In defaulting Djokovic, US Open referee Soeren Friemel deserves credit

In defaulting Djokovic, US Open referee Soeren Friemel deserves credit

The moment recalls a related situation, back in 1975.

Congratulations to US Open referee Soeren Friemel. Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 player in the world, presented Friemel with a difficult decision after swatting a ball and inadvertently striking a lineswoman, but the official correctly went with what the rulebook says, without fear or favor.

Listen to Friemel's description of the situation here:

In Rome, back in 1975, I didn’t. Let me explain why.

It was the quarterfinal stage of the Italian Open at the Foro Italico, and the match between Ilie Nastase, the temperamental star who had been No. 1 in the world the previous year, and Mexico’s Raul Ramirez was due on. It was going to be a combustible match and, in those days, it did not take much to set the Roman crowds aflame. I had already witnessed a couple of over-excited fans toppling over the flimsy guard rail and spilling onto the court.

But we were prepared for it. I say ‘we’ because I was European Director of the ATP at the time, and the actual tournament director, an excellent official named Gianfranco Cameli, had said at the start of the tournament, “You know the players better than me. You take charge of that side of things and I’ll look after the rest.”

So I became co-tournament director, which should have worked out OK if the women’s match preceded our first quarter-final hadn’t finished in about 35 minutes. Ramirez had not budgeted for that and was still at the Holiday Inn, a good 30 minutes’ drive away. The ATP match was “to follow” which meant it should be on court within half an hour. The time lag allowed for any player being late was 10 minutes. After that—default.

I got Raul on the phone and told him I would hold the match as long as I could. But I knew he was never going to meet the deadline, and I was already realizing that I might have to break the rule for one very simple reason. I knew the crowd was already restless after a poor women’s match, and I felt that if I walked out on court with my little rule book to announce that the match was cancelled because Ramirez was late, there might be a riot. Literally. I felt it was a real possibility.

So was a tennis match worth someone getting hurt; worth a child being trampled or having an arm broken in the mayhem? It was not a chance I was prepared to take. I had seen what could happen in riots—I had been in Grant Park when the police caused one by beating up students at the 1968 Chicago Convention. Different circumstances, but the results could be the same.

So I did what, for me, was the hard part and went into the locker room to speak to an already enraged Nastase, who was pacing up and down, swishing his racquet about. Knowing Ramirez was, by that time, about ten minutes away, I said, “Ilie, you’re going to get screwed. I’m not going to follow the ten minutes rule and you are going to have to play the match.”

He did. And, of course, with his mind all over the place, he lost. Three days later Ramirez won the biggest singles title of his career over Manolo Orantes.


Darren Carroll/USTA

So would I do it again? Under those circumstances, yes. But not if I had been in Friemel’s shoes this week. Crowds are obviously not a factor at this strange US Open but, in any case, Djokovic’s careless action, though clearly unintentional, was an unarguable breach of the rules. His only possible defense was that he had not done it in anger but, as he had just dropped serve and had already pounded a ball into the side hoardings (where there were no officials) earlier in the match, everything suggested that the way he slapped the ball away was fueled by frustration.

The vast majority of commentators said that Friemel had made the correct decision and the expression on coach Goran Ivanisevic’s face, when he saw what Djokovic had done, said it all. He knew.  

Obviously, it was especially unlucky for the Serb that his idle hit, which could have gone anywhere, caught the lineswoman painfully in the throat. It was not what she had signed up for, but the incident threw an interesting spotlight on a totally different topic: the question of whether the entire game allows technology to replace line officials. On the face of it, it makes sense. Hawk-Eye is accepted by everyone and the move would save money.

Not a fortune, mind you, because these dedicated people who volunteer for a difficult, stressful job that comes without thanks and precious little renumeration are doing it for the love of the game. At a guess there must be some 10,000 officiating at tournaments worldwide—people who provide a direct link to the next generation at home, or maybe in the stands, watching daddy or auntie or a sister being out there on court with Roger Federer or Serena Williams. How can that not stir interest, an interest so intense that they might take up the game zas players or become umpires later on? Or, at the very least, a feeling of being part of the tennis family?

Is tennis so self-satisfied, so short sighted, so full of itself that it is prepared to cast them aside; tell them to go find some other sport to officiate? Really? What kind of madness is that? What kind of business operation would say to 10,000 of its most devoted clients, “Thanks but get lost?”

In this virtual age, magnified by the needs created by COVID-19, do we want to take another step towards automatons ruling our lives? In short, to do away with humanity? Novak Djokovic revealed his humanity, not in the way he would have wanted, but he showed it nonetheless.