mishit, reverberated throughout the court. The ball popped up. Pete ran forward, a grin on his face thankful for the easy put-away. He raised his racquet and slammed the ball into the bottom of the net. 

“Sh--,” he said. The tennis official said “Code violation. Audible profanity. Loss of Point, Mr. Pete. Match over.” 

Pete’s unforced error into the net took the score to 11-12. His one-word outburst resulted in the loss of another point and ended the tie-break at 11-13. Loss of tie-break. Loss of match. Loss of team match. No advancement to USTA Nationals. 

Did the opponents hear the profanity? If it wasn’t heard by the opponents, was it profanity? Are tennis officials even human? A one-word outburst and an entire team is unable to advance?

Under the Point Penalty System in the USTA Friend at Court, Pete said a “visible or audible profanity or obscenity.” The rule does not question if it was audible to the opponents, only that it was said. 

At the 2018 US Open, Chair Umpire Carlos Ramos gave Serena Williams a game penalty after he said she accrued three violations: receiving coaching, smashing a racquet, and then verbally abusing Ramos. The internet exploded with videos of players slamming racquets, cursing tennis officials, and calling them uncomplimentary names. 

Officials had been called “thieves” (code violation), “an abortion” (no code violation), “unattractive inside” (code violation, but less than the full fine), “son-of-a-b” (no code violation), “corrupt” (code violation), and more. 

Wherein lies the problem. Tennis officials are dancing between a tight adhesion to rules or a showing of discretion. Players demand discretion when the error is on their side of the court. But when the error is on the opponents’ side, players are quick to request a follow-the-rules-to-the-T decision. 

Officials are passionate about the game of tennis. Each year, they attend workshops and participate in webinars; they are tested on the rules, safe play conduct, and eye exams. Yes, even eye exams. 

Tennis officials are humans. They are educated to ensure a standard of fairness, objectivity, and neutrality in the game. Maybe it is not a question of officiating, but the rules. 

The follow-up to the 2018 US Open is to ask, “Why not let coaches instruct their players?” We could watch and admire the dazzling mental wit as Coach John McEnroe paces up and down on the sidelines with his players in battle against an equally competitive team coached by the brilliant lion-hearted Serena Williams. Ah, now that’s a tennis game.

Published New York Tennis Magazine, November/December 2018.