08 Sep 2020 19:53 IST

At the US Open, bizarre rules topple top seeds

The year's last tennis event represents many contemporary issues gripping America

The US Open has never been just a tennis tournament. Held in liberal New York City, the United States Tennis Association's (USTA) flagship event is where every major political cause of the day intersects and has been given prominent airtime. White privilege, racial injustice, bias against women and mothers, and sexual orientation have received outsized attention for decades. Add Covid safety to this list, and the tour’s last Major Slam looks like a party convention of activists at a time when identity politics grips every aspect of American life.

Beginnings

In 2006, the magnificent arena was named for Billie Jean King, who won an incredible 39 Grand Slam titles: 12 in singles, 16 in women's doubles, and 11 in mixed doubles. Others, such as Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova had better records in the open era, but King’s claim to fame was that she was the first prominent female athlete to come out as gay in 1981. She is also known to be a women’s rights advocate.

The two main stadiums are named for Arthur Ashe, in a fitting tribute to the first Black player selected to the US Davis Cup team and the only Black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open.

The second stadium is named after Black jazz musician Louis Armstrong who lived nearby until his death in 1971. Armstrong had no connection to the tennis world.

White men such as Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, and Andre Agassi, with far more impressive records — Connors has won more matches (1,274) and more titles (109) than any other professional tennis player in history - are not honoured at the National Tennis Centre. For purists who see sports as the last vestige in a society where merit alone matters, the US Open’s choices seem more a political statement than true recognition of talent and performance.

Centre of controversy

The tournament just completed week one in the Covid era, and it is again mired in controversy. To organise the event, it announced draconian rules on player freedoms, rules that turned away the sport’s biggest stars, including Rafa Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Nick Kyrgios, Gael Monfils, Jo Tsonga, and Fabio Fognini. Among women, Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Bianca Andreescu, Kiki Bartens, and Belinda Bencic, all ranked within the top ten, refused to take part.

For safety, fans were banned. Athletes would be limited to bring only one person from their entourage, choosing among physios, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, performance lifestyle coaches, psychologists, and analysts. Everyone would be quarantined for the entire tournament, watched by guards when in hotels, unable to go out into the city to have a meal, buss’ed to stadiums for play, and returned to hotels like school children. Even socialisation among players within the hotels was prohibited.

Benoît Paire of France, a flamboyant male player, had organised a card game in the player’s hotel before the tournament’s start, at which seven other players, mostly French, participated. All were wearing masks and maintaining social distancing rules as best as possible.

Paire tested positive for Covid-19 and was forced to withdraw from the competition. Kristina Mladenovic, the world’s #1 doubles player was at the card game for about 40 minutes. Five days later, while about to enter the main court for her doubles game, the USTA announced that she was forbidden to play. It turns out that she had "violated" quarantine rules by being at the card game and stepping out of the hotel.

The problem was that the USTA had already allowed Mladenovic to play and practice at the tournament during those five days. She never tested positive, nor has any other player so far, who was at the card table. By forcing her to withdraw after allowing her to play, the USTA not only shattered her dreams but devastated the hopes of Timea Babos, her doubles partner, who had nothing to do with the card game episode. What happened to fairness?

What happened with Djokovic?

The second arbitrary rule imposition affected world #1, Novak Djokovic. After he lost a game to fall behind 5-6 to Pablo Carreno Busta in the first set, Djokovic took a ball out of his pocket and flicked it to the backcourt, accidentally hitting a female line judge in the throat. The world could see that the flick was unintentional. Video clips from different angles show a concerned Djokovic rushing to the judge to help, on realising that he caused her an injury. She later left the court on her own proving that the injury wasn't that serious.

 

 

 

 

But the tournament decided to impose the harshest penalty on Djokovic possible. The referee, Soeren Friemel, was not even on the court to witness the accident. He didn’t review a video of the incident prior to his decision. He disqualified Djokovic for the entire match, not just a game or set, and thus the tournament; all prize money won to-date at the event ($250,000), and all ranking points earned for reaching the fourth round. Friemel’s reasoning? He determined that rules are rules, that the ball was struck “angrily’’ and injury ensued.

Rules are rules?

Djokovic is the first-ever world #1 player to be disqualified. He also has never been disqualified in his career. The odds-on favourite to win the tournament and his 18th slam title, he released an extremely contrite statement saying that he was “sorry,” “really sad,” feeling “empty” and hoping to “turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being.” Was Djokovic being penalised because he has talked about heading a player’s association to challenge tennis organisers? One will never know.

Compare the “rules are rules” philosophy that toppled the world’s two #1 seeds this year to how the USTA handled the Serena Williams - Naomi Osaka controversy two years ago.

Serena, the world’s most-accomplished female tennis player with 23 Grand Slam titles, is Black. For three consecutive errors in the rule book during the 2018 final, she was only docked a game and penalised just $17,000 in total. She didn’t lose any WTA ranking points. At the post-match press conference, she sought to characterise the entire controversy as one about gender equity. The American media and the USTA leadership cheered.

This is where the United States Open is today.

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