Ranking the 10 Most Controversial Matches in US Open History

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistAugust 27, 2014

Ranking the 10 Most Controversial Matches in US Open History

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    Ron Frehm/Associated Press

    The U.S. Open has had its share of controversy, making you wonder whether something will occur in New York this year to match some of the memorable moments of the past.

    Such things as questionable rulings, provocative behavior and groundbreaking actions in past U.S. Opens have created endless debate surrounding those matches.

    Our list of the 10 most controversial matches only includes competition that occurred since the U.S. Championships became an Open event in 1968.

    Several matches barely missed making the cut. Those left out include a contest interrupted by a fan altercation in 2010, a match in which Jimmy Connors rubbed out a ball mark on a clay court before a call could be reviewed in 1977, and a 2003 semifinal between Andy Roddick and David Nalbandian in which a fan called a ball out during the point, affecting play.

    The biggest controversies typically surface when star players are involved, but, as you will see, that is not always the case.

10. Rod Laver vs. Tony Roche, 1969

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    John Rooney/Associated Press

    Most tennis fans know that Rod Laver's 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Tony Roche in the 1969 U.S. Open finals made him the first (and still only) player to complete two Grand Slams of all four majors.

    However, some may not remember that it was a decision regarding footwear that played a major role in Laver capturing his fourth major title that year.

    The U.S. Open was played on grass courts until 1975, and the 1969 men's finals was postponed a day because of rain. Monday's final was further delayed for 95 minutes because of the wet conditions, and a helicopter was brought in to hover over the stadium and help dry the grass courts, according to a Los Angeles Times report. Because of the weather and delays, only 3,708 spectators were on hand for the historic match.

    Laver failed to hold serve at 5-3 of the first set, and was having trouble with his footing on the wet grass. After that ninth game, things changed because Laver put on spiked shoes.

    In an excerpt from his autobiography The Education of a Tennis Player, as provided by World Tennis, Laver said that he had wanted to start the match with spikes, but referee Mike Gibson had refused. When Laver again asked permission to don the spikes after the ninth game, Gibson allowed it.

    Gibson would not have granted permission if it had not been the finals, because the spikes tore up the grass court. Roche did not have a pair of spikes on hand, and may not have used them even if he did. In any case, Gibson's decision to allow Laver to wear spikes was pivotal.

    "It meant all the difference to me," Laver said in his book.

    Although Laver wound up losing the first set, he cruised through the next three sets against Roche, the only player who had a winning record against Laver in 1969.

    You have to wonder whether Laver would have captured his second Grand Slam if Gibson had not allowed him to switch to the shoes that had 3/8-inch spikes. The other issue is whether Gibson should have allowed Laver to wear spikes.

9. Steffi Graf vs. Monica Seles, 1995

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    MALCOLM CLARKE/Associated Press

    The 1995 U.S. Open women's singles finals itself was not particularly controversial. But nearly everything that surrounded Steffi Graf's 7-6, 0-6, 6-4 victory over Monica Seles was tinged with controversy.

    For one thing, it was the first time Seles and Graf had met on a tennis court since a crazed Graf fan had stabbed Seles during an April 1993 match in Hamburg, Germany. That injury forced Seles off the tour for more than two years, and she was never quite as successful as she had been before the incident. The 1995 U.S. Open was Seles' second tournament and first Grand Slam event since the stabbing.

    Meanwhile, the German press had been hounding Graf throughout the tournament because her father and manager, Peter Graf, was imprisoned in Germany for allegedly failing to pay taxes on $1.5 million of his daughter's earnings, according to a Sports Illustrated account.

    Aside from that psychological pressure, Graf was also bothered by a sore back and foot, the latter prompting her to have her foot X-rayed the day before the finals, as per The Washington Post.

    Despite the problems, Graf and Seles persevered that day.

    Seles hit what she thought was an ace on her set point in the first set, and she began to walk toward the sideline. But the ball was called out, and replays seemed to confirm that the ball was out. Graf came back to win that set 7-6, but dropped the second set at love, before rallying to win the deciding set.

