PostHeaderIcon Being Mohamed: My USTA Umpire Training and The Official’s Code of Conduct

For years I’ve wondered what it would be like to become a certified line judge for professional tennis matches. And no, not because of the chic and snazzy outfits, because they’re not quite my style; especially those Wimbledon outfits!  And not because of the potential for big-time humiliation at making a wrong call, or even the threat of having a tennis ball shoved down my throat.

The primary reason I’ve thought about what it would be like is because it’s always seemed pretty cool that, as a line judge, I could become part of tennis history with a crucial call on a critical shot.

I have even thought about what it would be like to become a chair umpire, like Steve Ulrich or Mohamed Lahyani.  They look so cool and unflappable, sitting up in that chair, calling out the score, making overrules, quieting the crowd, keeping the players in line and the match running smoothly. Also, in a stadium like Arthur Ashe, it’s easily the best seat in the (very large and cavernous) house!

Steve Ulrich and I

How do I know that this might be my calling? On my last trip to Wimbledon, I got a picture of myself with Steve.  What you can’t see from this picture is the look he gave me beforehand when I approached him for the picture.  It was a priceless mix of “Who are you, and how do you know who I am?”  As my friend took the picture I could sense that Steve’s fears of a chair umpire stalker were only slightly decreased, but he did it anyway.

But I digress.  The bottom line is that if I was ever given a chance to be on court in an official capacity, I was going to jump on it. And jump I did back in November when USTA Norcal posted a notice for an upcoming rookie umpire class. I paid my registration, submitted my background check info, and took the 60-question Provisional test that would start my journey into the world of officialdom.

The rookie umpire class is the first of a multi-step process, the “entry point” if you will, into the world of being a USTA Roving Umpire; and is the basis for everything else you might go on to do as an official.  In the US, becoming a Roving Umpire is where everyone starts (though I can’t really envision Steve or Mohamed roaming the courts of a boys and girls 12-16 event).  From there you take specialized training to become a tournament referee, a line judge, or a chair umpire.  Most are happy at the Roving level, but some pursue their goal of being a part of the action on the big stages. Maybe one day I’ll be one of them.

I’ve completed two steps of the six that are needed to become a Roving Umpire.  I did my on-court training with Chris Wilson, the Northern California Sectional Chairman of Officials and a former Silver Badge chair umpire, at a junior tournament in Lafayette, CA last Saturday.  It was an eye-opening experience.  No matter how much you’ve read the rules and think you know how you’ll react on court in order to enforce them, it’s a different when you’re out there with two players; especially when they’re only 12 years old.

Two of my favorite chair umpires: Pascal Maria and Mohamed Lahyani

I don’t want to talk too much about the training other than to say that the most important thing I’ll need to remember as an official is that I need to set aside my emotionally reactive spectator self. I do a decent job of that already when I’m sitting in the press box, but I need even more awareness of my facial reactions when I’m on court interacting with players.  My primary goal as an official is to contribute to a good and fair match for both participants, regardless of whether either is doing playing well or playing poorly and struggling. Emotions be gone!

I also don’t want to talk too much about the training because of The Official’s Code of Conduct and what will sometimes be my mutually exclusive role as a credentialed member of the media.  Item number 7 of The Official’s Code of Conduct (below) states that, as an official, I will “Not be interviewed by the media without permission of the Referee or the Referee’s designee.”  If I keep going down this path to becoming a USTA certified official, I will have privy to information that I absolutely won’t be able to write about or use when I’m wearing my media hat.

Additionally, it’s obvious that I won’t be able to officiate a tournament while also covering it as a member of the media.  More to the point of this potential career path, I can easily foresee the difficulty in attempting to do both if I choose to pursue the role of a line judge or chair umpire.  I’d like to do both to the best of my ability, and take them both as far as I can go professionally, but we’ll see how it goes. I take comfort in the continually humorous thought that I will continually need to get permission from tournament referees so that I can talk to myself.

Fergus Murphy

(Note: Knowing what I know now, I’m absolutely certain that I would never have been able to chat so easily with chair umpire Fergus Murphy as I did last year at the Sony Ericsson Open IF I’d gotten the media credential I missed out on because of the deadline for application submission.  He was initially hesitant, but then chatted amiably for about 10-15 minutes with this random blogger guy from San Francisco. If I’d had a credential hanging from my neck, he would probably have been just as amiable, but the conversation would have lasted 30 seconds! )

Talk of permissions aside; it’s still way too early to talk about conflicts of interest when I’m not even halfway done with the certification process.  I have four volunteer days to fulfill before becoming a legit Roving Umpire, and potentially more training if I want to pursue becoming a college official, line judge or chair umpire.

If I complete my certification as I intend to, I promise that whatever knowledge I gain will not be used in order to support my own biases with regards to tennis rules, tennis personnel, or tennis players.  I’ve come across blogs where writers have used knowledge from their affiliations in sometimes wrong or cherry-picked ways to support personal points of view.  Sure, our affiliations definitely inform our opinions.  But they are just that: our opinions, and should be noted as such.  Using insider knowledge to support factual arguments is one thing, using them to support my own one-sided view is another.  Please call me on it if you ever see that happening.

With that, I’ll move on and start setting up my volunteer days.  I’d like to give special thanks to Chris for spending time talking with me about the ins and outs of the officiating life.  He’s been where I think I want to be, and has great stories to tell from his life as an umpire on the pro circuit.  Maybe one day I will too.  🙂

The Official’s Code of Conduct
(from the 2012 Friend at Court handbook)

A USTA official is expected to maintain high professional standards. Violations of this code may result in decertification or suspension of USTA, directed assignments.

An official shall:

1. Wear the official USTA uniform at USTA sanctioned events, or as otherwise designated by the USTA.

2. Be prompt for all assignments.

3. Not socialize with or become intimate with the players. (An official is not prohibited from staying in the tournament hotel or from attending social functions where players may be present.)

4. Not accept assignments for any match that may cast doubt upon the official’s impartiality. Not only is a bona fide conflict of interest prohibited, but the appearance of a conflict makes the assignment unacceptable.

5. Not solicit specific assignments in tournaments.

6. Not accept an assignment and then withdraw from that assignment in favor of another unless released.

7. Not be interviewed by the media without permission of the Referee or the Referee’s designee.

8. Not publicly criticize other officials.

9. Not participate in, including aiding and abetting whether directly or indirectly, any form of gambling or betting on tennis.

10. Not converse with spectators while on the court.

11. Not request favors or special considerations from a tournament sponsor.

12. Not use title or position to abuse the rules or influence others to do so.

13. Not consume alcoholic beverages or take drugs or medication that will inhibit performance during an assignment or while in uniform.

14. Cooperate with the efforts of officials’ committees appointed by the National Chairperson.

15. While in uniform not take photographs of players nor at any time request player autographs.

16. Be professional and ethical.

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