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Becoming A Tennis Umpire
by Joan Kotker
English Department
Bellevue Community College, Bellevue, WA

I've been umpiring now at various regional USTA tournaments for about four years, and it's an experience that I recommend to every player--I am convinced that it will broaden and enrich any player's overall sense of the game and of what it takes to play it well. I began umpiring because I was not going to be able to play tennis for a while, and I didn't want to lose touch with the game. (I'd been offered a book contract, and anyone who has done any professional writing knows how few and far between such offers are. Given that I have a full-time job, it meant that I would have to give up playing until I got the book done--there's only so many hours in a day.) I found out how to get started by approaching an umpire at the Washington State tournament and asking how to begin. Simple answer: call the head of Pacific Northwest Umpires and say I wanted to learn to umpire. At least in my area, there is always a need for good new umpires (the burnout rate for umpires is high--more on this later) and I was invited to attend the next scheduled training. Such training consisted of a one day split between going over rules and then doing practice lines, practice chairs, etc. This was very good, but also very short; anyone who didn't already have a good grasp of the game and the rules would have been lost. But then, maybe anyone without such a grasp wouldn't have been interested in umpiring anyway....

Next step: on my own, I scored some matches friends of mine were playing at my club, just to get practice doing it with live people in a live match. Then I shadowed a couple of local umpires when they were doing matches (I say "local," but this is misleading: they are from my area but both are widely experienced outside the area, doing Davis Cup, US Open and the like) and just watched what they did and how they handled situations.

And next, I was on my own, first at junior tournaments, then at the whole range of our local tournaments, the highest level of which is Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) (we don't have any challenger circuit matches or other professional events--not a strong tennis town, which paradoxically may have made it easier for me to get into umpiring--there just aren't that many glamorous events to work around the Seattle area).

And as to why I recommend it: what struck me first about umpiring was how extraordinarily difficult it is. It is physically exhausting; most of the time, one stands for hours at a time in the hot sun. The players may sit on the changeover, but the umpire (in this case, what is known as a roving umpire, one who is responsible for a number of courts and moves from one to another, standing at the net post for a full rotation of service games before moving on) stands nearly the whole time. Anyone who's ever worked retail will know exactly what I mean by this; one has no idea how exhausting it is to just stand quietly in one place until one has done it--your legs ache, your back aches, and you have to ignore all of this and stay mentally alert, keeping track of what is going on not only on the court you're on, but on the courts around you that you are also responsible for. This particular combination of mental sharpness and just plain physical endurance carries over into one's own play on the court, and is excellent training for any player. Doing chairs is just as physically difficult, since no umpire's chair that I've ever sat in was ergonomically designed...the mental part is easier though, since you're only focusing on one court.

Another advantage to players that comes from a stint as an umpire is that it forces you to become familiar with the sorts of rules that bring about disputes on the court. You just become so familiar with them that when they come up in your own, unofficiated play, you don't feel threatened by what may or may not be the correct interpretation--you know what it is from experience and this helps to calm things down and keep the game going. (It isn't that you mean to be a know-it-all, but rather that you have had a lot of experience with the rules, and just having this knowledge helps you and your opponent on the court. The point of the game is to play within the rules, and having people who know them helps.) In this context, I think that umpiring also helps a player to say that he or she doesn't know the answer to a particular question and to just be open about that-- there are so many times on the court when an official has to say to a player something like, "I cannot overrule that shot--I could not see it clearly enough" because that's the simple truth--for whatever reason, the umpire didn't see it clearly enouch. As an umpire you learn very quickly that we are all human and we are all just doing the best we can. Then, when something comes up in your own play that neither you nor your opponent is certain of, it becomes second nature for you to say, "I don't know either. Let's play the point over" (or spin a racquet, or whatever). There's no loss of face involved here--it's just a reality of the game that sometimes you don't know, and must just handle things in the fairest way that you can under the circumstances.

Other advantages: you'll never again be thrown by having people on or right near your court, whether they are officials or on-lookers; you'll have been one of those same people so often that you will take it for granted. And you'll never again lose a match because an opponent decides to play mind games with you over the rules; you will have had far too much experience at cooling down people who are taking their frustrations with their own playing out on you, and you'll know how to cool down the situation without taking it personally.

Finally, there is a fine espirit de corps among those who have umpired at any level--when you come off the court, you are physicaly and mentally exhausted and in the midst of a great adrenaline high, and anyone who has done it knows this sense of elation and can share it with you. It's a great feeling.

Disadvantages? Well, the pay is the pits at the local level, it's long, hard, hot hours, some people feel that you're there just so they can abuse you (you'll learn how to handle this quickly though, and knowing how is a good life skill to have off the courts, too), and these are the primary reasons that there is, as I said earlier, high turnover among umpires. And a final disadvantage, at least in my case, is that I now have a hard time keeping score in my own unofficiated matches, since I'm so used to writing it down all the time. What, no written record? My solution is to throw myself on my opponent's mercy, and so far that's worked just fine.

Now that I've finished my book I don't know how long I'll continue umpiring; every hour spent officiating is an hour that could be spent playing. I do know that I have learned a great deal from working as an umpire, and that I'm a more well-rounded player as a result of having done it. And I can think of no better way of staying in the game if, for whatever reason, you cannot participate as a player.

Good luck, and wishing you an infinity of good calls.


Note added since the original column was written:

I've always been one of those players who have a problem with playing friends in tournament situations. People that I regularly beat in social play are the very same people that I have trouble beating in tournament play. This summer, once again I faced a close friend in the finals of a sanctioned tournament and once again I thought, "Oh God, I have to play her and she's my good friend." And then I thought, "Well, wait a minute, last month I chaired a match in which a very good friend of mine was playing the consolation final in a national tournament and I didn't have any problem with that--when I'm an umpire, that's a different role from when I'm a friend." I extended that concept to "when I'm a competitor, that's a different role from when I'm a friend" and for the first time, I was able to play my best tennis against a person that I knew well and liked very much. I think that maybe this concept--one that says that we all wear different hats depending on the situation, and sometimes we're friends and other times we're players who are competing--might be helpful to many club players who find themselves drawing close friends in matches. Hope that this is helpful.... -- JK


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