After anger and confusion reigned inside and outside Arthur Ashe Stadium during last year’s women’s singles final at the United States Open, the tournament organizers were convinced that something had to change.
The United States Tennis Association runs the Open, and it will run it differently now, a year after the furor arose as Serena Williams received three code-of-conduct violations from the chair umpire in the second set of her 6-2, 6-4 loss to Naomi Osaka.
About six months after that match, the U.S.T.A. held a two-day conference focused on strengthening officiating and making it more understandable to the audience.
This year for the first time, the Open will post code violations as they occur, putting information on the tournament’s scoreboards to increase awareness of the rules and penalties.
In case of confusion over a chair-umpire ruling, the Open intends to make a top referee or umpire available to broadcast partners and potentially other news media to explain the rule in question — as is common practice in sports like golf and football.
The tournament also plans to deploy an official on its social-media accounts to address rulings in late-round matches, something the N.B.A. did during games last season.
In the women’s final last September, Williams was chasing a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title but was thwarted by Osaka, who played brilliantly in her first major final. The first code violation Williams received was for illicit coaching after the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, saw her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, making a clear hand signal in the stands during the match. The second was for racket abuse after Williams threw and broke her racket. The third was for verbal abuse of the chair umpire after she accused Ramos of being “a liar” and “a thief.”
According to Grand Slam rules, Williams was docked a point for the second violation and a game for the third. But a perception that Ramos was making heat-of-the-moment decisions, rather than following a specific code, surely contributed to the booing that overwhelmed the match’s later stages and the awards ceremony, where Osaka was in tears.
“It was clear fans didn’t understand the rules, and that’s on us,” said Stacey Allaster, the U.S.T.A.’s chief executive for professional tennis, who has also made it clear that Ramos will not be assigned to any of Williams’s matches.
The changes came after the two-day conference, which was held on the U.S.T.A.’s national campus in Orlando. The gathering included top officials from Grand Slam events, the men’s and women’s tours, and International Tennis Federation. Some of the guests arrived with skepticism, fear that this was a mere public-relations exercise, but most delegates left with the sense that it had been genuinely constructive.
The WTA chief executive, Steve Simon, supports the move toward posting code violations, but Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a tour veteran who is a member of the player council, sees a negative side.
“There are so many things we can focus on in tennis that would be more advantageous to get fans involved,” she said. “I understand it comes down to an extreme circumstance, with what happened with Serena last year, and on top of that, fans don’t know what the rules are. But just to focus on the scoreboard, I think there’s other things we could probably accentuate.”
The tournament also has a new officiating team with Sören Friemel replacing Brian Earley as tournament referee. Earley’s retirement, announced in advance of last year’s Open, was not related to the controversy during the women’s final.
Jake Garner, a longtime chair umpire, has taken over for Friemel as chief umpire.
The U.S.T.A. seriously considered allowing limited news media access to chair umpires, but that idea has been abandoned for now. As a rule, chair umpires are not permitted to speak publicly about the matches they officiate.
The U.S.T.A. also introduced a video assistant review system this year to allow Friemel, Garner and their team to track play on all 17 match courts in real time with a focus on umpires’ rulings and interaction with players.
The system will not be used to overrule officiating decisions, but it will allow the Open to react more nimbly and serve as a post-match education tool for umpires.
The U.S.T.A. also has significantly expanded its pretournament orientation programs for line judges and the event’s 40 chair umpires in an attempt to get more consistency during Open matches.
“In the past, we would have a line umpire and a chair umpire meeting, and it would last an hour,” Allaster said. “With reflection, it’s clear that was not enough time. The U.S. Open is governed by the 2019 Grand Slam rule book. That is not the I.T.F. rule book, not the ATP rule book, and not the WTA rule book.
“We know they all have nuances to their various rules,” she continued, “so we’re going to spend a half-day onboarding the umpires to make sure they all understand the rules, policies and procedures and how they will be evaluated going through this.”
Christopher Clarey has covered global sports for The Times and the International Herald Tribune for more than 25 years from bases in France, Spain and the United States. His specialties are tennis, soccer, the Olympic Games and sailing. @christophclarey
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