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Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Two wrongs made right

The ATP has been given plenty of black eyes this year, over everything from gambling revelations to round-robin conflicts to lawsuits over the calendar. Most recently, it's been taking hits over its tiresome once-a-decade habit of renaming all its tournaments.

But in the spirit of the season, let's take the time to acknowledge two mistakes that are no longer in the books. They weren't avoided altogether, alas, but at least they were admitted and overturned -- the round-robin overrule for James Blake in Las Vegas and the lack of effort fine against Nikolay Davydenko in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Rather than incur the embarrassment of reversing those dubious decisions, it might have been easier for the ATP to just push on and pretend they never happened. But it chose not to.

In February at Las Vegas, an event being played under an experimental round-robin format, a quirk of the rules put Blake out of the competition because his opponent failed to finish the match. Amidst the ensuing furor, ATP chief Eitenne de Villiers overrode the regulations and put Blake into the event's quarterfinals. Russian teenager Evgeny Korolev, who should have been the quarterfinalist, was sent to pack his bags.

But indignation from players and concern from officiating staff put things back the right way around overnight. De Villiers, who said he had just "tried to do what a fan would do," also called Korolev to apologize. "It takes a lot of courage for an older man to apologize to an 18- or 19-year-old guy," Korolev's compatriot and friend Marat Safin said.

That was the end of the road for round-robin events -- the experiment was scrapped soon after -- but at least the ATP wasn't left with a permanent executive breach of the rules on its record.

This fall in St. Petersburg, Davydenko was penalized under the rarely invoked rule against lack of best effort during a match. Davydenko was publicly warned in the middle of a game and given a $2,000 fine afterwards. He said his frequent double faults were due to an elbow injury.

The following week in Madrid, he was chastised again by another umpire during his opening match. "Serve like me," the umpire told Davydenko in an exchange caught by TV cameras. "Try your best."

With Davydenko already under investigation for possible involvement in match-fixing, the incidents made it look like he was also being singled out and victimized by the administrators. When the fine was overturned on appeal, it suggested the incidents had just been bizarre behavior by vigilante umpires rather than a campaign from the top.

It's reassuring that saner heads prevailed both times, because creating and enforcing the rules is in some ways the most important thing the governing bodies do. The commercial arm of the ATP may begin to resemble a runaway train, but by eventually doing the right thing in Las Vegas and St. Petersburg, it's held on to its officiating credibility.

Lose trust in that, and everything starts to go off the rails.