Circus Chatrier: starring Serena, Virginie, Some Pigeons and More Hindrance

Virginie Razzano’s stunning 46 76(5) 63 upset of Serena Williams in the opening round of Roland Garros on Tuesday handed the American her first loss in the first round of a Grand Slam. Razzano, who reached a career high ranking of #16 in 2009, has suffered through numerous personal and physical setbacks in her tennis career. Shortly after she reached her career high ranking, she was plagued by multiple injuries, and plummeted back down the rankings. Prior to the start of the 2011 French Open, Razzano’s fiancé and coach, Stephane Vidal, passed away due to a brain tumor. Coming into Roland Garros, Razzano was ranked #111, exactly 106 spots under Williams. Williams, undefeated on clay in 2012 and the champion in Charleston and Madrid, was considered the favorite by many to win the title.  Why do we love tennis? No one gave the Frenchwoman a chance, and she proved everyone wrong.

The match has reignited a debate regarding the rules of tennis and how clear they actually are. Once again, the hindrance rule takes center stage at a Grand Slam. Chair umpire Eva Asderaki penalized Razzano three time in the match citing the rule. I’ve read and heard some of the most ridiculous things in regards to the rule over the past two days, and it doesn’t help that most of the former players commentating, especially for major American TV networks…I’m looking at you McEnroe and Carillo, are completely unaware of what the hindrance rule actually means. The ITF and WTA hindrance rules read as follows:

ITF rule:

26. HINDRANCE
If a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent(s), the player shall win the point.
However, the point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player’s own control (not including a permanent fixture).

WTA rule:

H. HINDRANCE RULE
If a player hinders her opponent, it can be ruled as either involuntary or deliberate.
1. Involuntary Hindrance
A let should be called the first time a player has created an involuntary hindrance (e.g., ball falling out of pocket, hat falling off, etc.), and the player should be told that any such hindrance thereafter will be ruled deliberate.
2. Deliberate Hindrance
Any hindrance caused by a player that is ruled deliberate will result in the loss of a point.

In both instances, the first involuntary hindrance is regarded as a let, while any subsequent involuntary hindrance is ruled intentional, and penalized accordingly.

“Well if Razzano is going to get penalized for that, than Azarenka, Sharapova, etc, who are louder, should all be defaulted in the first game. Can’t wait to see her umpire them.”

First off, it’s laughable that a decent amount of people think Asderaki has never umpired Azarenka, Sharapova, Schiavone or your other favorite noise maker before. She’s experienced and one of the best in the game, and has chaired all of them. Secondly, Razzano WAS NOT penalized for grunting. I cannot stress this clearly enough. Razzano was penalized for a verbal utterance of pain, which is an entirely different issue according to the rules. Also, the volume of the hindrance is irrelevant in determining whether a act of hindrance has taken place.

Razzano’s first verbal utterance is considered involuntary or out of her control, as it was the exact moment that her cramp/injury/ailment occurred. Asderaki, in correct procedure, asked her if she needed the trainer, she said no, and then warned her if it happened again it would be a point penalty. It happened twice more, and you know the rest. There is literally nothing here outside the letter of the rules. The clarity of hindrance rule has long been hotly debated in tennis circles; however, the language of the rule is clear. Those intent on crucifying Asderaki should know she is just an umpire; she doesn’t make the rules, she and the others just enforce them as instructed.

Those who have an issue with grunting as it relates to “deliberate and unintentional,” should realize that if the umpires were stricter in the 80’s and 90’s regarding it, there would be no issue today. Grunting is covered in a different section in the rules, and is also amended for 2012 in the notes and comments section of the 2012 USTA Friend at Court.

USTA Comment 26.1: What is the difference between a deliberate and an unintentional act? Deliberate means a player did what the player intended to do, even if the result was unintended. An example is a player who hits a short lob in doubles and loudly shouts “back” just before an opponent hits the overhead. (See The Code § 34.) Unintentional refers to an act over which a player has no control, such as a hat blowing off or a scream after a wasp sting.

Grunting. A player should avoid grunting and making other loud noises. Grunting and other loud noises may bother not only opponents but also players on adjacent courts. In an extreme case, an opponent or a player on an adjacent court may seek the assistance of an official. Grunting and the making of loud noises that affect the outcome of a point are hindrances. Only an official may rule that these actions are hindrances and order that a let be played or a loss of point, depending on whether an official had previously warned the offending player.
Keep in mind, and I STRESS THIS GREATLY: This rule was rewritten by the USTA for 2012 in an attempt to provide further clarity on this issue. The rules, while they may vary slightly from federation to federation, are by-in-large consistent across the board, and with ATP, WTA and ITF rules. The point remains that officials are supposed to distinguish between grunts and shrieks of pain in regards to hindrance. The bolded portion of the grunting amendment is where this distinction happens; how are officials to rule if grunting affects the outcome of the point if no player seems to take issue during the match? As the rule stands, grunting is only considered a hindrance in VERY specific circumstances. Razzano’s shrieks of pain came as Williams was preparing for her shot, and fall clearly under the hindrance category.

“Why was Serena penalized right away but they replayed the point on the first hindrance?”

The hindrance ruling at the US Open was 100% correct because it falls under the category of deliberate. The word deliberate in this context covers BOTH the deliberate action performed with the intent to hinder AND a deliberate action which causes a hindrance anyway. The situation at the US Open fell into the latter; the phrase “Come on!” is considered a deliberate verbal utterance. The intent was not to hinder, but since it is a deliberate action, it falls under deliberate hindrance. The point penalty is given immediately.

“Why is this umpire the only one calling hindrances?”

Mardy Fish was called on a hindrance in his loss to Matt Ebden by Felix Torralba at the 2012 BNP Paribas Open. Marion Bartoli was also called on hindrance against Christina McHale at the 2011 US Open. Unintentional hindrances such as hats blown off by wind or balls falling from skirts (a notable example of this coming in the first round of the 2007 Australian Open in a match with Maria Sharapova and Camille Pin) are common. End of discussion.

Far too often, chair umpires have been criticized for being too soft: this player takes too much time in between points, this player gets illegal on court coaching, etc. Asderaki followed the letter of the rule to a T, and her implementation of the rule was spot on for the first two hindrances. The third, which many have taken issue with, was arguably a judgement call, but was still correct. Don’t shoot the messengers because the rule is hazed under 50 shades of gray.

Can we stop talking about it now?