1990 US Open: the spitting incident
From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:
Two men took center stage during the first week of the Open. Andre Agassi was expected to win his matches and move on to the second week, and he did – but not without a fire storm of controversy. No one knew what to expect from John McEnroe – controversial or otherwise – and what he did produce was entirely unexpected.
But not quite as unexpected as the performance Agassi put on during his second-round match, against Petr Korda. Agassi had gone home after Indianapolis to rest (and get stronger) prior to the Open, and he showed up for his first-round match, against Grant Connell, in a new outfit that looked like something designed to glow in the dark. It was some sort of lime-green, black-and-white concoction, with a shirt that hung down long in the back but was cut short in the front. Agassi had insisted that it be designed this way so his stomach would be revealed for all to see every time he hit a forehand.
Basking in the attention given his new clothes, Agassi seemed to be well past the funk he had been in during August. But Korda was not the easiest of second-round matches. No one on the tour could figure him out. He was Czech, left-handed, and, according to everyone, nuts. He could be brilliant, as against Brad Gilbert in Davis Cup when he had wiped him out in three sets, or awful, depending on his mood. He had gotten as high as twenty-second on the computer but had slipped back to thirty-third after a mediocre summer.
The match was at night – the USTA making sure TV got its Agassi fix – and was taut and tense for two sets. Agassi won the first, but late in the second he exploded in a manner that brought back memories of McEnroe at his worst.
The trouble began when chair umpire Wayne McKewen overruled an out call on a shot hit by Korda. Agassi argued at length, didn’t get what he wanted, and charged the chair using his favorite word – fuck. McKewen immediately tagged Agassi with a code of conduct warning for an audible obscenity.
Agassi continued to rail. As he finally turned to walk away, he could be clearly heard on the television microphones, saying, “You sonofabitch, you.” Fortunately for Agassi, McKewen didn’t hear that comment. If he had, that would have been a point penalty and would have put him one step away from being defaulted.
Korda went on to win the game to go up 6-5. As Agassi walked to his chair for the changeover, he turned his head toward McKewen as he went by him and spit. The saliva landed on McKewen’s leg and foot. He wasn’t even certain what had happened, because Agassi kept on walking. By now, Ken Farrar was standing in the tunnel, with referee Keith Johnson. McKewen, looking down at his leg and foot, signaled them to come on court.
Farrar had been sitting in his office, making out the schedule for the next day, when Agassi had his first outburst. This would turn out to be a break for Agassi.
“I got caught,” Farrar said. “There’s nothing worse than going on court and not being clear on what has happened. I made a mistake not being out there, because when I went out, the situation was very serious and I was flying a little bit blind.”
McKewen explained that he had already given Agassi a warning and believed that Agassi had just spit on him. When Agassi heard McKewen tell Farrar that he thought he had been spit on, he panicked, knowing that it could be judged gross misconduct and he could be defaulted on the spot.
“Spit on you, no, no, did you think I did that?” Agassi said in his best little-boy-lost voice. “It was an accident, really. Here do you need a towel?”
At that point Agassi took his towel and started to wipe McKewen’s foot. McKewen – who, it should be remembered, had missed the second audible obscenity – told Farrar he wanted to give Agassi a point penalty for spitting.
Agassi repeated his vow that it had been an accident. Farrar then did something he would later regret.
“I gave the player the benefit of the doubt because I hadn’t seen what happened,” he said. “When I saw the tape, I realized I shouldn’t have done that.”
McKewen initially misunderstood Farrar’s instruction not to penalize Agassi and announced the point penalty. Agassi charged after Farrar, who came out and told McKewen there was to be no point penalty. In his effort to be fair to agassi, Farrar had undermined his chair umpire and made him look bad in the eyes of the crowd, which was hooting and whistling loudly by now. Worse, Farrar had sent a message to players and umpires that some sort of double standard was in affect; that Agassi, American star, was getting a break on his home turf.
Agassi went on to win the match in four sets without further incident. Whatever fie had been in Korda disappeared after the incident, and his play dropped off considerably in the last two sets. Agassi then came into his postmatch interview and again denied having spit – even though on TV replays it was crystal clear that he had.
The next morning Farrar went straight to the USA Network trucks to look at the entire tape of the incident. He was shocked. He hadn’t realized that McKewen had missed the second profanity, and, looking at the tape, he knew that Agassi had lied about the spitting.
“It’s clear from the tape that he spit in McKewen’s direction,” he said. “I wouldn’t say he spit on him, but he definitely spit at him.”
After looking at the tape, Farrar decided to fine Agassi $3,000 – $500 for the audible obscenity and $2,500 for the spitting. Considering that a default fine was $5,000, Farrar obviously considered the spitting incident quite serious. He called Agassi at his hotel, told him what he had seen on the tape and how much the incident concerned and upset him.
“You won’t have any more trouble from me, I’m sorry it happened.”
Farrar hung up, hoping that was the case. Once again, Farrar was a bit naive. After his newt match, a straight-setter over Franco Davin, Agassi was asked about the fine.
“The whole thing wouldn’t have happened if the umpire had been doing his job,” Agassi said. “The guy was looking to start something with me. He had something against me from the start.”
When Farrar heard these comments, he was furious. Twice, he had believed Agassi – on the court and then on the phone – and twice Agassi had been proved deceitful.