Roger Federer's recent complaint about the failure of tennis umpires to enforce the sport's time rules, however mildly stated it was, brings up an important point.
In all sports.
And that is the incredible impact that even the smallest, most innocuous decisions made by referees and umpires (or, in fact, by leagues when they direct the referees and umpires) can have on individual players, on teams and on the outcome of games themselves.
I'm not talking about the failure to call a blatant pass inference penalty late in a close football game, or a blown call at home plate in extra innings, or awarding a point in the fifth set for arguing a line call -- we all know how big those decisions are; I'm talking about decisions about how the referee or umpire plans to call a particular game or games in general.
This issue first came to my attention when, as a young man, I followed the Toronto Blue Jays with a passion bordering on obsession. Outfielder-turned-pitcher Dave Steib was one of my favourites and I lived and died every time he took the mound. Anyone who followed the Jays throughout the '80s will know how often Steib flirted with a no hitter, how many times he came within an out or two of immortality.
And yet, every time he came close, something seemed to go wrong in the ninth to rob him of the no-no: a bad bounce, a bloop single, an error behind him. He was a dominant pitcher but just couldn't seem to buy a no-hitter.
One game, however, jimped out at me. There was Steib, cruising through eight innings, pitching outside, then in, outside, then in, with pin-point control. The outside pitch, always a called strike as he painted the corner, set up the inside pitch which would tie up the batter for a swinging third strike.
Then we get to the ninth. Steib is at it again. Down goes the first hitter. Up comes the second. The count's one and one and Steib throws that sinker exactly where he'd put the last 20 for called strikes but, this time, the ump doesn't call it. It's a ball. The same pitch he's thrown all game for strikes is suddenly, in the ninth inning of a no hitter, a ball.
Now it's 2-1 and the batter has the advantage. My heart sinks. Steib throws the inside pitch and the batter lays off it. Ball three. I know what's coming. As usual, the Blue Jays have provided Steib with minimal run support and he's clinging to a 1-0 lead. He can't afford the walk. So he throws the 3-1 pitch, a fastball, over the plate.
And the batter laces it to centre for a single. Goodbye no-hitter. Goodbye immortality.
Steib's fault? No way. He pitched to that hitter exactly as he'd pitched the 26 previous outs. The umpire changed. What had been a strike was now a ball.
I'm glad to report that Steib got the final two outs and won the game 1-0 but, instead of posting his first no-hitter, the Toronto ace picked up what seemed to me at least to be his 10th one-hitter.
All because the umpire, probably not evenly consciously, changed the strike zone on him.
(Steib would, of course, go on to post a no-no later in his career, by the way.)
Okay, so that's one example. Fastforward a couple of years and I'm a sports reporter at an independent newspaper in small-town Ontario. The local high school girl's basketball team has been smoking the opposition all season with a brilliant combination of speed and skill. They work their way to the District title game and, suddenly, the game changes. Fouls that have been called all season are suddenly ignored, the key is allowed to be turned into a mosh pit and brute force replaces speed and skill as the winning traits.
A much less skilled, less athletic squad from a bigger city beats the local girls, both physically and on the scoreboard. Three of the local team's starters leave the game with injuries sustained in the bloodbath on court and the game gets away from them.
Sure, you can argue that referees have the right to call a game close or to "let the players play" but you can't deny that the sometimes subtle difference between the two styles of reffing can have a huge impact on who wins and who loses.
So I am very sympathetic with Roger Federer's complaints about the failure of tennis umpires to enforce the ATP's rules on time between points.
The failure, you see, negatively impacts the supremely fit Federer's chances of winning. Fed's known for the effortless manner in which he plays the game, the way he glides across the court and wears down his opponent with long rallies and masterful shot making.
In very close matches, it is fitness and the efficiency of his game that sets him apart from his opponents. While he requires little time between points to recover, his less fit, more physical opponents take much longer to catch their breath, prepare themselves physically for the next point.
It's an advantage that Federer has earned through years of hard work. AND THE EXPECTATION THAT THE RULES IN PLACE WILL BE ENFORCED FAIRLY.
When Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic is alllowed 50% more time than the rules permit to recover between points, the advantage swings to them. The advantage Federer gains through his efficiency and fitness is negated by the additional time his less fit, less efficient opponents are granted (contrary to the rules) to recover.
I know. It doesn't seem like a big deal, whether a player is given 20 seconds between points or 30, but it makes a huge difference in who wins and who loses at the top levels of the game.
I'm not saying that, if the time rules are enforced consistently in his matches, Federer would suddenly go on a winning streak against Nadal and Djokovic. I'm just saying that this very small decision on the part of tennis umpires (not to enforce the time rules) is likely hindering Fed's ability to remain competitive and favouring his opponents.