Fine line for fining Davydenko

Chair umpires are lucky stiffs. At least occasionally, they get to do something all of us itch to do to the passive-aggressive colleague in the next cubicle, the disinterested waitress or the driver ahead of us gabbing on a cell phone when the light changes.

A seldom-invoked rule enables umpires in the ATP, WTA and Grand Slams to call a code violation on a player for "lack of best effort."

Late last week, one of those calls provoked a lot of discussion because it involved a player whose competitive effort is the subject of an official match-fixing investigation.

No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko of Russia was slapped with a $2,000 fine by the ATP when Belgian umpire Jean-Philippe Dercq decided Davydenko was investing less than his best in the third set of a 1-6, 7-5, 6-1 loss to 19-year-old Marin Cilic of Croatia. Dercq made the call after Davydenko double-faulted on break point.

Davydenko protested vigorously, delaying the match for nearly five minutes as he argued with Dercq; his facial expression by turns were incredulous, seemingly crushed and angry. He claimed he had never heard of the rule. "What [does it] mean?" he demanded at one point. He looked reluctant to continue, muttering, "You scare me now," but eventually did plod back to the baseline.

Afterwards, Davydenko said his legs were "dead" and described himself as so traumatized by the entire incident that he cried. For what it's worth, Cilic, who also beat Davydenko last month in Beijing, said he thought his opponent was playing fair and square.

Prior to the St. Petersburg dustup, the most famous invocation of the deadbeat rule was a code violation called against Davydenko's fellow Russian Marat Safin in the first round of the 2000 Australian Open. Safin's slacker behavior in a loss to South African qualifier Grant Stafford earned him four separate warnings from chair umpire Norm Chryst. After the last one, Safin defiantly caught one of Stafford's serves in his hand. He was fined $2,000.

The ATP does not keep track of "best effort" violations, but we know of at least one other instance involving a certain cherubic-faced Swiss prodigy in 1998. Then-17-year-old Roger Federer was still bouncing between the junior and pro circuits late that year and had just earned some of his first significant ATP results when he slogged off to Kublis, Switzerland, to play a lower-level pro event.

Here's how biographer Rene Stauffer described the incident in "The Roger Federer Story: Quest for Perfection":

His listlessness didn't escape tournament referee Claudio Grether. "He simply stood unmotivated and nonchalantly on the court and double-faulted twice each game," Grether explained. After Federer lost to [Armando] Brunold 7-6, 6-2, Grether imposed a $100 fine against Federer because he violated the "best effort" rule. ... Federer silently received the verdict. With prize money earnings of only $87, Federer left Kublis with a $13 deficit. ... "The fine was justified," he admitted.

The "best effort" call is the most subjective an umpire can make, a bazooka that's supposed to be hauled out only in extreme cases. The wording of the rule in the ATP, WTA and ITF regulations doesn't spell out any specific criteria that should be used in making the determination.

Having something in place to address lack of effort is understandable. On the other hand, it seems impossible to keep the application of the rule from being arbitrary. Is it fair for top players to be assessed more harshly? How can an umpire distinguish between a bad day (or a bad five minutes) and an unprofessional outing?

As many analysts have pointed out, it seems unfathomable that Davydenko would openly throw or tank a match right now. He's been under intense scrutiny since early August, when irregular betting patterns cropped up in his match against Argentina's Martin Vassallo Arguello in Poland.

ATP spokesman Kris Dent said Tuesday that tour officials "strenuously deny" Davydenko was treated differently than any other player would have been.

But could we reasonably expect Dercq to exclude the backstory from his thought process as he watched Davydenko? And in general, wouldn't a player's stature, playing style, normal on-court manner and recent record have to figure into this call, which turns umpires into mind readers?

No, and yes, commentator Mary Carillo said.

"Davydenko has made a reputation as a guy who plays week-in, week-out and gets good results," she said. "What's hurting him is that overall reputation of playing at such a high level for so long.

"Not to say that he's guilty of anything. He should be exhausted after all the tennis [79 matches and counting] he's played this season. But I'm sure his recent history is sensitizing [umpires] in those situations.''

Angie Cunningham, the WTA's vice president of on-site operations, also left room for umpires to take individual differences into account when interpreting the rule.

"Some players have different demeanors on court," she said. "By the time our officials get to this level, they know what's normal and they can see patterns in a match. They know how the players react. Some of this is about understanding the athletes.

"It's a very hard thing to define. You can't set parameters around what it is."

Cunningham said she could not recall any "best effort" calls being made in her three years on the job. Veteran commentator Bud Collins said that other than the Safin incident, the only one he recalled witnessing in his long career was a code violation leveled against Ilie Nastase more than 30 years ago in the Canadian Open, when Nastase sulked following a bad call.

"I said on TV, 'This guy is just quitting,'" Collins said. "He clearly was not trying."

"Tanking" is and always will be the stuff of standard gossip about the game, and a casual fan might wonder why the best-effort call isn't made more often. As a former player, Carillo said she understands that athletes will almost always take umbrage when an observer presumes to cut open their hearts from afar. She said the rule belongs on the books but thinks it should be used very sparingly, even though we may be convinced we can spot a fraud from the stands.

"We've all seen it -- somebody's trying to catch the 6 o'clock plane," Carillo said. "But who's to judge if someone is honorable or not?

"People are either going to give you the benefit of the doubt, or they're not. The chairs know who's a dog and who's going to fight to the death and who's a question mark."

By the way, entering the Paris Masters, Davydenko was 18-7 since the Arguello match that ignited the ongoing furor, with a semifinal appearance in the U.S. Open, a tournament win in Moscow (although he had to beat only one top-25 player) and three early exits.

Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.