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The art of refereeing tennis

This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s new series on the pleasure of tennis

Imagine being given three days notice to take charge of one of tennis’ biggest matches. That’s what happened to chair umpire Marija Čičak last year when she became the first woman to oversee the men’s final at Wimbledon, breaking tradition in the most traditional of tennis’ four major tournaments.

Her instantly recognizable cropped silver-grey hair during a video call, Čičak says she “didn’t really believe it” when she was told the final was hers to officiate. “When things have never happened before, you wonder,” she says. “Why would I be the first? »

For players, preparing for a final is a rush of interviews, social media and unparalleled attention. Čičak, who fondly remembers watching fellow Croatian Goran Ivanišević win Wimbledon on a wild card entry in 2001, turned off his phone two days before the event.

Marija Čičak will make history in 2021 as the first female referee in a Wimbledon men’s singles final ©Getty Images

Umpires occupy the loneliest seat in the house in a globe-trotting profession where careers are launched on luck and hard work. Right from the draw, they are responsible for calling the score, controlling the temperament of the players and silencing the noisy fans.

Heading into the final, Čičak was able to draw on extensive stage experience, having officiated the Wimbledon women’s singles final in 2014, the equivalent doubles match in 2017 and the women’s gold medal match at the Games. Rio 2016 Olympics.

This time around, from the elevated chair on center court, Čičak wrote and witnessed history as Serbian Novak Djokovic won his 20th Grand Slam title to equal Swiss great Roger Federer and Spaniard Rafael Nadal . (The Spaniard has since made two bests.) “My matches are the only peaceful place for me because not many people can reach me,” says Čičak. “When I turned my phone back on it was pretty intense… I needed to clean up the mess I had been waiting for for two days.

What qualities make a good referee?

In the words of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the sport’s world governing body, chair umpires are the “guardians of the rules of tennis and enforce them to ensure that a match is played in a spirit of fairness. play”. Concentration and a cool head are essential.

Referee Julie Kjendlie by a tennis net at the Rothesay Open Nottingham 2022

Julie Kjendlie at the Rothesay Open Nottingham 2022. The Norwegian-Japanese referee presided over the women’s doubles gold medal match at the Tokyo Olympics last year © Thomas Wynne

“Communication is very important as an official because we have all these different personalities that we have to deal with,” said Norwegian-Japanese chair umpire Julie Kjendlie. “That’s part of the fun; something you can say to a player. . . will not work with another.

Sometimes a nod or a smile will do the trick, says Kjendlie, who presided over the women’s doubles gold medal match at the Tokyo Olympics last year. Occasionally, she’ll tap her watch to deal with players who “drag time”, perhaps by bouncing the ball too long, intentionally or unintentionally.

Careers start at the national level. In Britain, that means the Lawn Tennis Association, the national governing body, which invites linesmen – who call if the ball goes out of play – to take a course and subsequent exam to move up to the high chair.

Certificate

National chair umpires study and train for the so-called white badge qualification, which is the first step to becoming an ITF certified official. Match experience, performance and ongoing training dictate progression to international status.

Certified chair umpires in numbers

There are four international levels of certified chairs, with national chairs below:

After earning bronze and then silver badges, top chair umpires achieve gold status – the highest level in the joint certification program overseen by the ITF, Grand Slam tours and tournaments. There are only 32 gold badge chair umpires in the world.

These privileged few compete to oversee Grand Slam finals, such as Wimbledon and the French Open, as well as other major Tour events. At international tournaments, such as the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup, depending on their badge grade, chair umpires can earn up to $2,352 for the entire event, according to the ITF, although that many lower-ranking officials work part-time and juggle other jobs.

Resilience

Irish Gold Badge holder Fergus Murphy recalls the obstacles he faced in the mid-1990s when he took time off from his legal training to focus on his job as a chair umpire. His first appearance at a Grand Slam, the Australian Open in January 1996, took place despite a first refusal. “Someone had to pull out and I got a call around December 1,” he says. “I was a mediocre student so flying to Australia wasn’t cheap, but of course I said yes.”

Fergus Murphy in the umpire's chair at the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club in Dublin

Fergus Murphy — seen here at the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club in Dublin, of which he is a member — refereed the doubles finals at Wimbledon © Ellius Grace

Murphy, who says he always feels a buzz whether he’s presiding over junior events or Grand Slams, rose through the ranks to referee the doubles finals at Wimbledon. Like referees in any sport, his job requires resilience. He was in the chair when David Nalbandian was disqualified in the 2012 final at Queen’s, a grass-court tournament in London ahead of Wimbledon, after inadvertently injuring a linesman’s shin with an ill-judged angry kick on a billboard. . Most recently, in August 2020, Australian mercurial player Nick Kyrgios told Murphy he was a “potato with legs and arms” in a series of back and forth with the referee.

In accordance with ITF rules, Murphy declined to comment on specific incidents with players, but stressed the importance of maintaining professionalism and relying on a rules-based approach. “Sometimes that means you have to have pretty thick skin,” he says. “I would rather not be called A, B, C, D all the time, but if I am I won’t react like I would on a bus or on the street.”

The future

Marija Cicak at the Rothesay Classic Birmingham 2022

Marija Čičak claims developments in tennis technology have removed the “personal part of the decision that was kind of hanging in the air” © Thomas Wynne

In its quest for precision, the sport embraces automation. The trend accelerated during the pandemic, when the priority was to minimize human contact. Čičak says the technology removed the “personal part of the decision that was kind of hanging in the air”, freeing the referees from accusations of bias.

In 2020, more than 314,000 line calls were made electronically at the US Open, but it wasn’t until the Australian Open last year that a slam tournament completely dropped the lines. linesmen in favor of the technology known as Hawk-Eye Live.

ITF chief executive Kris Dent said the governing body was undertaking a strategic review to determine its officiating plans over the next decade. The ITF intends to have a plan in place by the end of this year, he said. Although the “significant cost barrier” means that only the biggest events will be able to implement live electronic calls for the foreseeable future, Dent said the ITF review must weigh the implications of the technology for the traditional route taken to becoming a chair umpire.

“You’ll always need chair umpires, you’ll always need umpires, but you might not always see line umpires at the top of the game,” Dent said, “although . . . I think that there is a long road until it comes.

Samuel Agini is the FT’s sports journalist

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