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What Went Wrong at the Strangest Tennis Match You Never Knew Occurred?

Davis Cup. Pakistan versus New Zealand. In Myanmar. Where a referee’s decision to call off the competition cost Pakistan a likely win, inspired charges of racial prejudice, and caused bewildered Kiwis to fear for their lives.

Perhaps the strangest tennis match in history  the one that began but never ended  happened in Myanmar last year. It was the Davis Cup. Pakistan was up one match on New Zealand when the referee, in a controversial and unprecedented decision, called off the entire contest because the grass courts had become unplayable. The default elicited cries of racial prejudice from the Pakistani side and all-around bewilderment on the part of the Kiwis. It led to changes in International Tennis Federation procedures for the Davis Cup and further exposed flaws in the competition’s format. And still, more than a year later, it’s difficult to be sure what exactly happened that hot afternoon in Yangon.

The tie1 began on a muggy April day. Pakistan hadn’t hosted a Davis Cup tie since 2005, before the ITF deemed the country too dangerous, a view still shared by most every sporting authority in the world. After years of playing on the road, this was Pakistan’s first chance to designate a neutral site. They chose the Pun Hlaing Country Club in Yangon, Myanmar, which is home to a Gary Player–designed golf course and two grass tennis courts.


1.

In Davis Cup tennis, a best-of-five match series between two countries is called a tie.

Aqeel Khan, 34, won the first singles match of the tie against New Zealand’s Artem Sitak. Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, also 34 and one of the world’s best doubles players and the most accomplished Pakistani player ever, split the first two sets of the second match against Daniel King-Turner. Qureshi led 3-0 in the third set when the referee, Asitha Attygala, a Sri Lankan who now lives in Australia, stepped onto the worn court, poked his pen into a deepening hole behind the baseline, and called off the tie. Final score: New Zealand 4, Pakistan 1, with all four of the winning nation’s victories coming by default due to unsuitable playing conditions. It was the first such result in Davis Cup history and one of the lowest moments in the competition’s 115-year existence.

Pakistan plays for redemption this weekend against Thailand. If Pakistan wins, it will graduate from Group II to Group I, the second-highest division in Davis Cup, below the World Group. (Thailand won the first two singles matches of the tie Friday and leads 2-0; Pakistan won its previous tie on the road against Philippines after trailing 2-0.) Pakistan won often enough to remain in Group I from 2003 through 2006; in 2005, the last year it held a home tie, it came within one victory of the World Group. Since 2007, it has fallen as far as Group III and never returned to Group I. But nothing that happens in Thailand will erase the memory of last year’s defeat in Myanmar.

“I never like to use this word, discrimination or racism, even though I have faced it on a personal level many times, being a Pakistani and a Muslim,” Qureshi said. “It has never happened in the Davis Cup history, why did it happen against Pakistan? If it was Australia, England, any other European country, this was not going to happen. No matter how bad the courts.”

Kris Dent, executive director of professional tennis at the ITF, which runs the Davis Cup, denies the charge. “It was a very unfortunate situation and I have great respect and admiration for Qureshi,” he said. “He’s correct that it wouldn’t happen to anyone else, because they wouldn’t prepare such poor courts to be played on. I have huge sympathy for Qureshi on this. He was let down by his association.”

qureshi-aisam-ul-haq-davis-cup

Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Qureshi, who has been ranked as high as no. 8 in doubles, has seen his career become tangled with politics before. He is best known for his doubles partnerships with Rohan Bopanna of India (after a split, they are now partners again) and Amir Hadad of Israel. After Qureshi and Hadad reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon in 2002, a senior official of Pakistan’s tennis federation, former player Khawaja Saeed Hai, told Reuters that Qureshi should pick a new partner. “He has to realize that for Pakistani Muslims, Israel is a very contentious and sensitive issue,” Hai said. “It is not just about playing tennis.” Hai added, “I would hate to see any strong action taken against [him].” Qureshi ignored the threat and his partnership with Hadad continued through Wimbledon of the next year.

