Working From The Sidelines: Interview with a Tennis Umpire

Aryna Sabalenka crouched on the baseline in disbelief as 9th seed Petra Kvitova was crowned victorious in their second round Miami Open clash. The umpire ruled that the Czech lefty had fired an ace out wide to clinch a 7-5 3-6 6-3 triumph, setting her up for a round three clash with teenager Sofia Kenin. But 20-year-old Sabalenka – and, indeed, many onlookers – were convinced that the ball was wide.

One small issue: Sabalenka was out of challenges. Hawk-Eye could not have a say in the matter, and therefore the match – despite Sabalenka’s protestations – could not continue. The fast-rising Belarusian was left to rue her missed opportunity, the tournament after a promising non-seeder had taken hold of her own chance and rocketed to a maiden Premier title.

Incidents similar to Sabalenka’s are not uncommon in professional tennis. Rarely does a match pass without a riled opponent arguing a line call. Challenges are made, racquets are smashed, disputes are had – and all because lines people and chair umpires are making the calls.

Sometimes the competitors are in the wrong. Other times they are in the right. But some within the tennis world can no longer be bothered to expend energy on it all. In this age of technological advances, there are those pressing to do away with man and woman-made line calls altogether. At the ATP NextGen Finals last October – a tournament created to promote the youth of men’s tennis, but also to trial new-fangled ideas – lines judges were replaced with technology, with only the chair umpire remaining to oversee the matches.

It is a debate that has been ongoing for some time. But within this debate, one set of voices has not really been heard: that of those whose relevance is being questioned. Umpires and lines judges are human beings doing a job, just like professional tennis players, and each one has an individual story.

The one below belongs to Scott Noble, a British lines judge and chair umpire who has worked on prestigious Wimbledon matches. He may not be on the court holding a tennis racquet, but he is on the court making a living by doing what he loves. Like tennis players, he does not get it right every time. Some of his calls are winners, and some are unforced errors. But should he, and every other lines person, get the chance to make them?

Technology can malfunction, like humans can falter. But the two are incredibly different. The following interview gives a small insight into the life of an umpire on the professional tennis circuit.

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When did you start following professional tennis?

I was a big fan growing up. I started playing tennis aged eight, and interest in the game for my sister and I grew from there.

When did you first take an interest in becoming a line / chair umpire, and what had you been doing for a living (e.g studying, working) beforehand? 

My father worked as a umpire as well, which obviously helped me as I had seen him do it. I was 18 when I started in 2006. I worked at Wimbledon later that year, and then started university. After I graduated I was working part-time to support myself and umpiring as much as possible.

In the UK it is difficult to work as an umpire full-time, because there aren’t too many events throughout the year, compared to somewhere like France or the US which have a lot, but it is possible to work full-time if you follow the tour. So far, I’ve not worked abroad for more than three events a year, but I hope that will increase soon!

Can your job ever get boring / tiring / difficult?

It can get a little tiring, certainly if the weather is playing a part. Waiting around during rain breaks can be tough, and when it’s very hot it can get uncomfortable. However, I certainly haven’t found it boring so far!

The umpires generally appear very cool, calm and collected. How hard is it to maintain that demeanour?

It is part and parcel of the job to remain calm. If you get flustered, you won’t make the right call. It is something that comes with experience, though. There are definitely nerves when you first start, but over time you get used to it.

Which is the more pressurising role: Line or chair umpiring? And have you ever been hit by a shot?!

 Again, it depends on experience – some people prefer one over the other. But I would say there is more focus on the chair umpire now, mainly due to how situations are dealt with. I’ve been hit a few times… it’s unavoidable in some cases!

 

There have been suggestions that, with the way the world is moving, technology should become a replacement for umpiring. What is your take on that?

I hope not, or I won’t have a job! I think there is a good balance at the moment with Hawk-Eye available at the majority of high-profile tournaments, and umpiring adds another level of entertainment for the crowd.

The problem with a complete technological replacement is that it won’t be available everywhere and to everyone because of the cost, and I think it would be tough to make it work on all surfaces.

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NOTE: There were restrictions on what Noble was able to talk about in this interview, e.g specific matches umpired.)

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