8. Serena Williams vs. Samantha Stosur, 2011

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    A rule that is seldom invoked went against Serena Williams at an important moment of her 6-2, 6-3 loss to Samantha Stosur in the final of the 2011 U.S. Open.

    Serving at 30-40 in the first game of the second set, Williams hit a powerful forehand wide to Stosur's backhand side for an apparent winner. Williams had yelled "Come on!" in satisfaction soon after striking the ball, before Stosur barely touched the ball with her racket in a vain attempt to return it.

    The scoreboard flashed "40-40," but chair umpire Eva Asderaki ruled that Williams had violated the hindrance rule by shouting before Stosur had a chance to return the shot, according to The New York Times. The point was awarded to Stosur, giving her the opening game.

    Williams argued with Asderaki, and, according to a Daily Mail account, said to her, "Aren't you the one that screwed me over last time here? Yeah you are. Seriously, you have it out for me? I promise you, that's not cool. That's totally not cool. I truly despise you."

    Because a number of the women players grunt and scream on every shot, the hindrance rule is a difficult rule to enforce appropriately. The crowd booed and whistled its objection to the call as the second game was about to begin.

    During a later changeover, Williams said some other things to Asderaki. "If you ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way," Williams said, as per The New York Times. “You’re out of control. You’re a hater and you’re unattractive inside. Code violation for this? I expressed who I am. We’re in America last time I checked.”

    Williams was fined $2,000.

7. Lleyton Hewitt vs. James Blake, 2001

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    KATHY WILLENS/Associated Press

    One verbal outburst transformed Lleyton Hewitt's 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 victory over James Blake in 2001 from a thrilling second-round match into a racial controversy.

    An African American linesman twice called Hewitt for foot faults on critical points in the third set against Blake, who has an African American father and white British mother.  

    Hewitt did not like the calls and, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer report that cited a transcript provided by the U.S. Open, Hewitt complained to umpire Andreas Egli: "Change him, change him. I have only been foot-faulted at one end. OK. Look at him. Look at him, and you tell me what the similarity is. Just get him off the court. Look at what he's done." (See video here.)

    The crowd jeered Hewitt at the end of the match, believing his reference to "the similarity" was racially motivated.

    U.S. Open officials did not fine or reprimand Hewitt, who claimed his comments were not racist. Blake took the high road, saying, "I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt," as per The Telegraph.

6. Justine Henin vs. Kim Clijsters, 2003

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    Alex Livesey/Getty Images

    The controversy surrounding the 2003 U.S. Open women's final arrived in retrospect, starting several days after Justine Henin had beaten Belgian countrywoman Kim Clijsters 7-5, 6-1.

    A few days after the match, Henin was greeted back in Belgium by reporters who wanted her reaction to reports that members of Clijsters' entourage had implied that Henin used performance-enhancing drugs.

    Clijsters' father, Leo Clijsters, noted that Henin's physical transformation was "unusual," according to a report by The Telegraph. The story seemed to confirm rumors that Henin and Clijsters were less than friendly toward each other despite being from the same country. 

    Henin's coach, Carlos Rodriguez, claimed in The Telegraph article that Clijsters group was spreading rumors because of jealousy and frustration.

    Henin called the innuendo "petty" and "ridiculous" in the aforemetioned piece. "I have never been tempted by doping," she said. "My only doping is work. I am ready to undergo whatever test, wherever, whenever, to prove that my body is clean."

    Henin's performance against Clijsters at the U.S. Open had been impressive, especially since there were doubts she would be in peak physical condition just 20 hours after a hard-fought, three-set semifinal victory over Jennifer Capriati that left Henin dehydrated and needing an intravenous drip.

    When Henin retired suddenly in May 2008, at age 25 while ranked No. 1 in the world, players were shocked. She returned to the tour 18 months later but retired again a year later.

    In a 2011 interview with Belgian TV channel RTBF, as reported by Tennis.com, Henin addressed rumors that she retired the first time to avoid a suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.

    I think it goes back further. Remember when I came back from [winning the] U.S. Open in 2003, what was going on the next day? Kim’s father, some journalists, they said she can’t win everything like that. She has quads, she has arms like Serena. What does that mean, insinuate? Clearly, we’re talking about doping.

    In the article, Henin continued to maintain she had always been clean.

