Sunday, November 9, 2008

An inaccurate story that just won't die

Douglas Robson writes, on

...I was surprised to see that Mariana Alves of Portugal was in the chair for Venus's match against Jankovic. Alves was the umpire in the infamous Serena-Jennifer Capriati quarterfinal match at the 2004 U.S. Open, when Alves overruled the lineswoman, reversing a call that television replays clearly showed was accurate. Serena went ballistic and eventually lost the match, USTA officials apologized, Alves was suspended from officiating any other matches that year, and the incident catalyzed the eventual introduction of instant replay.

Considering what Serena said at the time --“I'd prefer she not umpire at my court anymore. She's obviously anti-Serena,”--I was interested to see Alves officiating a Williams sister match of any kind. But I guess I just haven't been very observant. According to WTA officials, Serena told reporters at Moscow last year that she had moved on from the 2004 and would be fine with Alves umpiring her matches. She has since officiated several of Serena's matches, I was told.

Robson is right; he hasn't noticed Alves in the chair numerous times when the Williams sisters have competed. But there is more to this story than whether Robson (or anyone) has been paying attention during the last four years. I have been angry about the consequences of the 2004 incident for some time. Notice I said "the consequences," not the incident itself.

Yes, Alves made a serious error. But there was more to the story than her error, and the tennis press--whether through typical media carelessness or quite possibly some other motive--covered it up. The umpires' association violated its own rules in assigning Alvez--at the time, a lower-level official--to umpire the Williams-Capriati match. She had been working for many hours and was not supposed to be in the chair again until she had had sufficient rest. Alves accepted an assignment that she probably felt pressured to take.

Instead of apologizing to Williams for violating its own policies, the association issued a small statement about what had happened, and made Alves the scapegoat. She deserved some consequences, but she didn't deserve the punishment she received, and which she was given to cover the collective ass of her employers.

But that--as unprofessional as it is--is only part of the problem. The other part is Williams' irrational assumption that Alves was "anti-Serena." Umpires make decision all the time that infuriate players, and--if they wish to--players can pull the thread until they believe that an umpire's error cost them the match. I understand that type of frustration, but it is not the same as claiming that an umpire was personally out to destroy you. And--going back to the content of Robson's article--the last time I checked, the Williams sisters were not in charge of tournaments: Umpires are assigned without seeking the approval of players.

Alves is now a gold badge umpire, and a good one. What happened in 2004 was unfortunate, but the real story is more complex and much messier than people have been led to believe.


Anonymous said...

Interesting to hear those details behind the story of Alves which makes her far more sympathetic. That said, I completely disagree with you in your assessment that Serena was 'irrational' in feeling that the umpire was dead set against her.

1.) Serena's had had bad calls before, but as far as I know she never suggested that the umpire had a personal grudge. In this case however, it wasn't just 'a bad call' as you're dismissively suggesting, but 3 or 4 VISIBLY bad calls, most of which happened to be on critical points. Critical enough that it actually affected the outcome of the match and effectively GAVE it to Jennifer Capriati.

I'm glad that Alves is now qualified, but those series of bad calls is why we have the challenge system now.

2.) I think Serena was being dramatic in part, but she would also have reasonably assumed that Alves was actually qualified to officiate. (WHY would she think otherwise?) And on that assumption, if you assume that the person has expertise and yet makes these perplexingly bad decisions against you then you *might* start to wonder...

3.) Context matters. Serena had seen Venus bundled out of Wimbledon in what has to be one of the most bizarre umpiring decisions ever, with Karoline Sprem being rewarded for a double-fault while the umpire was busy waggling his eyebrows at Sprem... Yet Venus was largely criticised for being too passive and inattentive.

So when Serena got a bad call, she
was extra-vigilant to ensure that nothing was taken from her, that she too wasn't prematurely bundled out of a slam thanks to an umpiring error.

4.) Indian Wells. Yet another bad experience with poor officiating for Serena. In that case the umpire did nothing to officiate that situation and actively permitted the crowd to be abusive.

5.) Hostile media climate. Don't underestimate the effect. There were enough so-called media professionals and 'professional players' who made it clear that they were dead set against the sisters dominating the slams so thoroughly along with a desire for 'other' champions.

While none of this justifies a grand conspiracy theory on Serena's part, that kind of open hostility where you know that people simply don't want you to win, might lead to a little paranoia...

So while the inexperienced Alves was in part a victim, I don't think it's quite as simple as Serena being "irrational" either.

Diane said...

I think that you have spoken well and persuasively, and I do know that Serena has received more than her "fair" (as though there were such a thing) share of ridiculous and bad calls.

"Context matters" pretty much sums of the argument you make, Westerly. It is one I often make myself. I wished, at the time, that Serena had couched her remark another way, but yes, one can appreciate why she didn't. Even without knowing Alvez's plight, I had a hard time believing she was being unfair, since--having watched her umpire several times--I had never seen anything but objectivity from her. But it's easier, sitting at home in front of the television, to stay calm about it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Diane, I like both Williams sisters - particularly Venus, but there are so many occasions when Serena opens her mouth...and I cringe and roll my eyes. I'm not one of those fans who think that they are perfect and above criticism. (Not happy with her at Doha for instance...)

And yeah, I think she was being a bit dramatic in the Alves case. She didn't need to personalise it, but in the absence of other explanations...

But again, kudos to you for telling the other side of the story and setting the record straight. I never knew those details, and having read them I agree that Alves was ALSO a victim and I think that you are right - she was thrown under the bus.

I'm glad for her that she's worked her way up the rungs and looks calm, professional and extremely comfortable doing her job. But she should never have been used like that in the first place.

Too bad that many people don't know her side of the story, the side that provides further context to the situation. But, I'm happy to spread the word!

Diane said...

Thanks much, Westerly. I enjoy both Williams sisters, too. I like to watch them play, I cheer Venus on because of the way she has stood up for women, and I think Serena--on and off the court--provides some great entertainment. I was fortunate enough to be in the stands when she won Charleston this year, and it was really exciting. She was so excited.

Anonymous said...

Look, I don't think Alves had it in for Serena but; when she blew it and made the overrule, she tightened up.

What you're not mentioning is that in the final game of the match there were two calls she Should have overruled and did not-which replays clearly showed were in Serena's favor. One forehand crosscourt was shown by televison replay to clearly have been on the line and; literally no one at that stadium was in a better position to see it than Alves, from her raised position.

In addition, a clear double fault, that was so far out that the auto service line caller didn't beep--was instead won by Capriati when Serena netted the ball.

In that final game, a game in which Capriati had the break directly because of the overrule, Capriati had three break points against her and in that one game there were two bad line calls and an uncalled double fault.

If any umpire in history deserves to be criticized then Alves is that umpire. She overruled when she shouldn't have and never overruled when she should have.

That does'nt mean that shes not a nice person.

Also, Serena is far from perfect, but in the press conference she did not blame that call for her loss and she was giggling when she mentioned; conspiracy, being robbed and cheated etc..