Remember when tennis was a genteel sport, played by gentlemen and ladies? Remember when the audiences -- seldom big enough to be called crowds -- sat quietly, politely, hardly daring to move or even breathe except at change games? Remember when umpires wore blue blazers and ruled absolutely from their high chairs of authority?
Well, you have a good memory. But tennis isn't played in long white flannels anymore, and it isn't watched only by the well-bred and well-heeled. Somebody ought to tell the guys in charge.
Early Friday morning, a second-round match in the U.S. Open between Romanian Ilie Nastase and New Yorker John McEnroe -- Nasty and Nasty Junior -- could be completed only after a crowd of 10,000 agitated spectators at the National Tennis Center, a splendidly public complex in Flushing Meadow Park, had booed veteran umpire Frank Hammond out of the chair amid a shower of paper cups, beer cans and unidentified flying objects.
The match -- which was roughly equal parts sport, con job, sitcom and burlesque -- was won by McEnroe, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, after a tempestuous 20-minute delay that included these once-unthinkable happenings:
The crowd booed and hurled debris at Hammond, an umpire for 32 of his 47 years, who had gradually lost his composure and control of the match. He tried to be too authoritarian, ranted needlessly at Nastase, and then rashly penalized the Romanian a game for alleged stalling. It was this action, with McEnroe serving at 2-1, 15-0 in the fourth set, that brought the full wrath of the pro-Nastase gathering down on the umpire.
Hammond, with the acquisience and even encouragement of tournament referee Mike Blanchard, then defaulted Nastase -- a decision that was drowned out by the howling mob and ultimately reversed. "It was obvious that the match wasn't going to be over," McEnroe said afterward, "Because the spectators would have lynched Hammond on the way out if that happened."
Referee Blanchard, a lovely man who is simply too old-fashioned and wishy-washy to be in such an important position, threatened to send the unruly spectators to bed without their entertainment if they didn't behave. "Ladies and gentlemen, unless we have some quiet so the players can continue," he said at one point, "this match will be discontinued until tomorrow."
Police and security guards were deployed around the court during the tempest, which only seemed to inflame passions. Several fistfights broke out in the stands.
Blanchard, tournament director Bill Talbert and Grand Prix Supervisor Frank Smith -- communicating and acting with the decisive unity of Keystone Kops -- did nothing until the crowd was out of control and then agreed on the only course of action that could placate the paying customers: removal of the beleaguered and humiliated Hammond. Talbert apparently was the only one who assessed the chaotic situation correctly and made the final decision.
After Hammond was banished, escorted off the court by two guards as the crowd continued to hurl taunts and missiles at him, Blanchard took the chair. The crown quieted down and the match finished without further incident.
What professional tennis needs is modernization and professionalization of its officiating. There have been efforts in this direction in recent years, but they are wholly inadequate.
Nastase may be a despicable gamesman, McEnroe a spoiled and whining brat, but they are part of modern tennis. Individualism is "in" these days. We don't suspend iconoclasts from tournaments for life, as the United States Lawn Tennis Association did to Earl Cochell, the Nastase of his day, for "gross misconduct" at the U.S. championships in 1951.
Nastase bends the rules every which way but straight, but if he doesn't violate them, he should not be punished. McEnroe's sourpuss department and incessant questioning of line calls have made him a heel, even in his hometown, but if he can perform in this atmosphere of villainy, why stop him? As Jimmy Conners has often said, a little petulance sells tickets.
"Nastase has been great for tennis. He brings out the people. He's the only player I'd pay to see," Connors said today. "If he didn't really break the rules, they shouldn't come down on him."
If Nastase had deserved what he got in the match against McEnroe, the crowd would not have supported him. It was umpire Hammond who was chiefly responsible for the trouble. He showboated. He tried to make a spectacle of his authority. He violated the rule of thumb that McEnroe wisely noted afterward: "The best umpires are the ones you don't notice."
From the outset, there was a strong undercurrent of psychological warfare in this match. McEnroe had said Nastase would "try to bug me." Nastase had said he would. McEnroe invited disfavor by questioning line calls and giving a rude gesture to a heckler in the crowd early. Nastase irritated McEnroe by mimicking him and playing foil to his foibles.
It was quite a good show, actually, until umpire Hammond regrettably lost his temper. He started berating Nastase, waving his finger at him like a parent disciplining a naughty child. Nastase objected. So did the crowd.
It never should have gotten to that point. It did only because tennis umpires still are not equipped to handle temperamental players and excitable crowds. They are part-timers trained for a white-flannel, blue-blazer game that doesn't exist anymore.