Well, here’s the messiest moment of this Australian Open to date, tainting the end of a five-set epic. No. 23 seed Pablo Carreño Busta won two sets, then No. 8 seed Kei Nishikori won two sets, and then they played on to a fifth-set super-tiebreak, which goes to 10 points, win by two. Considering they’d been going at it for almost five hours before this, the quality of play was remarkably high. Here’s the tiebreak in its entirety; at 3-2 (3:27 in the below video) you’ll see the best point of the match, a 20-point rally that ends on a down-the-line exclamation point.
Keep watching the tiebreak and you’ll arrive at the actual drama. At 8-5 (10:10 in the above video) Nishikori approaches the net; PCB attempts a passing shot that clips the net cord and lands shallow in the court on the baseline. Nishikori then hits a putaway down the line while PCB is guessing the other direction—but just a split-second before Nishikori strikes the ball, a linesperson hollers a late call, deeming PCB’s shot out. Both players are understandably pissed off. A bad call at that juncture of a point is guaranteed to screw over one guy or the other. If a let is called and the point is replayed, the player who had a enormous advantage at the moment of the wrong call (Kei) is robbed of that advantage and forced to start from scratch. If a let is not called, then the player whose ball was wrongly called out (PCB) is robbed of the opportunity to find out if they could have gotten back into the rally.
Chair umpire Thomas Sweeney seemed to believe that the linesperson’s wrong call did not hinder the players, so he let the point stand as played. PCB, generally a mild-mannered dude, was outraged, repeating over and over again “He called out before he hit the ball,” describing a situation where a let is typically awarded, but Sweeney seemed unmoved. Bizarrely, Sweeney allowed PCB to go through with a replay challenge, only to decide, even after PCB “won” the challenge, that Nishikori would be awarded the point. Whatever else you feel about how this tricky moment was officiated, the challenge absolutely shouldn’t have been allowed to play out if the outcome was going to be the same either way.
A rattled PCB went on to lose the next four points and the match. After, he snubbed the umpire, walked across the net to shake Nishikori’s hand, picked up his bag, and hurled it onto the court before stalking off. It’s been clipped from the official video above, but here it is:
And if you prefer flipbooks, here’s one courtesy of Getty photographer Cameron Spencer:
Carreño Busta immediately expressed regret in his press conference and posted this apology a bit later, in which he writes that “Pablo Carreño is the player who was on the court for five hours and not for the last five seconds”:
A situation like this was always going to come down to the chair ump’s discretion. Recent ATP rulebooks offer guidance for some similar scenarios, but not for this exact case. As I see it, the deserving player ended up with the point, but the process leading up to that couldn’t have been much uglier.
After that strange, gutting 6-7 (8), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (8) victory, the winner still had his sense of humor. “I feel like not enough,” Nishikori said in jest about the 13 hours and 47 minutes he has spent on court at this Australian Open, spanning three five-setters and one straight-set win. He has Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinal.