Imagine being on national TV, standing on Arthur Ashe Stadium’s court in the women's U.S. Open final in New York City, with an irate Serena Williams — arguably the biggest name in women's tennis — pointing a finger at you and claiming she's been treated unfairly.
You'd probably rather take one of Williams’ powerful serves to the head than be put in that position.
But former U.S. Open tournament referee Brian Earley, who's in town this week at the Winnipeg Lawn Tennis Club as the tournament supervisor for the National Bank Challenger, wasn't given that option.
Last year was Earley's final U.S. Open as tournament referee, as he decided to retire after 26 years in the role. It's a prominent position to be in, as although you're not an on-court official, you have the final authority on all field-of-play issues, resolving scheduling issues and deciding whether or not players should be fined for inappropriate conduct.
But before Earley could ride off into the sunset, an incident with Williams in the 2018 final on Sept. 8 against Japan's Naomi Osaka likely reassured him that his decision to retire was the right one.
In the second set, Williams was given a first-offence warning from chair umpire Carlos Ramos, who believed the superstar was getting advice from her coach Patrick Mouratoglou in the crowd during the match.
"If he gives me a thumbs up, he's telling me to come on," Williams tried to explain to Ramos. "We don't have any code, and I know you don't know that, and I understand why you may have thought that was coaching, but I'm telling you it's not. I don't cheat to win. I'd rather lose. I'm just letting you know."
Things only escalated from there. Williams lost the first set 6-2, but had a 3-1 lead over Osaka in the second set. But after losing a game to make it 3-2, Williams smashed her racquet. Williams was given a point penalty, as she had already received a code violation earlier for the illegal coaching. The 23-time Grand Slam champion was outraged by the ruling, as Williams demanded Ramos apologize to her and told the judge "You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine again as long as you live."
She continued to berate Ramos after Osaka took a 4-3 lead in the second set, calling him a "thief" for "stealing" a point from her. Ramos then gave Williams her third code violation, this time for verbal abuse, which resulted in Osaka being awarded a game to make it 5-3. And that's when Earley made his way out onto the court, as Williams asked to speak to a referee.
"There are men out here who do a lot worse, but because I'm a woman, you're going to take this away from me? That's not right," said an emotional Williams to Earley. "You know it. I know you can't admit it, but I know you know it's not right."
Osaka went on to win the second set 6-4, becoming the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam. But Osaka’s major accomplishment was overshadowed by Williams’ outburst. Earley fined Williams US$17,000 for her three violations.
"I'm not going to talk about it," said Earley when the Free Press asked him about the infamous altercation with Williams.
"I don't talk about specific situations, but I’ve been in many situations like that. At any level, you handle them exactly the same whether it's the No. 1 player in the world, or here, it's the No. 150 player in the world. It's the same. A bunch of people have asked me that question 'How do you go out there and handle it when it's a famous player?' And quite frankly, I thought about that when I first became the tournament referee at the U.S. Open. And people said 'How are you going to handle it and go out there when there's 20,000 people?' And I said 'I don't know. I really don't.' And the first year I did it, I (realized) the court is still 36 x 78, and the chair umpire still sits six feet above you, and the player is still the same player you might have dealt with three years ago at a Future or a Challenger (event). It doesn't feel any different. What is different is the aftermath, the discussions with the press and how people react and stuff. But the actual on-court situation, it doesn't feel any different. And I was surprised by that, quite frankly."
Williams' meltdown wasn't the first notable incident Earley has been a part of. In the 2017 Davis Cup, Denis Shapovalov, who was 17 at the time, was playing for Canada in their first-round matchup against Great Britain. Frustrated after losing a point, Shapovalov struck a ball out of play and accidentally hit umpire Arnaud Gabas directly in the eye. Earley made the call to end the match and default Shapovalov, which put Great Britain through to the next round.
So, in other words, this week in Winnipeg has been rather anti-climactic for Earley (not that he's complaining). The only real issue was the rain on Monday and Tuesday that set the tournament's schedule back a bit.
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"I know the farmers needed it, but we didn't," said the 68-year-old Pittsburgh, Pa., native.
But even though Earley's been on the biggest stages in professional tennis, he still treats events like this one the same as a Grand Slam.
"It's the same. The players are still terrific and some of them are a pain in the butt," said Earley, who will help out at next month's U.S. Open as an adviser.
"But I love working tennis and I'm not ready to completely retire. I started in the development of professional tennis and was the director of the USTA Pro Circuit for 20 years, I gave tournament director workshops, I did consulting for tournaments. So, you can talk to the tournament directors this week and they'll tell you that I don't just talk to them about field of play. I can give them hints about court construction, about lighting and about tournament management. I got a lot to offer at this level and I'm happy to do it. It's fun."
Two of the biggest names at the Winnipeg National Bank Challenger were eliminated on Thursday in round-of-16 action.
Tournament No. 1 seed Bernard Tomic fell to China’s Zhe Li 6-1, 6-7, 4-6 to have his run cut short. Tomic was the No. 17-ranked player in the world in 2016 and entered this week ranked 96th. Li, a 32-year-old, is ranked 230th in the world.
One of the top Canadians in the event, North York’s Peter Polansky, the No. 4 seed, also fell victim to an upset. The 31-year-old Polansky lost 4-6, 7-5, 6-7 to Japan’s Hiroki Moriya.
Brayden Schnur of Pickering, Ont., the No. 3 seed, outlasted fellow Canadian Justin Boulais, a 17-year-old, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3 to reach the quarter-finals. France’s Antonie Hoang, the second-ranked player in the event, also moved on after defeating Monaco’s Lucas Catarina.
Quarter-final actions begins at the Winnipeg Lawn Tennis Club today.