AS ONE of an elite group of top international tennis umpires, Dublin's Fergus Murphy has seen everything from tennis balls used as missiles to rackets smashed beyond recognition.
However, in all his years on the tour, there's one thing he'd never seen until this year's Australian Open: an Irishman qualifying for the main draw, and not only that, getting to the second round.
Louk Sorensen, ranked 287 in the world, became the first Irishman to win a grand slam match in 25 years by beating Yen-Hsun Lu 6-4 3-6 6-2 6-1. Despite his straight sets defeat by American John Isner in the second round, Murphy is hoping that Sorensen's arrival on the Grand Slam scene will prevent him from being asked a question which he is so often faced with.
"People usually say 'So you're an umpire from Ireland, do they even play tennis in Ireland?'," Murphy laughs.Socially
"So I always explain that tennis is quite popular in Ireland socially, we just haven't produced that many top players. You don't have to be a good tennis player to be a good umpire. So my answer is 'I am Irish and here I am'. So it can be done."
Murphy had been a full-time employee of the ATP since 1999 but put in years as a so-called 'freelance' umpire before then. Having claimed the elusive Gold Badge in umpiring in 2001, he admits to being more than pleased not to be the only Irish participant in a Grand Slam for once.
"You have to be impartial of course, but when I heard about him I did look for him in the draw and caught the last game of his first main draw match. It was great to see him win his first-round match. It was an unusual feeling to be there and see an Irish player playing and winning -- there was a lot of cheering and green flags so he had a lot of support. You could see that he responded to the support, and it was firing him up and making a difference."
Murphy would love for Irish participation in Grand Slams to be a more common occurrence.
"It would be nice to see someone from Ireland fly the flag and you only need one really. Like Federer in Switzerland, you just need that catalyst and then kids say, 'Right, that's who I want to be like'. I'm always surprised why we don't have tennis players because we're a small country but we do well in a lot of other sports. The tennis thing just hasn't clicked."
While watching his compatriot in action at the Open might have been one of Murphy's personal highlights, he was centre stage for one of the more infamous highlights of the tournament. While the Australian Open has been dubbed by Roger Federer as "the happy slam", not everyone was content during their time in Melbourne.
Andy Roddick got involved in a heated exchange with the Dubliner after he thought he had won his first match point against Brazil's Thomas Bellucci when the ball was ruled out by Murphy. But a challenge by Bellucci saw Hawkeye show the ball to be in and the point had to be replayed. Roddick went on to win 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 anyway but yelled expletives at Murphy and refused to shake his hand.
Feeling remorseful afterwards, he Tweeted an apology: "Apologies for the language today folks, hopefully most kids were asleep by the time i went off ... my bad.''
In a second tweet he apologised for his failure to shake hands: "also did not realize that i didnt shake the umpires hand we were mid argument and i guess it didnt happen not a conscious decision."
While Murphy can't comment on specific matches or players, he can talk generally about how to deal with what he terms "difficult situations".
"If you have a difficult situation and somebody explodes, whoever that may be, it doesn't need to be this week or last week, when you have that situation where the pressure overflows then you have to deal with it. And it depends what happens after that how you deal with it. It's just part of the job. I'd prefer if I got to sit there and get on with business and nothing happened. I don't think anyone likes to be shouted at but it is part of our job and you can't be too fragile or sensitive about it.
When we go out there, we don't get too many dinner invitations or love letters sent to us. We're doing our job, they're doing their job. There's a lot of frustration, there's a lot of pressure and there's the expectation from the players that we get everything right. We try to. We're in the business of getting things right. We're not interested in who wins the match, we're interested in doing our best job."
Murphy wasn't aware of Andy Roddick's Tweets or the media storm the American player's antics created but he does admit to getting some reaction from friends and family watching the events unfold.
"I did get emails after. For example, my parents happened to be watching that match live and my mum was asking was I OK. And you get emails from friends, be it in Dublin or around the world, saying they've seen the match. But you're doing more matches tomorrow so it's just like a conveyor belt. Some matches are just more high profile than others... the same thing that happens on centre court is just as likely to happen on court 99, the only difference is not as many people are watching. So it may not even be a big deal, but the media make it a big deal or it's on a platform where more people see it."
So do the umpiring fraternity blame the actions of John McEnroe in his heyday for setting a trend of player tantrums?
"No, it's just nature. Out of any group of a hundred people, you're always going to have some who are hot-tempered or short-fused and more difficult to handle than others. We don't have anyone like McEnroe these days and that's because the game's cleaned itself up and the umpiring is better.
"One thing you can thank him for is the development of the rules. The code of conduct came in more or less to deal with him and players like him... nowadays most things are covered. You don't get someone going nuts without a penalty whereas someone like McEnroe had a free reign."
However, some on-court blowouts aren't forgotten easily by players. Unfortunately for Murphy, it's not always a case of what happens on court, stays on court.
"Sometimes a player will blank you a few months down the line after an incident you'll think to yourself, 'Gee get over it, I'm not still thinking about it. That was a long time ago, I'd have thought they'd have forgotten it by now'. And to be honest, most guys who explode when there's a problem, it's dealt with there and then, more or less, and then you just get on with it."
If tension does flow outside the court, it's hard to avoid. Top umpires stay at the same hotels as the players the majority of the time.
"Ninety nine per cent of the time you're staying in the same hotel as the players and in a group of 100 players, some will always say hello to you, some just nod, some are chatty and some don't say anything, so I think it depends on the individual personalities."
The Dubliner admits that it's important to maintain a healthy distance from the playing community regardless of their close proximity due to shared accommodation venues.
"If you see them you say hello. You try and stay professional and friendly but not matesy. Part of our official code is not fraternising with the players. I always watch out for the interaction between sports people and officials in other sports and compare. Tennis would be in the middle. We're certainly not friendly, but we're not aloof.
"A good example is cricket. From what I can see in cricket is that there's absolute respect for the referee -- if you even show any dissent to the umpire's decision you get fined in cricket. There's no arguing. In tennis, there is some arguing and we put up with that. Then at the other end of the scale, you've got Premier League football where they seem to say what they like to the referees and it's acceptable. Rugby seems to be fairly matesy."
So, surely Murphy must wish he'd chosen a sport like cricket to officiate. "Sure I do," he laughs.
"As I said, I don't think anyone likes to be yelled at. It's not pleasant. We put up with a certain level. We don't have zero tolerance. It's part of the flavour of the game and the image. For example, a lot of people liked the bad things, if you like, that McEnroe brought to tennis. The racket smashing, the swearing, but I don't think you need to go around breaking things and swearing to add colour. You've got two great examples of that in (Roger) Federer and (Rafael) Nadal who just get on with the game and everybody loves them."
With his Australian Open duties finished for this year, Murphy flies to Dublin today for a two-week break before rejoining the tour. And seeing as he will be un-contactable while travelling, it's important that Andy Roddick knows that he probably won't be getting a response to his grovelling Tweet. Murphy does not have a Twitter account.