In 2010, when Qureshi and Bopanna reached the final of the U.S. Open, India’s and Pakistan’s ambassadors to the United Nations sat together to watch Qureshi and Bopanna win their semifinal match, along with many Indian and Pakistani New Yorkers. “They’re all mixed together sitting in the crowd,” Qureshi said at a press conference after the match. “You can’t tell who is Pakistani and who is Indian. That’s the beauty about sports.”

Qureshi won the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award in 2002 and 2010. His charity, Stop War Start Tennis, funds wheelchair tennis programs. For years, the ITF has held up Qureshi as an ambassador for the sport. He’s also a success story for the ITF’s Grand Slam Development Fund, which contributes millions to tennis programs in poor nations every year. When the ITF denied Pakistan’s appeal of the New Zealand default, it stung Qureshi all the more. “I respect the ITF a lot because I was in the development program,” he said. “They are doing a lot of good in the world, but this is bad. If you go against my country, I’m going to make sure I go all the way to find justice.”

Not long after the tie, the ITF changed its rules so that no referee would have the power to call off a tie on his or her own authority. The final decision would come from the ITF office, in consultation with the referee. Qureshi sees the change as proof that the ITF believes that Attygala, the referee, went too far during the New Zealand tie; Dent said it was done to protect a referee from having to face the anger of the defaulted team alone.

Attygala has never spoken publicly about his decision. I briefly met him in Melbourne at this year’s Australian Open. He greeted me warmly but would not discuss the tie. He later declined to talk via email, writing, “Due to common policy amongst officials I am unable to comment.” At the Australian Open, Attygala was supervising officiating for the junior tournament. He’s a gold badge referee, the highest distinction in tennis officiating, with more than 15 years of ITF experience. He had refereed Davis Cup ties in the past and had worked matches played on grass courts, including at Wimbledon. After calling off the tie, Attygala filed a report with his findings.

The Myanmar club needed an ITF exemption to host the tie because it has just two courts. In his report, Attygala observed that the grounds crew lacked expertise and described the courts as “soft, sandy” and with a lot of “moisture.”

Attygala arrived in Yangon the Monday before the tie was to begin, only to find that New Zealand’s team had already practiced on the main court, which, he wrote, “produced significant damage.”2 He deemed the main court unacceptable and said the practice court would become the match court, even though it had too little distance behind the baselines to meet Davis Cup regulations. On Thursday, he wrote, he called a meeting and warned Pakistan’s captain, Mohammed Khalid, that if the court became “a safety issue or dangerous” the tie would be called off.


2.

Contrary to claims by the Pakistani team, the New Zealand squad says no one told them not to practice, and that there were no signs on the court saying practice was not permitted. Alistair Hunt, New Zealand’s captain, said his team was picked up at the airport and taken to the courts and told they could hit. “We didn’t even know where the courts were,” he wrote in an email.

Attempts by Attygala and the grounds crew to care for the remaining court could well have sped up its deterioration. On Tuesday, they decided to cut the grass and roll it with a heavy roller — until the roller broke. In his report, Attygala wrote that in the four hours of work done to the court, there was no representative of the Pakistani Tennis Federation to offer an opinion on what should be done. The Pakistani contingent was later angered by the decision to work on the grounds. “We very strongly protested and said why the hell have you done it?” Ihtsham-ul-Haq Qureshi, Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi’s father, said.

Traditional grass courts are not like those at Wimbledon, where the soil has been made firmer over the years so it can withstand a two-week tournament of baseline rallies. Most of the world’s grass courts are more akin to those at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, where an annual grass tournament is held after Wimbledon. They have more give and don’t produce high bounces like those at Wimbledon. Balls skid and slide. Drop shots die. Dan Robillard, the superintendent of courts and grounds at the Hall of Fame, says cutting old-style grass courts too short and rolling them can lead to ruin.

