Our guest columnist, sportswriter and author, David Fearnhead writes on a controversial night in Doha, a second-round encounter between Venus Williams and Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova that lasted almost three hours and in which the American fought off a match point. Did the umpire seal the Czech’s fate?
In the early hours of Wednesday morning a tennis match was still going on from the night before. Neither player wanted to yield, neither player wanted to accept defeat. At one end stood the tall figure of a seven-times grand slam winner in singles, past her prime but still wielding her racket with all the might of a medieval long sword. Opposing her across the net was a former world junior number 1, who’d won back-to-back Australian Open girls titles, and who refused to be beaten.
As Venus Williams attempted to sledgehammer her way through the match, the ball just kept coming back. It was the unstoppable force meets the unmovable object. For the small crowd who remained, on a chilly evening in Doha, they were rewarded with a tennis match which sizzled, and often threatened to boil over.
In the end, there was an unsatisfactory conclusion. A tiebreak. Venus won and her opponent Barbora Zahlavova Strycova – who’d fought like a warrior – felt cheated.
I can understand why. I felt cheated myself, and as a tennis fan I was left angry.
Hawk-Eye was meant to make things fairer. It was cold hard fact, undeniable evidence, but the challenge system which has evolved around it is so open to interpretation that it creates more problems. Umpires now have so much sway on whether or not to accept a challenge that the whole challenge system itself lacks any consistency. Some umpires will reject any challenge unless it is made immediately, and play has been halted immediately. Others apparently are far more lenient on what they accept as a ‘timely’ challenge.
Eva Asderaki is known as somewhat an authoritarian figure. It was she who brought the ire of Rafael Nadal when she coded him multiple times for time violations during the 2014 Australian Open. It was surprising then that she adopted such a laissez-faire attitude towards Venus’ challenges. On key points during the game, Venus consistently challenged late, and Asderaki accepted the challenge. I’d go as far to say the very outcome of the match was influenced greatly by these decisions.
Was it gamesmanship on the part of Venus or was she just being slow, either way the outcome was the same. The amount of time taken by Venus before deciding to challenge was beyond any reasonable notion of ‘timely’. On one crucial point Asderaki had even called the score before then accepting a challenge from Venus.
Nobody is expecting umpires to be wholly infallible, that’s why we have Hawk-Eye in the first place, but we would like some consistency and fairness in their decisions. We do see examples of umpires appearing to be intimidated by the bigger names, occasionally we also see them trying to make a point by being overly punitive against them, but more often than not it’s the big stars who are perceived to get favourable treatment. Much was the case with Venus on Tuesday night. Barbora’s obvious frustration grew as she remonstrated with the umpire, it eventually saw her get a warning for her troubles, and a great match was tainted only to end on a sour note.
Yes we should respect our greatest players, but they should always have to play by the same rules as everyone else. (photos: Jimmie48)