“Team work is the key to becoming a successful lines umpire. Not only do they call all shots related to their assigned line, they also work together with the Chair Umpire so that the match is played in a professional manner.”
I would like to introduce Mr Troy Deighton, a lines umpire, to the readers of Tennis Frontier. I interviewed him at Apia International, Sydney, on the 12th of January.
Mr Deighton has been umpiring tennis professionally since 1999-2000 — approaching fifteen years. In that time he has worked his way up through junior tennis, amateur tournaments at NSW level in Sydney, Australia, right up to Grand Slams. He has officiated at one dozen Australian Open finals, the last two U.S. Open finals in New York, as well as many Davis Cup and Fed Cup ties. I had the pleasure of posing many questions to him regarding the role of a lines umpire. He gave his opinion on Hawkeye, and the foot fault rule, giving informed and insightful answers, as the readers of Tennis Frontier will no doubt find out, when they read the full interview.
Question: Can you explain the training for becoming a lines umpire?
Deighton: The training is not overly extensive. It’s a matter of knowing if a ball is in or out. Obviously that depends on how good your eyesight is, to be honest. You need to understand the basic rules of tennis, go through an introductory course about the basics, in terms of the rules. When you are first starting out, it’s more about learning the technique of calling lines, whether you are on the side lines, or the cross lines on the court. There are differences in the way you call lines, knowing whether the ball is in or out to start with, and what constitutes the ball being in or out, is what you need to know when you are starting out.
Question: How does a lines umpire work his/her way up to be able to work at Master Series and Grand Slam tournaments?
Deighton: You start out with your national association. Here in Australia it’s Tennis Officials Australia, which is separate to Tennis Australia. Tennis Australia obviously pour a lot of money into developing officials, but there is also Tennis Officials Australia which is basically for nurturing new recruits and developing umpires at the early stage, and you work your way through the tournaments. Once you have done your introductory course, you become a lines umpire at a local level doing junior tournaments, amateur adult tournaments, you work your way through Australian money tournaments, Pro tours, Pro circuits, Challengers. After maybe twelve months or two years you might get a gig like this at the Apia International, in Sydney. After a couple more years you might get into your first Grand Slam, being the Australian Open. Then it is just a matter of developing your skills, your techniques, developing your grades. When your grades are good enough you may get selected for other professional events like Fed Cup and Davis Cup and other Grand Slams.
Question: Do lines umpires at Master Series and Grand Slam tournaments get paid well? Do they have to cover their own traveling and accommodation costs?
Deighton: The conditions which lines umpires work vary from tournament to tournament. At a local level, when you are starting out, you might make enough money to cover your petrol to and from that tournament for the day. So there is not a lot of money when you are first starting out. It’s more about being a hobby; if you are interested in tennis it’s a good way to get involved. Not everyone can hit a tennis ball, but they love tennis and find this sort of work as a way to get involved, being in the game that they love. It’s not all about the money, even at the top end of the sport, when you have been on the circuit traveling the world for many years; many umpires find it very hard to break even. So they are basically paying their way around the world. Yes, you could probably make money out of it, if you are very good and stick at it for a while, but most people see it as a second job or a hobby. You can get some cool tennis clothes out of it and shoes at tournaments. There is a little bit of money which I guess is nice as well.
Question: Is there any age when a lines umpire has to retire?
Deighton: Not in Australia. I can’t speak for other tournaments around the world. We have lines umpires from mid-teens to their eighties here in Sydney. The gentleman who is in his eighties is calling the ball as well as anyone else at the tournament. It goes on your ability. We have off-court assessors who watch our technique and monitor our accuracy, as well as the chair umpires who evaluate you from the chair as well. So long as you are performing and up to scratch in Australia at least there is no reason why you can’t continue working to a ripe old age.
Question: I have noticed lines umpires spend a lot of time bending over. Do you personally suffer from a bad back? Do you have some sort of fitness program in place?
Deighton: I don’t have a fitness program to be a lines umpire, especially on days like yesterday when you are sitting around all day and you tend to eat a lot because there is not much to do at tournaments, while you are waiting for the rain to stop and getting on court. I sort of hit the fitness regime after the summer of tennis when I have a few kilos to shed. You do bend over a lot and it can get quite uncomfortable. If you are on the cross lines, base lines, service lines you tend to be sitting down a lot as well. I think it just goes with the territory and I don’t have a program that I follow.
