The tennis authorities have been warned that they risk losing officials at every level of their sport if they do not display coordinated support for the umpire on the receiving end of Serena Williams’ verbal volley.
Dr Tom Webb co-ordinates a global network of research into referees and match officials, and says that the ultimate consequence of not adequately backing officials is that sports will simply struggle to find people willing to fulfil this role.
Dr Webb’s research also points to a clear link, in the opinion of match officials, between abusive behaviour at the elite level and the grassroots.
Tennis has no representative body to speak for its officials and it was only late on Monday, almost 48 hours after the hugely controversial US Open final, that the International Tennis Federation released a statement in which they said that umpire Carlos Ramos had acted at all times “with professionalism and integrity”.
There was, though, no specific condemnation of Williams, beyond asserting that Ramos’s decisions were delivered in accordance with the relevant rules.
Before that, the United States Tennis Association had said that there was “no equality” and that men got away with similar behaviour “all the time”.
The Women’s Tennis Association also backed Williams and said that there were differences in the tolerance shown to women and men. Williams called Ramos a “liar” and a “thief” and told him that he would never be allowed on the same court as her again. She also repeatedly demanded an apology.
Ramos, who has also had run-ins with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, had issued a coaching violation against Williams after seeing her coach make hand signals during the match. He later issued penalties, first of one point and then one game, in response to her smashing her racket and then the comments that were directed at him.
Webb, who works at the University of Portsmouth and has interviewed officials in football, cricket, rugby union and rugby league as part of his extensive body of research, said that there were very clear trends across sports.
“When we have looked at other sports, we have consistently found that the support networks around officials are crucial in retaining match officials in sport,” he said. “They need to feel supported by their governing bodies. They will leave unless they feel supported and, across sports, we found that there were officials thinking of leaving for this reason.
“In the longer term, this can have a huge affect right down the pyramid of a sport. Competition, participation and opportunity are ultimately reduced if there are not enough officials.
“I have followed the story and it does seem that the umpire is not particularly being supported by his governing body. In this incident, you also need to consider the umpire and there has not really been much understanding or consideration of the impact of this on him.
“There is very high pressure on these officials and he is very unlikely to have experienced anything like this. He applied the rules and now he is being faced with this huge worldwide backlash and debate.”
On the impact of these sort of incidents, Webb said: “Referees and match officials believe that there is a direct effect of behaviour at elite level and then what they see in mass participation fixtures subsequently. The link between elite sporting actions and what happens in the grassroots game is very difficult to actually measure, but that is the perception of the match officials at lower levels.
“They very definitely feel that bad behaviour at the elite level filters down. When there was the issue with Gianluigi Buffon and Michael Oliver in the Champions League, there was not only the impact on him and the threats he received but there were cases of some quite bad abuse of local refs soon after. And there is a feeling that these sort of incidents are linked.”