5. Serena Williams vs. Kim Clijsters, 2009

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    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    Kim Clijsters' 6-4, 7-5 semifinal victory over Serena Williams in the 2009 U.S. Open had a bizarre ending that featured a Williams tirade directed toward a lines woman and a resulting penalty point that gave Clijsters the match.

    Williams had lost the first set 6-4 and trailed 6-5, 15-30 on her own serve in the second when a lines woman called a foot fault on her second serve. That double fault made it 15-40 and prompted Williams to unleash what was reportedly an obscenity-laced rant directed at that line judge. According to The Telegraph, Williams said to the lines woman, "I swear to God, I'm (expletive) going to take this (expletive) ball and shove it down your (expletive) throat, you hear that? I swear to God."

    The line judge then told chair umpire Louise Engzell what Williams had said. A discussion involving Williams, the line judge, Engzell, tournament referee Brian Earley and tournament supervisor Donna Kelso ensued.

    According to The Telegraph report, Williams was heard to say to the line judge during that discussion, "I never said I would kill you, are you serious? I never said that."

    Because Williams had earlier received a code violation warning for smashing her racket, this second offense resulted in a penalty point awarded to Clijsters. That meant the match was over.

    Williams was later fined $82,500 and placed on probation for her offense.

4. John McEnroe vs. Ilie Nastase, 1979

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    Ron Frehm/Associated Press

    A recipe for controversy was served up in 1979 when 20-year-old John McEnroe faced 33-year-old Ilie Nastase in a second-round match scheduled to start at 9 p.m.

    The match degenerated amid the antics of the two provocative players, and, according to the Bill Scanlon book Bad News for McEnroe: Blood, Sweat, and Backhands with John, Jimmy, Ilie, Ivan, Bjorn and Vitas, the crowd began booing and throwing paper cups and beer cans toward the court.

    When Nastase pretended to go to sleep on the baseline in the third set, according to The Telegraph, chair umpire Frank Hammond issued a warning to Nastase. Later, Hammond hit Nastase with a penalty point and then a penalty game, giving McEnroe a 3-1 lead in the third set after McEnroe had won the first two sets.

    Nastase still refused to play, so tournament referee Mike Blanchard instructed Hammond to put Nastase on the clock. After about a minute of continued inactivity by Nastase, Hammond defaulted Nastase, which brought on 18 minutes of what the Scanlon book described as "mob rule." The crowd of 10,000 was in a frenzy, fights broke out in the stands and security guards and police were called in.

    In an attempt to restore order, tournament director Bill Talbert intervened, reinstating Nastase and replacing Hammond with Blanchard as the chair umpire.

    McEnroe won the match in four sets, and McEnroe said in his autobiography Serious, excerpt provided by Tennis-Buzz.com, that he and Nastase went to dinner together afterward.

3. Stan Smith vs. Michael Fishbach, 1977

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    Stan Smith, with the wood racket he used to win the 1971 U.S. Open
    Stan Smith, with the wood racket he used to win the 1971 U.S. OpenAssociated Press

    Michael Fishbach, a qualifier ranked No. 216, pulled off a major second-round upset in the 1977 U.S. Open by routing No. 16 seed Stan Smith 6-0, 6-2. (Early-round matches were best-of-three sets then.)

    The story of the match was not that Fishbach had upset a former U.S. Open champion so easily. The story was the racket Fishbach used.

    Fishbach used what was known as a spaghetti racket, because it had a double-string arrangement that was dramatically different from the norm. The racket had just five cross strings, but had two sets of main strings, one on each side of the racket. The strings were tied to together at various intervals. The effect was a racket that could impart an amazing amount of spin on the ball.

    The racket was created by a West German horticulturist named Werner Fisher in the early 1970s, according to Tennis.com, and it was first used with some success on the men's pro tour by Barry Phillips-Moore.

    Fishbach caught a glimpse of a spaghetti racket at a store and was able to create his own spaghetti racket with the use of nylon strings, Venetian-blind cord, plastic tubing and adhesive tape, according to a New York Times report.