Question: Can you tell us who assigns the lines umpires’ positions on the tennis court? Have you a favourite position?
Deighton: The lines umpires’ positions again comes down to their grading. There are three different grades you have as a lines umpire. You get graded on the long line, which are the side lines of the court. The far line being the furthest from the chair, the near line being the closest to the chair. So you have an overall long line grading, a service line grading, and a baseline grading. Depending on how your grades are and what your rating is on those lines, you are more likely, if you have a high grading on serve or base, you are more likely to get assigned those lines. When you are starting out, usually you start on the near line which is nearest the chair umpire. Obviously it is easier for the chair umpire to call that line and overrule if you make a mistake, then move to the far line and then the cross lines on the court. My favourite line, I like doing serve. You get more involved in a match having to do the ball changes; you are the point of contact for the chair umpire if they need something, so there is more responsibility, in terms of your role in the match. You call the serve and you get to enjoy the rest of the rally. It’s a good line to be on.
Question: I believe one of the requirements of a lines umpire is to have excellent eye sight. Are lines umpires allowed to wear glasses or contact lenses on court?
Deighton: The requirement for lines umpires in Australia is to have 20/20 vision and every couple of years we are required to undergo eye test and to provide a certificate to say that we have either 20/20 vision or corrected vision. Yes, you are allowed to wear glasses on court, or prescription sunglasses or contact lenses.
Question: One of your duties is to go with a player who takes a bathroom break or changes of attire break, to ensure the player does not use the break for any other purpose. In your experience have there been any unusual incidents that you can recall?
Deighton: No. I haven’t encountered any unusual incidents or behaviour during a toilet break or alike. It’s unusual when you see a player dart off the court during the television coverage with a lines umpire in tow. You think, Why is that person running after the player? It is just to make sure that the bathroom break is used for what it is, therefore to go to the toilet and nothing else — the players not receiving coaching or doing anything else which is out of sorts. Usually at Major tournaments like Grand Slams you will have a Tour Supervisor or a Grand Slam Supervisor there as well. Your job as a lines umpire is there to report any suspicious activity or irregular behaviour back to the chair umpire. It is up to them to determine when any further action is to be taken.
Question: What is your opinion on Hawkeye?
Deighton: I love Hawkeye. I think there was a lot of angst and I guess worry from lines umpires, and possibility chair umpires as well, when it was first introduced. I remember my first encounter with Hawkeye; it was the first year it was introduced in Melbourne, at the Australian Open. I was standing on the far line and it was either the first or second match on Rod Laver Arena. Andy Roddick challenged one of my calls on the far line, and then came back and stood shoulder to shoulder to me, as we watched the big screen to see whether I was right or not. It turned out that my call was correct, and he sort of gave me a pat on the back and said, “Oh, well done.” Hawkeye takes a bit of the pressure out of the matches, and I think players used to dwell on calls that they were unsure about for a few further points on. Now they have the ability to challenge, see what the result was, and then they can move on. So it takes a bit of the heat out and relieves a bit of the tension on court.
Question: Have you ever been overruled by Hawkeye?
Deighton: Yes, I have. It’s not good to be wrong, I guess, but it happens to everyone. We accept that and just as the players do, you accept that and move on. You’re only as good as your next call.
Question: There has been a lot of discussion of late to use Hawkeye on clay courts, your opinion?
Deighton: I am probably not the best to talk about clay courts because we don’t have many clay courts in Australia, and I haven’t really officiated on anything, or any professional event on clay. In terms of Hawkeye on hard courts or Rebound Ace, I think it is great. From my experience on clay and watching clay court tennis the ball mark is there for all to see. So I think it’s just doubling up. I don’t see the need.
Question: Do you think with the technology we have, you are going to be obsolete soon, or do you think there will always be room for a lines umpire, even with technology?
Deighton: I tend to think that the lines umpires are a part of professional tennis. I think the players respect them, I think the crowd respect the job they do. I think if we were to go to a system where the players were calling their own lines, relying on Hawkeye more — more than we are now — the game, in general, would just slow down completely. We would be forever going to the video. Replacing lines umpires would be to the detriment of the sport.
Question: The Foot Fault Rule clearly states, “A player who is serving must stand behind the baseline, between the centre mark and the sideline. A foot fault takes place when your foot touches the ground on — or forward of — the service line before you strike the ball.”