“We usually mow it a quarter of an inch, and don’t go lower than that,” he said. “You can really stress out the plant.” Once the dirt starts to show  and it was already showing in Myanmar  a heavy roller can do more harm than good. “With all the rolling and all the play, you’d have a lot more wear, because you have less plant,” he said. In Myanmar, the courts were rolled again on Friday with a new, larger roller, before the tie even began.

On any surface besides grass, Khan defeating New Zealand’s higher-ranked Sitak, as he did in the first match, would be a surprise. This year, Khan won the Air Staff Khyber Cup Open Tennis Championship in Peshawar, held on grass, for the 15th time. Khan plays a style like no other in tennis: He’s right-handed with a one-handed backhand (he mostly slices it) and a two-handed forehand, a combination you’d be hard-pressed to find among weekend hackers. Stranger still: His two-handed forehand is really a left-handed player’s two-handed backhand in that he places his right hand higher up the racket handle, above his left hand, when he swings. In effect, he has two backhands: a one-hander with his dominant right hand, and a two-hander that he hits as a lefty. (Here is video from one of his recent Davis Cup matches in the Philippines.) If Khan has to run to his right for a wide ball, he hits a traditional right-handed forehand with one hand. He has played more ties for Pakistan than any other player.

Khan’s match in Myanmar “took quite a bit of wearing out of the court,” Attygala wrote in his report, “however [the] court still remained not dangerous.” After the match, the grounds crew rolled the courts yet again. Two sets and three games later, Attygala changed his mind. He observed a hole behind one baseline “six inches in diameter with very soft soil/sand exposed which easily goes in close to an inch deep with a bit of pressure from the foot.” The area around the hole was soft with “loose dry grass”; a “whole new area” looked like it could produce “another hole anytime soon.” Marcus Daniell, who was scheduled to team with King-Turner in doubles the next day, watched Attygala’s inspection from the sideline. “He put his pen down in the hole,” Daniell said. “It completely covered the pen.” Attygala stopped the match. He wrote: “There was no way [the] overall condition of the court could have recovered in the immediate future or overnight to [the] standard of professional tennis and to continue play without compromising player safety.”

Pakistan had one criterion for a neutral site: grass courts. Their players have logged more hours on grass than competitors from most other countries, and they know how to turn a lawn’s low, fast bounces to their advantage. Myanmar was an easy choice. It had grass, and Qureshi’s then-coach, Robert Davis, happened to be the technical director of the Tennis Federation of Myanmar. Davis brokered the Yangon deal. Myanmar wanted to raise its profile in the sport, so its tennis association agreed to fund the tie and secure sponsors. The ITF relied on Davis’s assessment of the site.

“They trusted me when I said the courts were up to standard, which they were,” said Davis. The courts were also certified, via signed letter, by Stephen Alexander, the turfgrass consultant of Pun Hlaing Golf Estate. “Our grass courts are regularly used by our members and guests and we have never experienced any mishap or harm caused to anyone on any of our sporting faculties,” Alexander wrote in a letter provided to me by Davis. When asked for comment via email, Alexander wrote: “Some things best left alone, not a good time for anyone involved.”

I don’t want to win a tie by that. You’re either good enough to win the tie up front, and if you don’t  if they were going to beat us there  well played. They played us in a shitty venue in a hot country and we couldn’t handle it, and a win’s a win.” —New Zealand Captain Alistair Hunt

Despite a week of worries about the courts and Attygala’s previous warnings, the decision to call off the tie surprised everyone. Alistair Hunt, New Zealand’s captain, thought Attygala would order more repairs. “I thought he would throw sand on it and roll it, like they had been doing the whole time,” he said. “And he said, ‘No, no, it’s too dangerous, it’s all over.’ And that was basically it.”

“We were all quite shocked that the tie was off,” Sitak, who lost New Zealand’s first match, said. “We never heard of anything like that before.” Sitak described the court as “dangerous.” He slides his back foot forward when he serves, and his foot kept getting stuck in the hole behind the baseline. He had to change his serving position to avoid it. “Obviously not ideal for a tennis match, but I didn’t complain about it,” he said. “Those are the courts, you’ve got to go through with this. It’s Davis Cup, you’ve got to do whatever.”

