NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. Open men’s final on Sunday will be Brian Earley’s 26th and last as tournament referee, ending a 39-year relationship with the Grand Slam that in the early days included being a player escort for Bjorn Borg.
Almost everyone who has watched the U.S. Open has at some time seen Earley but never really noticed him.
Like elevator music you hear but never listen to, Earley is the anonymous lanky figure who occasionally saunters across your television screen clutching a radio looking up at the sky with a concerned look.
Earley is the man who decides when play stops and starts and in recent years when the roofs on Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong open and close.
He has the National Weather Service on speed dial and can talk about cold and warm fronts with the authority of a weatherman.
These are the mundane but taxing day-to-day chores — along with chair umpiring assignments — that are all part of assuring the smooth running of a Grand Slam.
But as the tournament referee and the man responsible for overseeing the ‘Code of Conduct’, Earley has also in many ways been the sheriff of sprawling Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Routine code violations result in fines that might be the tennis equivalent of parking tickets outside the Flushing Meadows complex but sometimes in can also explode into a major incident as it did in 2009 with Serena Williams.
Earley said that episode was the trickiest he was ever involved in and remains the biggest stain on the 36-year-old American’s career.
Playing the semi-finals against Kim Clijsters, Williams exploded with rage after a line judge called her for a foot-fault meaning the American had served a double-fault to go match point down to the Belgian.
Williams launched into an expletive-laced rant at the official. She waved her racket in the lineswoman’s direction and then shook a ball in her clenched fist as she threatened to “shove it down” her throat.
Having already received a warning earlier in the match for smashing a racket, Williams was handed an automatic point penalty for a second violation which abruptly ended the match, giving Belgian Clijsters a 6-4 7-5 victory.
She was initially fined $10,500 for unsportsmanlike behaviour, the maximum allowed on site at a tournament, and was then slapped with an additional $164,500 fine and put on probation for two years by the Grand Slam Committee.
“The Serena situation was the trickiest I faced but Serena is still playing so for me to get too far into that I can’t do right now,” teased Earley, who might have to rethink his toughest calls after he witnessed another Williams meltdown during Saturday’s women’s final which was won by Japan’s Naomi Osaka.
“But there is a lot more to it.
“If she were retired I could probably share more with you but there is a lot more to the story.”
Speaking with a mischievous smile, Earley is very much aware that he has just dangled candy in front of a child with the tennis cliffhanger.
These are the titillating behind-the-scenes tidbits that might one day end up in an Earley book.
He has also overseen many game changing moments.
“Getting a woman (umpire) into the final of the men’s, if you were to point to one thing that I’ve done, that I am the most proud of, that would be it,” Earley told Reuters.
While the U.S. Open in 1973 became the first major to offer equal prize money to men and women, it was not until 2015 that a woman umpired a men’s final at Flushing Meadows - with Eva Asderaki-Moore overseeing the Novak Djokovic v Roger Federer match.
“Around here they would say it was a year or two too late,” said Earley.
“She was not given a lot of men’s matches at other tournaments so we kind of took it upon ourselves, or I took it upon myself to make sure she got big matches here.
“She was so talented and I was frustrated she wasn’t getting the matches she deserved.”
As he prepares to head for the exit, Earley’s legacy will again be on display with Britain’s Alison Hughes handed the assignment of officiating Sunday’s contest between Djokovic and Juan Martin del Porto, becoming the second female umpire to handle a U.S. Open men’s singles final.
Of the five main draw finals this year, four will have been chaired by a female umpire.
“Change is good,” smiled Earley, who will stay connected to the sport through a consulting business.
“It is time for someone else to get an opportunity to experience what I have, learn what I have and to bring something new to it.
“Somebody will step into my shoes and bring a history I can’t.”
Editing by Pritha Sarkar