Until that moment – a key moment in the ATP Tour Finals semi between Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev – the decidedly pro-Federer crowd at the O2 had mostly behaved itself.
There were a few cheers here and there when Zverev missed a first serve on key points.
But it was ably kept under control by veteran chair umpire Carlos Bernardes, who has been around the “home-crowd” phenomenon block a time or 10.
But then, with the German serving at 3-4 in the second set tiebreak, and Federer taking control of the point, it got a little cruel.
And the result was a tough, tough moment for Zverev, whose diffidence and confidence often belie his tender years, but who at heart is just a kid still trying to navigate his way among the greats of the game.
A ballboy at the back of the court lost control of a ball during the point, and it rolled into the field of play. He probably should just have let it roll, until Bernardes – or even Federer himself – saw it and stopped the point. But he tried to sneak into the court, unobtrusively, to collect it.
Zverev saw him and immediately stopped play.
The boos rained down upon Zverev, who was well within his rights to stop the point. But he was taking a risk in doing so.
A few minutes later, after Zverev had sealed the win with a bravura performance against a fairly in-form Federer, he heard a few boos again.
It wasn’t a huge portion of the crowd. But it was evident, and loud enough.
The rest of the crowd – the more knowledgable tennis fans, who grasped the situation and didn’t let their emotions rule – quickly began to cheer to try to drown it out.
Zverev apologizes to crowd
Emotional as he reached the biggest final of his young career, Zverev didn’t quite know what to make of it at first.
Then, he quickly realized why the fans were booing.
And he immediately addressed the crowd during his on-court interview with Annabel Croft.
“First I want to apologize for the situation in the tiebreak. The ballboy dropped the ball, so it’s in the rules that we have to replay the point,” said Zverev, who added that Federer accepted his apology at the net.
Croft then lectured the crowd. That, of course, is not in her job description – not that she was wrong.
“I’m not sure why you’e all booing, because he’s telling the truth. The ballboy did move across the court, and it disrupted play. And those are the rules,” she told them. “I think you have to be a little more respectful.”
Even the tournament director weighed in.
Astonishingly disappointing reaction from the crowd.
Huge credit to Sascha Zverev for reaching his first final here at the #NittoATPFinals.
And well done @Annabel_Croft on handling the situation with aplomb.
— Adam Hogg (@acphogg) November 17, 2018
“Obviously a lot of Roger fans here”
Zverev was clearly upset. The look on his face – equal parts emotion, confusion, and hurt – wasn’t something we’ve seen from him. But there can’t be too many worse feelings than being blamed by 15,000 fans for something that’s not your fault.
The crowd paid copious pounds for their seats. So if they’re thus inclined, they can cheer for one player and root against another. But when it happens, it still goes against that admittedly thinning veneer of sporting fan behaviour that still coats the game.
You know this wouldn’t have happened at the All-England Club, even with Federer playing.
But this is a different crowd – more of an event crowd, less awed by the surroundings and the tradition.
The German completely understood the situation he found himself.
More than a “true Brit”
In London, Federer is almost more than a true Brit. He’s like a “super Brit”. Many of the tennis fans in that city probably embrace him more than they do their own because of his reverence for – and success at – The Championships.
“I understand the frustration. It’s just unfortunate circumstances. These things happen. Booing, I never like it. We see it in other sports all the time, but in tennis it’s rare. So when it happens, it gets very personal and we take it very direct,” Federer said afterwards.
“Sascha doesn’t deserve it. He apologized to me at the net. I was like, ‘Buddy, shut up. You don’t need to apologize to me here. … So he shouldn’t be apologizing. He didn’t do anything about it. He just called it how it was, and he felt it affected play. There is a rule that if something like this happens, obviously you replay points.”
More apologies from Zverev
What a learning moment for the young star.
He had to process beating his friend, mentor and idol on such a big occasion. And then he had to deal with a wholly unexpected situation.
He did so with impressive maturity and not an insignificant amount of grace. In the end (and it doesn’t hurt that he won), he’ll be a better competitor for it.
