Grass-Court Report: The kick heard round the world
LONDON—It was the kick heard round the world, or at least this part of west London, as David Nalbandian was defaulted from the AEGON Championships final at Queen’s Club for unsportsmanlike conduct after injuring a linesperson.
If you haven’t seen the incident, you can view it here, but in simple terms, what happened is this: At 3-3 in the second set, having just recouped a break against Marin Cilic, Nalbandian was 15-40 down when he chased a cross-court shot. Failing to catch up with the ball, Nalbandian’s run brought him up by the linesperson watching the baseline; having already thrown his racquet earlier in the game, he impulsively kicked at the Nike-branded plywood hoarding which surrounds the linespeoples' feet at this tournament. The edge of the hoarding consequently cut the linesman’s shin, causing it to bleed. The ATP supervisor, Tom Barnes, was called to the court and Nalbandian was immediately defaulted in one of the most bizarre endings to a final in recent memory. With that default comes the loss of all the ranking points and prize money earned this week; he may also be subject to a fine of $10,000, undetermined at this point.
The match had been, as Cilic put it, ‘getting hot’—as in shaping up nicely. Before the incident, the primary battle, as anticipated, took place between Cilic’s big serve and Nalbandian’s sharp returns. After being broken in his first service game, Cilic recovered to get the first set back on level terms and take it to a tiebreak, where the threat of Nalbandian’s return drew a crucial double fault from the Croatian. Nalbandian subsequently took the tiebreak after a winner off the net cord.
Two spectacular returns from Cilic saw him take an early break in the second set, leading 3-2 before a lob from Nalbandian got him back on serve. Unfortunately, the great tennis from both Cilic and Nalbandian throughout the week, along with the Croatian’s well-deserved first title since St. Petersburg last year, are surely to be eclipsed by what happened next. As Cilic put it when asked if he had ever seen anything like that before: "I don’t think it’s going to happen in [the] next hundred years, that’s for sure."
Having witnessed a piece of soon-to-be tennis history didn’t immediately appeal to the Centre Court crowd, deprived of the opportunity to see a replay of an incident which many of them will have missed, who booed furiously and chanted for more play, proving incidentally that when riled, the well-heeled patrons of Queen’s can be as vehement in their displeasure as the fans at Roland Garros. Events took a further twist when Nalbandian criticized the ATP when he spoke to the BBC after the trophy presentation, in which he did not take part. Nalbandian clarified his remarks in his press conference, explaining that he does not take issue with the decision to default him: "I do a mistake and I apologize, and I feel very sorry to the guy." As ATP supervisor Tom Barnes, speaking to the press after the match, put it: "He intended to kick the box, but he did not intend to hurt the guy. When he realized that he had, he felt bad. Then when he realized the consequences of that, he felt worse." Both Barnes and Chris Kermode, the tournament director, were clear that there was no alternative but to default Nalbandian immediately.
Nalbandian did not help his case by bringing criticisms of the ATP, unrelated to the incident, into the conversation, nor with an understandably defensive attitude in his press conference. Where the ATP is concerned, his objection seems to involve a similar lack of responsibility and accountability on the ATP’s part when they make mistakes: "When somebody else do a mistake, they have to pay in the same way […] [I]n the beginning of the year you have to sign [something that says] you have to agree with everything that the ATP says, right? And sometimes you don’t. And if you don’t want to sign, you cannot play ATP tournaments. So you don’t have chance to ask, to tell, to change something, nothing. […] But sometimes ATP put a lot of pressure on the players, and sometimes you get injured because you play on dangerous surface and nothing happen. Keep rolling. Keep rolling all time. Nothing pay for that."
Earlier in the match, before all this blew up, I was pondering the question of what goes on in players’ minds and how they can deal with their emotions, or to be more exact, how we—the spectators, the fans, the writers—can ever understand what goes on in their minds. I didn’t imagine the question would turn out to be so pertinent to the day’s events, but I scribbled a note: "You can watch the players, but can you ever know what it’s like to play the game?" I’m not defending Nalbandian any more than he attempted to defend himself; to indirectly injure an official by lashing out in a moment of temper, even if you had no intention to cause such an injury, is inexcusable and merits, at the least, the default and the consequent penalties incurred. In a situation like this, however, where everyone has an opinion and most of them are busy making that opinion known, it can’t hurt to remember that we can’t put ourselves in Nalbandian’s shoes at that moment no matter how hard we try. Nalbandian would no doubt give anything to have fetched up at the end of his run a couple of feet further down the court, but that’s all to no avail. Losing the final, the points, the money is small beer compared to the injury to the linesperson, the damage to Nalbandian’s reputation and the mortification of the whole thing. To paraphrase the man himself: Nothing pays for that.
Hannah Wilks is a frequent contributor to TENNIS.com.