It has often been suggested that every tennis pro who has screamed bloody murder at an umpire should take his chair at least once to appreciate the difficulty of the job. After all, almost every umpire has played tennis; he understands the difficult nature of the player's task. Of course, no tennis pro would deign to climb into the high chair, not for the skimpy pay of a tennis umpire.
Or would he? Take me, for instance. As a 27-year-old satellite circuit player, a minor leaguer of professional tennis, I earned $250 as a pro player in 1987. When several umpires failed to show up for a satellite tournament last September in Southern France, I, and many of my fellow players, jumped at the chance to fill in. I have to admit that my main incentive was not the experience I would gain from parking myself in the so-called hot chair, but the money I would make. Forty francs (about $7) was not a lot, but it would cover dinner that night.
A tournament official held out a list of the remaining matches for the day. Rules were lax. We could select any match we wanted. The official neither instructed us on umpiring procedure and etiquette nor restricted us from selecting a match in which a friend was competing. Since "hooking" (deliberately missing lines calls) another player out of a match didn't appeal to me, I looked for a match that would have the most lopsided scores. To state it simply, I wanted the quickest possible match, without crucial calls and confrontations.
I chose a pairing that pitted Michael Katz, a talented but unranked young Frenchman, against Willie Otten, a West German who was then ranked 920th in the world. I figured Otten would make quick work of Katz.
February 15, 1988
The best-two-sets-out-of-three match started true to form. The Frenchman played valiantly, but whenever he threatened to put a string of winning games together, Otten would fire a couple of aces or hit a few unreachable passing shots. The first set went 6-1, Otten, in 25 minutes. At this point bad thoughts began popping into my head. I decided that I didn't particularly like Otten's court demeanor. Here he was, already in the second set on a warm day, and he had yet to remove his sweat suit. And periodically during the match he would turn to talk to his friends standing outside the fence. I knew an umpire has to be completely impartial, but I also knew that had I been playing him, I wouldn't have liked his cocky attitude.
Otten won the first point of the second set, but not before he told me that I had missed an earlier call of a ball hit out by his opponent. "I'll make the calls here," I said curtly. On the next point his serve hit deep near the service line, and the Frenchman could not return it. At first I put my hands out in front of me to signal the serve was good, but after a moment's thought, during which Katz protested that the serve was long, I changed my mind. "I think the serve was long," I said. "Play two serves again."
I had made two crucial errors. First and foremost, an umpire should never use the words "I think" before making a call. Second, when the umpire changes a call, the new call is final. He should not play the point over again. Otten jumped all over me. "What do you mean you think it was out?" he said. "You're either sure, or you let the call stand."
I shot back a cold look and repeated, "Play two!" Flustered, I paid close attention to the service line, determined not to make another questionable call. A few more times during the second set Otten's cannonball serves landed close enough to the line so that I wasn't sure whether they were good or not. I called two of them out and received quick, accusatory glances from Otten both times.
Katz, perhaps noticing that Otten had become distracted, became bolder. The Frenchman cracked bigger serves and followed them up at the net with precision volleys. He won the second set in a tiebreaker.
Otten's faltering play continued into the third set, but he seemed to be regaining his composure as he served with the set tied 2-2. At 30-all he sliced a backhand into a corner and charged the net. Katz threw up a deep, drifting lob that somehow landed flat on Otten's baseline for an outright winner. Otten had not even run back to try for the ball. But when he heard no call (when a ball is good, the umpire remains silent), he looked at me and groaned, "No. How could you miss such a call? That ball was moving so slowly, and it landed a clear foot outside the baseline." Shaken, I broke my umpire's detachment and shouted back, "Are you kidding? That ball landed right on the line."
Katz won the game and the match and afterward shook my hand, while Otten walked off the court without even raising his head. After 90 minutes in the umpire's chair, I jumped out as though pardoned from a prison sentence. At the officials' table. I returned my scorecard and picked up my hard-earned money. As I was about to leave, the head official asked, "Could you do one more match?"
"No, thanks," I said.
"It is the last match of the day," he said. "And you are the only umpire available. I can pay you 50 francs."
The match was between Charlie Maher, a friend of mine from Springfield, Mass., and Andreas Lesch, a big, heavy-hitting Boris Becker look-alike from Cologne, West Germany. After my first umpiring effort, I couldn't guess how long this match would take, but I did have an idea about how to make it easier to umpire. I accepted.
When the players had finished their warmup, I gave my instructions. "This is a two-out-of-three-set match. You will call your own lines. If one player does not like the call of his opponent, he can ask me to overrule, and I will do so if I deem it necessary. Mr. Lesch won the coin toss." When I saw Lesch's hard, fast serve, I congratulated myself on my new umpiring strategy. The match went smoothly until midway through the first set, when Maher started to consistently return Lesch's serve.
After he began losing points, Lesch started to hammer balls all over the court. He threw his racket against the fence and swore loudly in German. With the score tied at 4-4, it seemed as though Lesch was not only in jeopardy of losing the match, but his mind as well.
I knew I had to regain control of the match. What would a real umpire do in my sneakers, I wondered. What did Richard Ings, one of the few full-time touring umpires on the Grand Prix circuit, do at last year's U.S. Open when John McEnroe tried to take the match into his own hands? Ings first gave McEnroe a warning, then penalized him a point, and then a game. I felt a little funny taking similar action against Lesch because, after all, I was a player myself, and how did I have the right to make such a judgment call? Besides, I might have to play Lesch in the next tournament. But after he bludgeoned another ball out of bounds and then skidded his racket along the court, I spoke up. "This is a warning," I said to Lesch in my most authoritative tone. "I will issue a misconduct penalty point if you delay the match in any way."
Lesch did not even turn his head my way as he walked back to the baseline. But throughout the rest of the match, he behaved like a gentleman and played flawless tennis. And he won 6-4, 6-2.
After the match I saw Maher in the locker room. "Tough match," I said. "But how did you like the way I silenced him with that misconduct warning?"
"You did the right thing," Maher said softly. "But if you hadn't said anything, I think he would have become too berserk to play good tennis, and I would have won the match."
I sat dumbfounded on the locker room bench. Now I knew what tennis umpires meant when they said their job was a no-win proposition.
Daniel Markowitz is a free-lance writer and a tennis instructor in New York City.