In conversation with the umpire who was ready to throw Monica Seles out of the Wimbledon final
This is a tale that so nearly ended with one of the most infamous decisions in tennis history, as chair umpire Sultan Gangji was cast into the eye of a storm.
The stage was the 1992 Wimbledon final, with Steffi Graf renewing her rivalry with Monica Seles on one of the biggest days of the tennis year.
Yet when Gangji was placed in charge of the showpiece match by Wimbledon officials, he made it clear that he would take a stand against the loud grunting, or some would say screaming noises, offered up by Seles every time she stuck the ball.
In this exclusive interview with Tennis365 as he worked on the UK Pro League event, Gangji runs through a story that he tells in wonderfully detailed fashion.
Tell is about the build up to the 1992 Wimbledon finals?
Well, Seles had caused a lot of grief among players and fans due to her tendency to grunt on every shot. Martina Navratilova was not happy in her semi-final and it was clear that this was an issue in the game. At that time I was working at the ITF, I was the first ITF guy and I was in charge of the rules and regulations besides umpiring. Alan Mills was a referee then and he said: “How’s your rule interpretation as an ITF man, what do we do?”
1992 Wimbledon Women's SF:
(1)Monica Seles def. (4)Martina Navratilova 6-2, 6-7(3), 6-4
This match was filled with controversy as Martina complained about Seles' grunt throughout
Seles' grunt was at the center of the London tabloids the entire fortnight pic.twitter.com/t3ccTJz6qF
— Tennis Historian (@HistorianTennis) July 8, 2021
I said for me it’s very clear, it’s simple, it’s rule 25 in the rules of tennis which is either it’s a deliberate hindrance or involuntary hindrance and I deem it as deliberate.
And they said to me: “But Sultan, how can you say it’s deliberate?”
I said if you watch a Fed Cup tie which I happened to be at in April, USA against whoever it was, there I’ve been hearing Nick Bollettieri telling Monica Seles not to grunt until after she’s hit the ball. So the way she’d been practicing and the reason was to put people off because they were used to the sound and echo of how hard they’ve hit the ball if you grunt after you delay the sound hearing, so I said she’s doing it deliberately, I’ve heard it.
Did Wimbledon back you up with this stance to try and stop Seles grunting?
Absolutely. I said to Alan Mills (tournament referee): “I’m at the top of my career at the moment, there’s going to be big hassle, big grief because she’s going to get fed up with me, therefore she’s going to call you out on TV and you’ll then have to support me, not her.
One of my upbringings was umpires should never be seen, just heard. And during the previous few years no one had known I’ve been umpiring and I’ve got away with it because I’ve been reasonable and the players like me and I’ve got good eyesight, so I don’t want grief, but I decided this was a moment to make a stand.
So what happened in the final?
I’m a nice guy, I like to educate people, I’m a teacher at heart – so I said the first time she does it I’m going to tell her: “Monica in my opinion you’re being deliberate by making noise, please cut it out,” I’m going to do that discreetly. Then if she doesn’t listen to me then I’m going to give her a formal warning, a public warning that shows enough is enough. And then if she does it again, the rules say I’m going to take a point away from her until she gets the message that she’s not going to get away with it.
Did you follow that approach?
The first time it happened I give her a quiet warning. She said: “What are you talking about? Just carry on umpiring.” I said: “I’m telling you, do not grunt.” So then we carry on, 3-1 happens and I tell her I’m now going to give you a formal warning and then the rain comes down. We come off the court, luckily this all now happens behind the referee’s office and there’s big screaming and shouting: “This stupid umpire is telling me rule 25, what is rule 25? I’m supposed to play tennis, this is supposed to be the umpire and he’s telling me all this rubbish. He’s not letting me concentrate, it’s putting me off.”
Were you close to defaulting her from the final?
The match continues to 4-1 and I thought I’m now going to give her a point penalty, so I called out and she said she was refusing to play and that she wanted me to be changed. There was a change of ends so there was this little bit of conflab going on. It was terrifying – it was the final and somebody is accusing me of screwing up a match, making the rules up as I’m going along and I’m messing up her career. Then we had a rain delay and Seles was refusing to go back out unless I was changed, but Alan Mills backed me up and she ended up losing the match.
What happened after the match?
The next day The Sun and The Mirror newspapers had ‘the umpire stops Monica Seles from grunting, it’s like multiple orgasms, he stopped her from having an orgasm’. So there was a few different articles that I’ve got at home. It was uncomfortable, but I think it was the right thing to do for tennis.
Did the grunting stop after you took that stance?
It did, to a large extent. Everybody else got the message because then the message had filtered through to everyone else that grunting was not allowed because of rule 25. Grunting did stop, but sadly it has crept back into the game in recent years. Maria Sharapova was terrible for it and Victoria Azarenka, they’ll all doing it again. It’s a tough one, it’s now got out of control again, which is sad to see.
Sultan Gangji spoke to Tennis365 at the UK Pro League that was won by Anton Matusevich and Sonay Kartal earlier this month.
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