You cannot be serious! Inside the world of grand slam code violations

You cannot be serious! Inside the world of grand slam code violations

On September 8 in New York, Serena Williams erupted on the centre court at Flushing Meadows during the US Open final.

The target of her ire was 47-year-old Portuguese chair umpire Carlos Ramos, who had the temerity to deliver a series of code violations in Williams' direction during the second set of the now infamous match.

Williams didn't quite coin a famous phrase while throwing her tantrum, as John McEnroe did when he screamed the legendary line “you cannot be serious!” as part of an extended rant at chair umpire Edward James while questioning a line call at Wimbledon in 1981. (Umpire James awarded a point penalty, or code violation, for the the tirade.)

But her hostile display caused as much controversy as she received code violations for coaching, racquet abuse and verbal abuse on her way to losing the match to her more mild-mannered Japanese opponent Naomi Osaka in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4.

Williams' flare-up then reverberated around the world as she claimed post-match that gender bias had played a part in the umpire's willingness to penalise her for actions that may have been ignored if committed by a male player.

Welcome to the murky world of code violations in tennis where personalities, moods and interpretations co-exist with rules to create lively discussion long after tournaments end.

So what kind of behaviour attracts a code violation? How do umpires know where to draw the line? And where did the penchant for smashing racquets and giving umpires lip all start?

But first, do women receive more code violations?

“I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things,” said Williams. “I'm here fighting for women's rights and for women's equality and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief’, and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said 'thief'.” Former world number one Victoria Azarenka backed Williams.

However, the data did not appear to support Williams' claims as The New York Times listed the number of fines handed out to men and women tennis players in grand slams over the past 20 years.

What exactly are the grand slam rules?

The International Tennis Professionals (ITP) code of conduct says players must conduct themselves in a professional manner, following rules and regulations set out in a code of conduct. Big no-nos are as follows:

Players are not to usewords commonly known and understood to be profane and uttered clearly and loudly enough to be heard by court officials and spectators.

As far back as 1951, USLTA suspended Earl Cochell after he was kicked out of the 1951 US Nationals for bad language. Poor old Cochell tried to grab the umpire's microphone and defend his actions but was not given that opportunity.

Even the temperate Roger Federer has been fined for an audible obscenity during his career with microphones picking up that he swore when arguing with a chair umpire during the 2009 US Open final. He did not receive a warning but was later fined $US1500 – loose change for the Swiss star.

The making of signs by a player with his or her hands and/or racquet or balls that commonly have an obscene meaning is forbidden.

Australian Nick Kyrgios was fined $US17,000 after impersonating a lewd act with a water bottle at Queens in 2018. The action was not picked up by the chair umpire but caused outrage on social media as it was captured during the BBC coverage.

Fabio Fognini was fined for insulting an umpire during the US Open in 2017.Credit:Alamy

Any statement about an official, opponent, sponsor, spectator or other person that implies dishonesty or is derogatory, insulting or otherwise abusive is not on.

While there have been worse transgressions than Williams calling Ramos a thief and  liar, that was enough to breach the code. McEnroe's enraged request to the chair umpire to “answer my question, the question, jerk” is the most memorable.

Italian Fabio Fognini thought he was being smart speaking in Italian when calling the Swedish chair umpire Louise Engzell “a whore” during the 2017 US Open. The grand slam board fined him $US96,000 and banned him for two grand slams but decided to suspend his sentence providing he didn't transgress again. Fognini later apologised for his actions.


David Ferrer and the linesman he pushed at the Australian Open in 2014.Credit:AP

Unauthorised touching of an official, opponent, spectator or another person is not OK.

Spain's David Ferrer was lucky to escape a code violation and a fine when he pushed a linesman out of the way so he could put a towel on the linesman's chair rather than hand it to a ball boy at the 2014 Australian Open.

Intentionally hitting the ball dangerously and recklessly out of the enclosure of the court, within the court or hitting the ball with negligent disregard of consequences is against the rules.

