This week in Delray Beach, Florida, the big event is Juan Martin Del Potro’s return to competition, more than 320 days after his last official match. But more than 30 years ago, the tournament had already been talked about : Ivan Lendl and Larry Stefanki decided to play their first round match while umpiring for themselves. With a little help from the audience to announce the score. Let’s look back into a game where the absents were always in the wrong.
It’s the story of a man bearing a chilling gaze, who would pluck his eyelashes, a shameless slugger who mastered the down-the-line passing shot, and overall, a winning machine who would head home with a trophy under his arm, but without a single smile. « A champion that nobody cared about », as Sports Illustrated would run as a headline. « Do you think the audience likes you being a great tennis player ? », he was asked one day. His answer : « I do think so. But I know the audience also expects something else from me. This other thing, I can’t give them. I don’t know how to be a clown. » With one exception : in February 1985, at the Delray Beach tournament, when Ivan Lendl managed to pull off a small personal triumph…Which is ? Provoking a global fit of laughter in the stands, followed by a long round of applause. The reason ? A subtle joke, obviously. As he has won just his first round match, Lendl walks over to the net to greet his opponent, Larry Stefanki, then looks up to the umpire chair before waving his hand, pretending to greet him as well. Pretending, as at that moment, this chair has been empty for at least an hour. In fact, an hour has passed without any umpire on that court…
« It was ridiculous »
Luigi Brambilla is Italian. A famous umpire in the eighties, known for his seriousness and professionalism. On that day, he seems to be feeling a bit under the weather. His decision-making is uncertain. He can’t stop mispronouncing Larry Stefanki’s name into Larry « Stefanski ». The tension on the court is palpable. The score is 6-2, 3-0 and 40-15 to Lendl on his serve. His first serve is judged valid, but the two players see the ball out. Luigi Brambilla simply doesn’t want to know and grabs the microphone : « Game Lendl. Lendl leads by 4 games to 0 ». Stefanki’s reaction comes as fast as expected. He throws the umpire an angry look and requests clarifications. The latter refuses and has no time to lose : « penalty point for time-wasting, 0-15 », he then says in the microphone. Stunned, Lendl sides with his opponent. And informs the umpire that he refuses to take this point. « I thought it was ridiculous, he would explain later. Stefanki is one of the nicest guys on the tour. He never curses or throws his racquet or anything. » Brambilla then sticks out his chest, gets down from his chair and even leaves the arena to complain to Thomas Karlsberg, the official supervisor. The moment chosen by Ivan and Larry, friends outside the court, to resume the match with a score of 4-0, 0-0. As if nothing has happened.
« He was just having a bad day »
A few minutes later, Brambilla effectively tries to take things back in hand, but the two players no longer intend to listen to him. Sulky, Luigi finally leaves his chair again. His linesmen decide to stick with him, and do the same. Completely improvised, the organisation goes like this : the members of the crowd announce the score out loud but it is the players who have to umpire for themselves - which is not forbidden by the laws of tennis, and therefore not punishable. This will go on until the end of the match. Final score : 6-2, 6-0. Despite the defeat, Stefanki will acknowledge the « entertaining » nature of this match. « The fans loved it. We were having fun and it was totally in control…it wasn’t a friendly. » « Brambilla is a good umpire. He has worked all around the world. He was just having a bad day », would comment, afterwards, a clement Ken Farrar, the ATP chief supervisor. Like an inspector who ends up being a traffic policeman, Luigi ended the tournament as a linesman. As for Ivan Lendl, he ended up being knocked out in the third round by Stefan Edberg. But that’s not the point. « We have played a few times without an umpire knowing the score, but never without an umpire. » In a man’s story, there’s always a first.