The blood was pouring out of the line judge’s leg due an act of aggression from a player and that is something I have never seen before in 50 years of reporting this game.
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The result was David Nalbandian receiving an instant default from ATP Supervisor Tom Barnes, leaving Marin Cilic as the unwitting and only partially happy winner of the Aegon Championships at the up-market Queen’s Club where things like this are not supposed to happen. The score will stand as Nalbandian leading 7-6, 3-4 default.
Cilic had a break in the second set and his Argentine opponent was starting to get frustrated. Nalbandian, a 30-year-old former Wimbledon finalist, was playing his fourth match in three days as a result of rain delay backups in the scheduling and, after missing a couple of shots, he bounced his racket off the turf a couple of times.
No damage done.
Not so a couple of minutes later when another point went to Cilic. Racing across court in pursuit of the ball, Nalbandian kept on running and kicked the small board surrounding the line judge’s chair with all the force of someone trying to score a goal for Argentina. Afterwards he insisted that, in the heat of the moment, he “didn’t see nothing.”
One can only take him at his word because there was the figure of Andrew McDougall sitting there right in front of him with his legs just a few inches away from the board. The inevitable happened and the damage was done. The wood cut into McDougall’s shin and, as he rolled away in agony and pulled up his trouser leg, blood poured out.
Nalbandian, obviously shocked, stood by his side apologizing but Barnes was there in an instant and, under the rules the supervisor had only one option. Violent conduct means a default.
By this time boos were ringing out from the bank of public ticket holders and they were joined by quite a few of the blazered Queen’s Club members sipping their Pimms on the Pavilion terrace. One can understand their disappointment at having their entertainment curtailed and it would have helped if either Barnes or tournament director Chris Kermode had grabbed a microphone and explained the rules to them.
Some minutes passed before anything like that happened and it was only when Sue Barker of the BBC interviewed both players on court that the public had any real idea of why the match was not being allowed to continue.
At the urging of Kermode, Nalbandian agreed to answer Barker’s questions and was word perfect to begin by saying, “I am very sorry. Sometimes we get frustrated on court.”
Then, with a huge lapse of judgment given the circumstances, Nalbandian launched into a tirade against the ATP. “Sometimes we feel pressure from the ATP,” he said as he began to lose his audience. “There are a lot of rules. The rule book is very big. But the ATP makes mistakes and nothing happens.”
Afterwards, in a not very coherent press conference, Nalbandian insisted that he was not referring just to the conditions at Queen’s during the week when he had been made to play on a grass court that was a little slippery. “At the beginning of the year they make you sign to agree to play the tour,” he said. “Maybe you disagree, maybe you agree but you couldn’t do anything.”
If Nalbandian has complaints – and plenty of players have some – there is a Player’s Council, headed by a president named Roger Federer, to complain to at some quieter moment. Not when you have just been defaulted for injuring a line judge in the middle of a final.
Cilic was obviously experiencing confusing emotions at having won the seventh ATP title of his career under these circumstances. “Of course I did not want to win this way,” he said. “We were having a great match. It could have gone either way. To end the week like this feels a bit bitter.”
When asked if he thought the match should have been stopped, Cilic said, “It’s not for me to decide because the rule is there to protect people, ball boys and referees. But I do think the supervisor should have come on court and explained the rule to the people.”
The incident is shocking on many levels, not least because it is so out of character with what happens on the ATP Tour these days. It is also, of course, more newsworthy because it occurred in the final of one of the game’s longest established tournaments at a club like Queen’s. And the fact that a court official was actually injured by a player sets a sad precedent.
Terrible things were said on court in the days of John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase and some of Jimmy Connors’ gestures – even on that same Center Court at Queen’s – were obscene. But I cannot remember anyone ever being hurt.
Tim Henman, a proper English gentleman if ever there was one, was devastated when he was defaulted at Wimbledon as a very young player because he slammed a ball across the court at the precise moment a ball girl was running into his vision. The ball missed her by inches but Henman was still sent packing.
Nalbandian will receive a hefty fine after this incident but it remains to be seen whether he will also be handed a suspension. If he does not, we will await with interest the reception he receives at Wimbledon.