    Using that racket, Fishbach won three qualifying-round matches to get into the U.S. Open main draw in 1977. He then beat Billy Martin before recording his upset of Smith, using the massive topspin generated by his spaghetti racket to befuddle the 1971 U.S. Open champion.

    Fishbach lost his next match to John Feaver, but his ranking soared to the top 50. The legality of the spaghetti racket immediately came into question. The racket was banned within a month after the U.S. Open, and Fishbach's ranking soon dropped out of the top 200 again.

    (See a video of the spaghetti racket here.)

    (See a photo of spaghetti racket here.)

2. Serena Williams vs. Jennifer Capriati 2004

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Serena Williams was the victim of one of the most egregious line calls in history in the quarterfinals of 2004 U.S. Open.

    To make matters worse, Williams had three other line calls go against her in the final game of her 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 loss to Jennifer Capriati. The mistakes may have cost Williams the match.

    Although Williams did not blame officials for her loss afterward, the match is credited with leading to the use of video replay to correct missed calls.

    It was a ruling made by chair umpire Mariana Alves in the first game of the final set that was the most controversial. It was so blatantly incorrect, in fact, that U.S. Tennis Association officials later apologized to Williams for the error and banned Alves from umpiring any more matches at that Open, according to a New York Times report.

    The score was deuce in the first game of the deciding set when Williams hit what appeared to be a backhand winner down the line. Williams was about to serve again when Alves announced the score as "advantage Capriati." Confusion reigned.

    The linesperson had called the ball in, and replays showed the ball barely touched the inside of the sideline. The ball was so clearly in that Ted Robinson, who was announcing the match for television, speculated Alves might have simply made a scoring error.

    In fact, Alves had overruled the linesperson's call, even though the disputed call occurred on the far sideline and even though Alves had made no announcement that she had overruled the call.

    The stunned Williams argued for a time, but Alves did not waver. Williams eventually lost that game.

    The other three calls that went against Williams occurred in the final game of the match. Replays indicated that two of Williams' shots that hit the line were called out and a Capriati missed second serve was called in instead of a double fault.

    (See a video of the match here.)

    As a result of the mistakes, USTA officials said they would consider using video replay to correct errors in the future, according to The New York Times story. The U.S. Open began using replay for those purposes in 2006.

1. Renee Richards vs. Virginia Wade, 1977

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    Dave Pickoff/Associated Press

    Richard Raskind played in the U.S. National Championships (the pre-Open Era precursor to the U.S. Open) five times between 1953 and 1960, winning first-round matches in 1955 and 1957 and losing to Barry MacKay in four sets in the 1955 second round.

    Raskind had a sex-change operation in 1975 and became Renee Richards. When she was accepted into a women's tournament in New Jersey in 1976, 25 women players pulled out of the event in protest, according to a New York Times article.

    She was denied entrance into the women's draw of the U.S. Open in 1976 because she refused to take a chromosome test to determine her sex, a 2004 New York Times story reported.

    Richards, 43, challenged the U.S. Tennis Association in court, and two weeks before the 1977 U.S. Open, a New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor, forcing the U.S. Open to allow her to participate in the women's draw.

    It was a landmark decision for transgender rights, but met with considerable opposition from those saying she would have an unfair physical advantage. 

    At the 1977 U.S. Open, "Her presence in the draw was unsettling to some players," a New York Times story reported.

    The simple fact was that nobody really knew how competitive the 6'1" Richards would be against the top women's players, or whether she might dominate.

    Richards received a difficult draw at the 1977 U.S. Open, being paired against No. 3-seeded Virginia Wade in her first-round match. Wade, who had won Wimbledon that year, told reporters prior to the match, according to the New York Times, “I’ve practiced with a lot of 40-year-old men; if Renee beats me, she should be checked out.” 

    Richards did not beat Wade, losing 6-1, 6-4.

    Richards did get to the finals of the women's doubles that year, though. She and partner Betty-Ann Stuart lost to Martina Navratilova and Betty Stove in the title match 6-1, 7-6.

    Richards achieved her highest women's ranking in 1979 when she was No. 20. She played women's singles at the U.S. Open five times, getting as far as the third round in 1979 when she beat Mary Carillo and Yvonne Vermaak before losing to Chris Evert.