It was about 24 hours too late, but senior co-captain Michael Shabaz acknowledged that he had realized he was playing for much more for himself. On Sunday, Virginia men's tennis saw their season officially come to an end when Shabaz elected to retire from the NCAA Tournament semifinal match against Steve Johnson of USC after some questionable line calling from the chair umpire.
USC's Johnson took the first set 7-6 (4), but it was not without controversy. With a 6-5 lead and a 30-40 break set point, Shabaz hit a shot that caught the baseline and was ruled good by the linesman, but was overruled by the chair umpire. This cost Shabaz the first set, as Johnson would eventually hold and force a tiebreaker.
In the second set, Shabaz was serving 2-3, about to be broken at 30-40. After his first serve went long, he hit Johnson's return out of his way to prepare for his second serve, causing the ball to go into the stands. The chair umpire would penalize him a point, giving Johnson the 4-2 break point. It was at that time that Shabaz decided to shake hands with the umpire and walk off the court.
"I rushed to the court, and just as I got there to push him away, the umpire was saying, ‘Game, set, match. Shabaz retired,'" head coach Brian Boland said in an interview with the Daily Progress's Whitey Reid.
"Looking back now a day after - it was an emotional decision that I made," Shabaz told the Daily Progress. "At that moment, I was more selfish in thinking about the immediate gratification of walking off the court - and not realizing that I was playing for much more than myself in the tournament."
"You're wearing the orange and blue and you have a lot of people that support you and care about you. The fact that I let a lot of people down in the way I handled the situation - it was definitely the wrong decision and I definitely regret it. I'm sorry for all the people who support me. I'm not a quitter. It's just an unfortunate mistake that I made and one that I'll learn from."
"I'm in shock," Boland said. "I consider this the lowest point of my 15 years as a collegiate head coach. I've known Michael four years and he's never quit on a match or walked off the court."
This comes just one week after the Virginia men's tennis program had their best performance in school history, falling in the finals just shy of an overdue team title.
I keep going back and forth on this one. On the one hand, the allegedly poor calling is not an isolated incident. Much of Shabaz's frustration, I suspect, comes from the fact that this is actually a rematch of the team championship match last weekend, when most Virginia fans thought Johnson made several questionable calls to his own benefit (there were no chair umpires for that match). (Eds. note: As you'll see in the comments, I am mistaken on this point -- there were no lines officials, but there was a chair umpire.)
One Daily Progress reader posting under the name "Pepperdine" writes:
The Johnson-Shabaz had the worst officiating I have seen in 30 years on the courts. Shabaz obviously shouldn't have retired but he had 3 unfair calls against him, one in which the ump overruled a linesman when Shabaz would have won the set. Several members of the audience were aghast. Even Johnson was surprised at the call and shook his head.
The last call when Shabaz deflected a ball returned fault serve and the just happened to leave the stadium was outrageous.
There wasn't a single controversial call against Johnson the entire duration.The NCAA ought to review the decisions by this so-called umpire and suspend him from umpiring.
I think it goes without saying that Shabaz made the wrong call here, and that this is a moment he'll likely remember for the rest of his life.
"Obviously, I regret it for many reasons," he told the Daily Progress.
From the sidelines, we can criticize him or pity him or curse the fates for our being Virginia fans, but I think the officiating needs to be reviewed carefully as well. This isn't the US Open, but this also isn't high school or neighborhood tennis anymore. I think the NCAA needs to invest in some Hawk Eye technology (if the technology exists such that the NCAA could install it from site to site having invested the initial money already).
I'm not saying that this umpire was biased. I'm also not saying that this umpire had lapses of judgment (though clear arguments could be made for both statements). What I'm saying is that, even without bias or blackout moments, there's a large enough possibility of error that it might be worth investing the $25,000 to have a system installed.
What Shabaz did on the court on Sunday was regrettable and in the eyes of many, unforgivable. But the blame does not rest on his shoulders alone, and I suggest that the NCAA take a long, hard look at the events that unfolded to eventually give USC's Steve Johnson a national singles title.
What are your thoughts, Hoos? Read more from Shabaz's interview with Whitey Reid here.