Daniell, who went to the locker room as the conversations on court became heated, said he and his teammates started to fear what might happen next: “Al and the physio [trainer] came in, saying, ‘Shit’s getting hairy out there. The ref’s called the tie off and the other team is getting really angry.’ Sort of got a bit nervous and scared. It was a very, very strange situation. We’re in a country, we have no idea of the dynamics of this country, it’s the first time all of us had been there. We were unsure and a bit afraid.”

Hunt said he told Attygala of his concerns about the courts from the moment they met in Yangon. He also complained to Steve Johns, the CEO of Tennis New Zealand, who in turn called the ITF, which said the referee would decide. Once Attygala determined the tie should proceed, Hunt told his men that the time for complaints had passed: “I said to my guys, ‘Look, we’re playing, that’s the end of it, it’s the same for that team as well, we’ve just got to get on and deal with it better.’” Until the tie’s stoppage, however, New Zealand struggled with the conditions. Sitak suffered in the heat and at one point kicked the court, which lifted the grass. (Attygala warned the New Zealand team and said Sitak pushed the grass back down with his foot.) King-Turner trailed in the third set against Qureshi.3 If Qureshi would have held his lead, then on Saturday the team of Marcus Daniell and King-Turner would have needed to beat Khan and Qureshi, one of the world’s best doubles players, to prevent Pakistan from building a 3-0 lead and clinching the tie. Sunday’s two singles matches would have been a formality. It’s reasonable to predict that this court, as bad as it was, had to hold up for only four and a half more sets of tennis, through the remainder of Qureshi and King-Turner’s match and then Saturday’s doubles contest. If Pakistan had won, the country would have advanced to the final round to play for a spot in Group I.


3.

The ATP website incorrectly records King-Turner’s match against Qureshi as a loss for King-Turner on his bio page.

Hunt said he assumed that once the tie started, it would end with victories and defeats, not at the hands of the referee. The default still pains him. “I played Davis Cup for a long time,” he said. “It’s the main passion in my life. I don’t want to win a tie by that. You’re either good enough to win the tie up front, and if you don’t  if they were going to beat us there  well played. They played us in a shitty venue in a hot country and we couldn’t handle it, and a win’s a win.”

Qureshi said he offered to forfeit his match against King-Turner to give the grounds crew time to repair the court for doubles on Saturday. “I knew there was no way we’re going to lose this tie,” he said. “There’s absolutely no chance.” He said Attygala refused. “The referee making a decision that on Saturday the court is going to get even worse and on Sunday is going to be unplayable is all crap,” Qureshi said. “You’re not God, you don’t know what’s going to happen the next day, how the court is going to react the next day. You can’t even talk like that. Your job is to fix it, you don’t say Sunday the court is going to be a disaster. For me that’s just insane.”

On the drive back to the hotel, the New Zealand squad became skittish. “They were talking themselves into terror, which is silly, but a lot of them didn’t want to come to Myanmar,” Hunt said. “[Sitak’s] talking about people coming to the hotel room with guns. He’s starting to panic.” At the hotel, Sitak booked a flight home and left for the airport. Later that night, Hunt said he received a call from Davis (Qureshi’s coach) and the referee, to ask about moving the tie to a hard court. Davis Cup rules do not allow a change in surface once a tie has started, but the ITF said it would make an exception if both teams agreed. Hunt, annoyed to suddenly have the fate of the tie thrown in his hands, told them that one of his players had already left. He told the referee: “You make the decision as to whether you want us to play or not. That’s not my call. That’s not how I see it. If the ITF wants us to play, then we’ll play.”