Dismayed Canadian Denis Shapovalov was disqualified after he tried to smash a ball out of the court in frustration during a Davis Cup tie but instead hit chair umpire Arnaud Gabas in the head with the ball. The poor, unsuspecting Gabas later required surgery as the impact left him with a fracture of the orbital bone under his left eye.

When you whack a ball out of stadiums you want to be 100 per cent sure you're clear of everything in the path, even birds and stuff.

Shapovalov apologised and was subsequently fined $US7000 for the incident, with the ITF choosing not to hand down the maximum $US12,000 fine as the action was not deemed intentional.

It all makes Federer's sage advice in February 2017 more relevant: “You have to be careful. When you whack a ball out of stadiums you want to be 100 per cent sure you're clear of everything in the path, even birds and stuff. If you throw the racquet, you want to know how it bounces. If it's the unknown, you shouldn't do it.”

Players shall not violently or with anger hit, kick or throw a racquet or other equipment

Now as cliched as a guitarist destroying equipment at the end of a show, racquet smashing was happening before "The Open" era started in 1968 with The New York Times reporting that US professional Chuck McKinley earned a three-month suspension in 1960 for tossing a racquet. It has since become the act of choice for frustrated tennis players.

Marcos Baghdatis' effort to destroy four racquets in one sitting at the 2012 Australian Open was a high point, with his tantrum eventually earning a code violation.

Serena Williams argues with the chair umpire during the US Open in 2018.Credit:AP

Players shall not receive coaching during a match. Communication of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching.

Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted he was coaching Williams during the 2018 US Open Final when Ramos spotted him and gave Williams a warning for a code violation. That laid the foundation for what was to follow as Williams thought the umpire's call impugned her character.

The game is in a quandary over whether coaching should be banned. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) lets coaches speak to players during changeovers.

Players should at all times conduct themselves in a sportsmanlike manner and give due regard to the authority of officials, rights of opponents, spectators and others.

Argentina's David Nalbandian kicked an advertising hoarding that ricocheted into a linesman's shins.

This catch-all category was employed to abruptly end the 2012 final at Queen's with Argentina's David Nalbandian automatically disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct after he kicked an advertising hoarding that ricocheted into a linesman's shins, injuring the umpire.

An umpire gives Nick Kyrios a pep talk at the US Open. Credit:Twitter

A player shall use his best efforts to win a match when competing in an ITF Pro Circuit Tournament.

Australian bad boy Kyrgios sails as close to the wind as anyone when it comes to this rule and has been fined before for effectively not trying. Such is the Australian's reputation chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani encourage Kyrgios to keep trying rather than warning him for lack of effort during last year's US Open.

Serena Williams in her "catsuit" at the French Open in 2018.Credit:Alamy

Each player shall dress and present himself/herself for play in a professional manner. Clean and customarily acceptable tennis attire shall be worn.

This rule covers shoes, sponsorship and logos, rackets, bags and headbands. A breach leads to a minimal fine but players can be told to change the attire before playing.

The rules on attire have relaxed over time but controversy continues, generally with what officials consider it acceptable for females to wear. Williams' “catsuit” at the 2018 French Open raised eyebrows and the rules changed after she wore the suit, which she said was designed to help her combat blood clots. French officials said the suit did not respect the game and it would not be allowed in 2019.

Alize Cornet copped a code violation for changing her 'back the front' shirt on court.

The best example of apparent double standards relating to dress came when France's Alize Cornet copped a code violation for changing her “back the front” shirt on court just before serving in the 2018 US Open, a decision tournament officials later corrected.

When issuing violations to players during matches umpires give a warning for a first offence, penalise them one point for a second offence with the third and subsequent offences leading to the loss of a game. By this stage the tournament official has probably loomed courtside.

A maximum of 20 seconds in women's and 25 seconds in men's is allowed to elapse from the moment the ball goes out of play at the end of the point until the time the ball is struck for the first serve of next point.

In other words, no wasting time. The new rule, designed to speed up play, has been introduced to the Australian Open for the first time, with 90 seconds allowed for the change of ends and 120 seconds allowed for a set break. How it is enforced remains open to question.

