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Tarango Tugged on Superman’s Cape

August 31, 1995

The words spilled out of Jeff Tarango, tumbling over one another in a torrent of anguish as he tried to describe his feelings.



Used and abused.


And, he said, he couldn’t be more specific than that. He didn’t need to be. Tarango, eliminated in the first round of the U.S. Open, is bleeding badly, battered by the tennis authorities who made a frontal attack on his wallet as punishment for his walkout at Wimbledon.

Understand first that Wimbledon is the shrine of tennis, a place that that demands respect and reverence. Carrying on is not tolerated. Abandoning a match is unheard of.

And then, along came Jeff Tarango.

His high profile explosion with umpire Bruno Rebuh resulted in a five-match suspension. He will miss three ATP events, next year’s Wimbledon and one other Grand Slam, probably the Australian. Wimbledon fined him $15,000 for verbal abuse and unsportsmanlike conduct. The ITF charged him $28,256 for conduct contrary to the integrity of the game and the ATP fined him $20,000 for the same high crimes and misdemeanors.

That adds up to more than $63,000 in fines and more importantly, five tournaments in which Tarango can’t earn any money. He plays singles, doubles and mixed doubles. The suspensions could cost him an additional $150,000 to $175,000 in missed earnings.

There’s no need to run a benefit for him. He’s earned $240,892 on the Tour this year, including $8,500 for losing in straight sets to Yevgeny Kafelnikov at the Open. Still, there is some question whether the punishment fit the crime.

When he popped, was it any worth than some of the stunts Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe pulled in their heyday?

``I guess,″ Tarango said, ``the Grand Slam Committee is the only one that can decide whether things are too harsh or not. I would say that everybody who is sane sees what is going on and has been pretty supportive. I think that everybody inside the tennis world is pretty confused.″

Tarango can appeal, of course, to the same folks who imposed the punishments in the first place. That sounds like a Kangaroo Court. He’s not sure he will fight because legal fees could add another $200,000 to the price he has to pay for this affair.

``The investigation and appeal are double jeopardy,″ said Bob Brett, who coaches Goran Ivanisevic. ``The appeal would be judged by the ATP, which has judged him already.″

And if you think the authorities overreacted, Grand Slam administrator Bob Babcock is quick to remind critics that ITF Grand Slam rules permit as much as a $100,000 fine and a three-year suspension. So maybe Tarango got off easy.

``What Jeff did was wrong,″ said Jose Higueras, who coaches Jim Courier. ``He shouldn’t have walked out. But the fines are excessive.″

The blowup began when Tarango turned to a heckling fan and exclaimed: ``Oh, shut up.″ Rebuh, in the chair, immediately assessed an audible obscenity penalty. That seemed excessive to Tarango, who has a history of problems with Rebuh, and the affair quickly got out of hand.

In fact, in its investigation of the affair, the ITF said Rebuh’s ``audible obscenity″ charge was wrong and that it should have been ``unsportsmanlike conduct.″ There was no public rebuke of Rebuh, however.

At one point, Tarango called Rebuh the most corrupt official in tennis, one who plays favorites. That’s heavy stuff, but the fact of the matter is there is more cross-pollination between officials and players in tennis than there is in any other sport. They spend weeks at a time staying in the same hotels, eating in the same restaurants, generally interacting on and off the courts.

They must walk a thin line. ``If an umpire is distant, he can be accused of being hostile, while simple cordiality can be mistaken as fraternization,″ said Brian Earley, referee of the Open.

Lee Jackson, a longtime chair umpire who is now a consultant to the WTA, recalls the difficult balancing act. ``It was becoming acutely uncomfortable,″ she said. ``There was constant contact with players and I’d frequently hear, `Oh, Lee, how could you do that?′ ″

Within the tennis community, Rebuh is viewed as flamboyant bordering on a showboat. When the ruckus with Tarango began, some players thought he did nothing to cool the issue.

``Every player gets hot under the collar sometimes,″ said Jared Palmer. ``Umpires are very influential in defusing tense situations. Most of them know how to do that.″

Meanwhile, Tarango has become the poster child for ill-mannered tennis. ``They pick and choose the tournaments I can play,.″ he said, ``and then they promote me and say I am some bad boy and everybody comes and watches and then they can fine me for more things I don’t do. I mean, I don’t see what the point is.″

For now, he mulls his future, wondering whether he should remain in the sport. ``I just have to regroup and see how much I still like playing the game and whether it is worth it or not,″ he said. ``I am kind of in a terrible situation.″

End Adv For Release Sun Sept. 2

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