Terrible surfaces  and hostile venues  litter the history of Davis Cup tennis. American former pro Jimmy Arias recalls a 1987 tie between the United States and Paraguay in Asunción, which the hosts won 3-2. The linesmen appeared to be biased. “When Aaron Krickstein lost the final match,” Arias said, “I was sitting in the locker room watching and the linesmen all jumped up with their arms in the air.” And, Arias believes, the chair umpire was terrified. In the fifth set of his second match, on the final day of the tie, Arias said he hit a forehand that would have given him match point and a chance to clinch for the U.S. team. A linesman called it out. The chair umpire overruled. Paraguay’s captain, Alberto Gross-Brown, climbed the umpire’s chair, said a few words, and the umpire rescinded the overrule.

In Naples earlier this year, Great Britain and Italy played on a clay court built in a temporary stadium. Rainwater soaked one corner of the court behind the baseline. Fabio Fognini, Italy’s top player, told reporters the court was “bad”; Andy Murray, Britain’s top player, fell during his first match and said the surface was “pretty dangerous.” The tie went on. In February 2013, Serbia traveled to Belgium, where Novak Djokovic, the world’s no. 1 player, described the venue as “the worst court I have ever played on” and “very, very dangerous.” After repairs, the ITF ruled that the court was playable and the tie continued (Djokovic agreed that the court improved significantly). In interviews, Qureshi mentioned several court-related complaints as evidence that countries other than Pakistan wouldn’t have been made to forfeit a tie under similar or identical circumstances.

The Myanmar debacle and its resulting controversy are indicative of the problems facing what should be tennis’s answer to the World Cup. Many in tennis believe the Davis Cup needs an overhaul. The world’s best players  superstars like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Djokovic  play to varying degrees, but the Grand Slams and other large singles tournaments come first. The Davis Cup’s schedule is drawn-out and difficult to follow, with teams in the top division completing their first matches in February, then quarterfinals in April, followed by semifinals five months later in September, and, finally, a champion crowned in November (until recently, it was in December). It’s a four-round competition that takes 10 months to complete.

“I think it’s one of the great team sporting events in the world, but it has slipped considerably,” said ESPN tennis commentator Darren Cahill. “The tennis tour has morphed into something else and Davis Cup hasn’t grown with it. It’s like holding a World Cup without the star players.” Cahill doesn’t see a need to hold Davis Cup every year if the ITF can build a world-class event, condense it to two weeks, and secure commitments from most of the best players in the world. “Have all these teams show up to Brazil over two weeks,” he said. “It’s much more central, there’s much more media attention.”

The ITF has considered suggestions like Cahill’s, and it recently completed a study on the impact of format changes. Dent, the ITF official, said adjustments could come soon, but that the organization’s approach will remain cautious. “There are any number of different approaches that can be taken to Davis Cup, but for many nations, Davis Cup is their no. 1 income provider,” Dent said. “Unlike the tours, every penny that we make from Davis Cup gets reinvested back into tennis.” Radical change could incite a revolt from nations that fear a glitzier Davis Cup will favor the tennis elite while reducing funds for poorer participants. Cahill and those who prefer change predict that once the Davis Cup receives greater attention, more funds will trickle down to its member countries.

Whatever happens to the future of Davis Cup tennis, Qureshi’s sole wish is for Pakistan to host another tie in Pakistan before he retires. Pakistan’s choice of grounds, he insists, is safe: the Defence Club, a Lahore facility affiliated with the army that has grass courts and its own hotel.

“It could be done,” said Bob Nicholls, an executive at a South Africa–based private security firm that conducts business in South Asia. “It’s not massively high-profile, you can secure the venue, and if you plan it right you don’t have a lot of travel. The challenge is going to be convincing people to go.”

Qureshi says he remains hopeful. “If we beat Thailand and qualify for Group I, I think it’s going to be a really strong message to the ITF and to the world also, in spite of pretty much everybody being against us.”

He’s willing to make another promise, too: In Pakistan, the grass will be perfect. 

Tom Perrotta (@TomPerrotta) is a Wall Street Journal correspondent and editor-at-large for Tennis Magazine. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic and Men’s Journal.

Illustration by John Tomac