There has been a lot of controversy in our game with the foot fault rule. The most famous incident to date would be Serena Williams at the 2009 U.S Open, with her outburst towards the lines umpire over being foot faulted. In your opinion is it just a lack of focus and concentration, and, say, lazy footwork that causes a player to foot fault at times?
Deighton: I think foot faulting comes down to technique and if a player is foot faulted, constantly or regularly, or even occasionally, possibly, when it is occasionally it may be a lack of concentration. It is obviously their technique that needs to be reviewed. As a lines umpire on the baseline, you can be foot faulted across the centre service line. The important thing is to call a foot fault when you see it, when you’re certain it is a foot fault — if they’re touching the line, or they have crossed the line, and at no other times. If there is any doubt in your mind that the foot fault is touching the line, you don’t call it. That saves the controversy. The rule is there. It’s there to be enforced and unfortunately for Serena that was the call that was made against her.
Question: What is personally the best match you’re been a part of as a lines umpire?
Deighton: I have been blessed. I have been doing this for fifteen years or so. I have had enormous opportunities. I have been to South Africa for an ATP event, all expenses paid, and I was very lucky to have that opportunity. I have been to Samoa for a Davis Cup tie — again, everything was covered. That event was just a great event to be a part of. Most recently I have been to three U.S. Opens and done the last two women’s finals, on the baseline on Arthur Ashe stadium. I love Melbourne Park. I don’t think there is anything better than walking through the gates of Melbourne Park on the first day at the Australian Open. Seeing tens of thousands of people pouring through the gates. It’s just a buzz. Compare that to walking onto Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. I remember the first time I went out on Arthur Ashe for a night match three years ago, I was too scared to look up into the crowd, because my heart was racing. I was sitting on the service line and I didn’t want to look up. It took me about three games before I actually had the courage to, like, look at the chair umpire and acknowledge them, let alone look up into the stands, and they just seem to go up into the sky forever. It is an amazing spectacle, and looking down onto the court from the top, it’s just amazing. I also think American tennis fans are just unlike any others in the world. They tend to constantly talk, there is a constant buzz in the stadium, where we in Australia seem to be more mindful of the tennis etiquette. Where it is dead silent while the rallies are going on and then the stadium erupts. I love the buzz of going to the Australian Open and Melbourne Park every year. I love Rod Laver Arena under a closed roof, but there is just something special about New York and Flushing Meadows and being on Arthur Ashe.
Question: In your opinion, in general, do players treat lines umpires well on court?
Deighton: I think gone are the days where a player will launch a tirade at the lines umpire. I think we have seen it in occasional incidents where a player has erupted. I think they are very few and far between these days. I think Hawkeye has a lot to do with that. I think Hawkeye takes a lot of heat out of the moment and instead of erupting over a questionable call, at a crucial point in the match, the players are able to challenge, should they have any left, to resolve that situation there and then, and get on with the match. I also think that Hawkeye has a lot to do with the fact we don’t see as many lines umpires being verbally abused by players anymore. I also think the Code of Conduct is also being enforced a bit more, so players aren’t allowed to get away with as much as they used to. I think that the ITF, WTA, and ATP have a lot to be thanked for.
Question: Final question, what is the best part of being a lines umpire in your opinion?
Deighton: I will be completely honest with you and say it has nothing to do with tennis. It has nothing to do with what happens on court. What has sustained me for the past fifteen years umpiring, you know, after having done many Grand Slams and many Davis Cup and Fed Cup ties, ATP and WTA events and the like, are the friends that I have made, and the friends from around the world. You might see once every year, but you know when they walk through the door at the tournament, at the start of January and you haven’t seen them for twelve months, it just feels like you haven’t been apart. I think it is the friends. There is a real camaraderie between officials, particularly here in Australia. I think our typical Aussie laid-back attitude, the visiting officials from overseas, really love that and that is why they keep coming back. I think the Australian Open is known globally as The Happy Slam or The Friendly Slam, and it really is. Not just for the players who love coming here; the officials as well. I have had some amazing times on court, so many wonderful experiences and opportunities, but it is the friendships I have made from all around the world I really cherish.
I would like to thank Troy Deighton for graciously giving his time in between his on-court duties at Apia International, Sydney for this interview.
To Nicola Abercrombie: my thanks to you, for all your help in my initial request for interviewing a lines umpire and organizing my media pass. I would also like to thank Mr Glenn Toland, President of ANSW and Assistant Chief of Officials, Apia International, Sydney for choosing such an informative and affable lines umpire in Troy Deighton for me to interview.