“I want to apologize to the crowd, obviously there’s a lot of Roger fans here. As he deserves. From what he’s achieved and what kind of guy he is, he should have the most fans in the world. In London especially, how much history he has here,” Zverev said. “The crowd has been amazing. The crowd has been absolutely fair the whole match. Again, I’m very sorry that this happened. I didn’t mean to upset anybody. That’s all I can say, Sorry.”
When he came into his post-match press conference, Zverev admitted that the situation shook him up a little.
“I was very emotional afterwards. The booing went into cheering kind of afterwards, which kind of helped me, as well. Obviously a lot of emotions going on through my head. I was really upset afterwards in the locker room, as well. I’m not going to lie. I had to take a few minutes for myself,” he said.
Risky move by Zverev
There was no major fault to Bernardes for not spotting the wandering ballboy. The chair umpire is following the ball in play, not the one in the ballboy’s hands. Often they see these things. But sometimes they don’t.
As with anything else that happens on court, in a sport lacking the oversight of an extra official on the sidelines as a spotter for any unusual issues, if the umpire doesn’t see it, he might well not call it.
And if he doesn’t see it, he might not order up the point to be replayed.
Zverev would have had no recourse in that situation. In this case, having stopped play, he would have lost the point and been down a crucial mini-break, at 3-5 in that second-set tiebreak.
‘I’m not questioning Sascha’s sportsmanship in any way. Like I said before, it’s a bold move by Sascha to stop the rally because the umpire can just say, ‘Sorry, buddy, you’re in the rally. I don’t care. You lost the point. I didn’t see it’.
“It was just totally an umpire’s decision with the ball kid and the lines person, as well, just making sure they got the facts right” he added. “I don’t know what the rule says. I always thought it was an umpire’s decision, not a player’s decision. In practice we stop rallies all the time when balls come flying from the second court.”
Getting it right the priority
Bernardes did the right thing.
Given he didn’t see it, if we apply the protocol for an unofficiated match to this situation, either player can call a let and stop play when a ball rolls onto the court.
The only case where you wouldn’t would be if the player waited too long to call it – i.e., waited until he or she was in a convincingly losing position, or even after they lost the point. Zverev called it immediately.
Bernardes’s priority was getting it right.
He asked the line umpire over in that corner to confirm what happened. And it was confirmed.
Federer, who by then had gone up to the chair to get an explanation, asked the ballboy (who was back to his position near the net) to confirm it. The kid nodded. And Federer accepted it.
And so the Swiss went back to receive serve again. He got a good first serve back (Zverev averaged 135 mph on his first serve Saturday). But that one was called a let.
On the third try, Zverev hit an unplayable ace out wide, clocked at 137 mph.
Three times unlucky for Federer
‘I mean, it’s a very difficult call. I didn’t see it. The umpire didn’t see it. But, you know, once the ball boy said that’s what happened, linesman confirmed, the umpire believes them, which is obviously true, what is there to be done? It’s normal to replay the point from that point on,” Federer said.
“It was obviously a big call. Instead of being in the rally in a decent position, you get aced, yes, it makes a difference. It could have made a difference. That’s all hypothetically speaking now, at this point.”
It was bad luck – three times – for Federer on a crucial point. But that’s the sport.
If it seems as though it always happens in crucial situations, that’s probably because when it happens at 1-1, 15-15 in the first set, we quickly forget.
In the end, Federer didn’t play badly, But Zverev played a virtuoso match. He went 9-for-10 at the net in the second set, and closed out the victory with a swinging backhand volley winner.
“I’m unbelievably proud. Me and my team have been working so hard for this,” Zverev said. “I’m a little upset now about the whole situation, how it all ended. Because it’s not how I wanted it to end.”
He’ll play the winner of Saturday night’s semifinal between the unbeatable-looking Novak Djokovic and his opponent in the Wimbledon final earlier this year, Kevin Anderson.
“I played Novak a few days ago, and it didn’t go too well for me. I don’t hope he’ll lose, but a slight preference maybe in the opponents,” Zverev said. “But it’s the finals, so I’m just happy to be here.”
(All screenshots from TennisTV.com)