Chair umpires are lucky stiffs. At least occasionally, they get to do something all of us itch to do to the passive-aggressive colleague in the next cubicle, the disinterested waitress or the driver ahead of us gabbing on a cell phone when the light changes.
A seldom-invoked rule enables umpires in the ATP, WTA and Grand Slams to call a code violation on a player for "lack of best effort."
Late last week, one of those calls provoked a lot of discussion because it involved a player whose competitive effort is the subject of an official match-fixing investigation.
Davydenko was trailing Marin Cilic 4-0 in the decisive set when the chair umpire called the Russian for the code violation. No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko of Russia was slapped with a $2,000 fine by the ATP when Belgian umpire Jean-Philippe Dercq decided Davydenko was investing less than his best in the third set of a 1-6, 7-5, 6-1 loss to 19-year-old Marin Cilic of Croatia. Dercq made the call after Davydenko double-faulted on break point. Davydenko protested vigorously, delaying the match for nearly five minutes as he argued with Dercq; his facial expression by turns were incredulous, seemingly crushed and angry. He claimed he had never heard of the rule. "What [does it] mean?" he demanded at one point. He looked reluctant to continue, muttering, "You scare me now," but eventually did plod back to the baseline.
Afterwards, Davydenko said his legs were "dead" and described himself as so traumatized by the entire incident that he cried. For what it's worth, Cilic, who also beat Davydenko last month in Beijing, said he thought his opponent was playing fair and square.
Prior to the St. Petersburg dustup, the most famous invocation of the deadbeat rule was a code violation called against Davydenko's fellow Russian Marat Safin in the first round of the 2000 Australian Open. Safin's slacker behavior in a loss to South African qualifier Grant Stafford earned him four separate warnings from chair umpire Norm Chryst. After the last one, Safin defiantly caught one of Stafford's serves in his hand. He was fined $2,000.
The ATP does not keep track of "best effort" violations, but we know of at least one other instance involving a certain cherubic-faced Swiss prodigy in 1998. Then-17-year-old Roger Federer was still bouncing between the junior and pro circuits late that year and had just earned some of his first significant ATP results when he slogged off to Kublis, Switzerland, to play a lower-level pro event.
Here's how biographer Rene Stauffer described the incident in "The Roger Federer Story: Quest for Perfection":
His listlessness didn't escape tournament referee Claudio Grether. "He simply stood unmotivated and nonchalantly on the court and double-faulted twice each game," Grether explained. After Federer lost to [Armando] Brunold 7-6, 6-2, Grether imposed a $100 fine against Federer because he violated the "best effort" rule. ... Federer silently received the verdict. With prize money earnings of only $87, Federer left Kublis with a $13 deficit. ... "The fine was justified," he admitted.
The "best effort" call is the most subjective an umpire can make, a bazooka that's supposed to be hauled out only in extreme cases. The wording of the rule in the ATP, WTA and ITF regulations doesn't spell out any specific criteria that should be used in making the determination.