John McEnroe is unhappy with an umpire's decision during Wimbledon in 1980.Credit:

Who are the worst offenders of all time?

Data on which players receive the most code violations is not available but the blame for all this bad behaviour is laid at the feet of Americans, McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, and Romanian Ilie Nastase who were at the peak of their powers in the 1970s and 1980s.

The trios' actions led to the International Tennis Federation introducing a code of conduct in 1975, following on from the Britain Lawn Tennis Association's (LTA) efforts to maintain control over behaviour post war.

The LTA began in 1947 to publish rules of etiquette for players. It's doubtful this tantrum throwing trio took much notice.

Connors makes gestures to the Australian Open crowd in 1974.Credit:The Age

On reflection, many argue, the conditions were ripe for those individuals to engage in such scene-setting behaviour as money flowed into the game when the open era began in 1968 with the notions of what was acceptable in the genteel game of tennis being constantly challenged as the world watched on via television.

Those who have followed McEnroe, Connors and Nastase in behaving badly have been mere imitators compared to these 'trailblazers'.

Sponsors, managers, equipment suppliers and media partners all stood to benefit from the more brash environment with professional and commercial sport also attracting players with different backgrounds and attitudes. Those who have followed McEnroe, Connors and Nastase in behaving badly have been mere imitators compared to these “trailblazers”.

Double trouble: Connors and Nastase take issue with hecklers after the Romanian disputed a line call during a game in the US in 1979.Credit:AP

How much wriggle room is there for umpire discretion?

Australian Richard Ings was a professional chair umpire between 1986-1994 and the executive vice-president for rules and competition for the ATP tour from 2000-2005. He backed Ramos' decision-making in the 2018 US Open women's final and believes the code has a positive effect on the game overall.

“The principal role of the chair umpire is to use the code to control the match and controlling the match doesn't just mean making one player happy. It means making the competition fair for both players,” Ings said.

The amount of discretion available to umpires is often reduced at grand slam tournaments compared to off-Broadway events as every moment and word is captured and broadcast to a huge television audience.

As part of a chair umpire's training and development they view footage of contentious incidents and are asked to give an indication of how they would manage the situation.

“Quite often the answer is 'it depends',” Ings said. “Because you look at an incident that happens in isolation and it may not look so bad but then you look at the overall match and you see incidents previous to that and think no, no, no, you can't show discretion there because a few games earlier the player did this or the player did that so there is a pattern of behaviour that leads to a code violation.”

A code violation in tennis is like a yellow card in soccer.

Federer told Eurosport in September that players accept different umpires might see similar incidents differently. “Every umpire has their own style, it’s just how it is in any sport. In tennis you might have an umpire that gives more coaching violations and another guy goes more to time violation,” Federer said.

“You might get one guy who knows that this guy misbehaves quite often so 'I’ll give him a warning quicker' or 'I’ll be more lenient with a guy because he’s a nice guy and just can’t control himself'. I think it really depends on the situation.”

Ings says: “The analogy that I like to use is that a code violation in tennis is like a yellow card in soccer,” Ings said.

Nick Kyrgios in 2015.Credit:AFP

What other sanctions are there on bad behaviour?

Tournament directors determine whether financial sanctions or suspensions are appropriate after reviewing violations or other incidents that happen in matches. Williams received a $US17,000 fine for the incidents in the US Open final with the tournament fining her $US10,000 for the “verbal abuse” of Ramos, $US4000 for being warned for coaching and $US3000 for smashing her racket.

Aggravated behaviour was the basis on which Kyrgios was fined $US25,000 in 2015 for making lewd remarks about Wawrinka's girlfriend.

Serious incidents lead to players being charged with the major offence of aggravated behaviour, which was the basis on which Kyrgios was fined $US25,000 in 2015 for making lewd remarks towards opponent Stan Wawrinka. He was also threatened with suspension if his behaviour continued.

Of course, a player's personal brand is always at risk when they behave poorly during a match however sponsor reactions are unpredictable.

After all, would the squeaky clean Pat Rafter sell more racquets than the unpopular but always newsworthy Kyrgios?

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