Feisty tennis umpire bowing to requests to take a back seat on court

Some people were never meant to blend into the scenery. Frank Hammond seems just such a person. During most of his tennis umpiring career, he was the third person on the court. Now, however, things are different. Frank has toned down, quit socializing with the players, and, as requested, tried to become just another faceless official.

That may be asking the impossible, though, since Hammond is just about the most famous official in the game. If he didn't already own that distinction before last year's US Open here, he did afterward.

Hammond loves being in the chair for tough matches, but he got more than he bargained for when assigned the "hot seat" in a wild second-rounder.

It was John McEnroe vs. Ilie Nastase, two volatile players in a showdown that didn't start until about 10 p.m. Following orders to adhere to a new penalty system when Nastase persisted in stalling, Hammond nearly set off a riot when he awarded "game, set, and match to McEnroe." To appease the irate crowd and avoid an outbreak of violence, Hammond was removed from the chair and replaced by tournament referee Mike Blanchard, who continued the match.

The action was a considerable blow to Hammond's pride, yet the controversy that ensued ultimately gave him numerous opportunities to tell his side of the story, once as a guest on the "Tonight" show.

When the men's tour swung into Boston last month for the US Pro, Longwood's promoters put Hammond in the spotlight with a number of pretournament interviews.

He never seems to tire of telling his tennis stories over and over, including the one about how he got his start 35 years ago.

Johnny Marino and Tom Chambers, two players in the Pacific Southwest Tournament, stopped him and asked the young ticketholder if he would chair their match. It was no job for a green 14-year-old, but he accepted reluctantly.

"I called the first serve of the match out," Hammond remembers, "and the guy who served screamed. I call the next ball in and now the other guy starts yelling at me. I call the third shot of the match, and one of them says, 'If you make one more call like that I'm going to break this racket over your head.' At that point, I jumped off the chair and ran out of there, ticket and all."

Despite this rude introduction to tennis officiating, Hammond wound up calling the service line at Forest Hills the next year, and has continued to do so for virtually every men's singles final of the US championships since then.

For many years officiating was only an avocation with Hammond. By 1968, however, he began to view it as a potential occupation. At Forest Hills that year he was summoned to a semifinal match between big-serve rivals Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, a confrontation made famous in John McPhee's book "Levels of the Game," when both players requested him on the service line.

Going home that night, he thought about the respect he commanded and the growing opportunity for using it. Pro tennis was starting to come of age, and Hammond reasoned this was a good time to get out of the textile business, which he disliked, and into full-time officiating.

He decided to get his foot in the door by "coming in cheap," then proving it was pretty hard to get along without him. "I used to work a lot of women's tournaments," he recalls, "maybe for only $50 the first year. The next year they'd ask me back and I'd say, 'I'm sorry, the fee is $500.' 'Wait a minute,' they'd say, 'you came in for $50 last year.' 'Well, that's true,' I would explain, 'but I have to make a living now.' About 90 percent of the tournaments still wanted me back at the higher fee, which I would make even higher the following year."

Today, despite being at the pinnacle of his profession and earning a handsome living, Hammond still lives in a New York YMCA. Creature comforts obviously mean little to him. It's tennis that counts.

Hammond's rotundness is a factor in his on-court visibility and the reason some players call him "Goodyear" and "Moby Dick," monikers he seems to enjoy. Stationed at the service line, his bulldog-like posture has always made him a sight to behold.

In his slimmer days, Frank played the game, but now limits himself to being "the biggest fan who ever umpired or watched a match. Maybe 10 times in my life I've thanked both players for giving me such a great match. Sometimes I've even applauded them, but I wouldn't do that today."

Instead, he has tried to lessen his flamboyance, saying, "Frank Hammond's had a good run; now let's try the other way."

The other way, that of a quiet, low-key professional, has been nurtured by Grand Prix supervisors hired to keep tabs on the men's tour. "I fought the supervisors and the system for a long time, because inside maybe I was on an ego trip," Frank admits. "I didn't think they had the game's best interests at heart.

But I was wrong. They're a wonderful addition to the game."

Though Hammond bounced back from the Black Thursday of last year's Open, it remains the focal point of any interview with him. He shoulders a certain degree of the blame for what happened during the McEnroe-Nastase match, yet felt victimized by unusual circumstances.

It was bad enough that the match started 90 minutes late and was played before a good number of inebriated spectators. To make matters worse, he had no on-off button on his microphone, and the crowd was ignorant of the new penalty system.

Frank prides himself on his rapport with the players, including Nastase, who is a good friend. But without being able to talk to Nastase "off the air," Hammond was handcuffed.

"In the past," Frank explains, "I'd switch off the mike and say, 'Illie, I'm letting you play to the crowd, but you're not to keep your opponent waiting. When I say play I want you to play,' and he always responded."

This time he didn't, yet ultimately it was Hammond, and not Nastase, who was lifted from that match. When the sting of that moment subsided, Hammond pulled himself together and reported back for active duty at the National Tennis Center the next day. He's back again this year, too, ready once again to take on the toughest assignments tournament organizers can dish out.

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