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The best seat in the house?

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Originally published on: 21/12/11 09:09

Lynn Welch is enjoying a rare moment of downtime at her home in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, when we speak. It’s been three days since she returned from back-to-back trips to Stanford, San Diego and Toronto but the American has already re-packed her suitcase ready to head to New Haven in the morning, with New York and Quebec City next on the agenda. It’s a schedule befitting the life of a serial holidaymaker, but Welch finds little time for sightseeing on any of her journeys. Instead, she’s got a rather more important job to perform as a professional chair umpire and she accepts that the relentless travel is par for the course.

“The US Open series is a particularly long swing,” says Welch of the latest cause for her frantic timetable. “It’s pretty much eight weeks on with three days off in between. Since I got back from Toronto on Sunday night, I’ve spent three days dashing around, doing what I needed to do, doing laundry, un-packing, re-packing and then off I go again!

“Sometimes I’ll wake up and have no idea where I am,” she adds, chuckling. “You might have to go to Australia or Asia, have a 14-to-16-hour time change and then get up to do a match the next day. You have to get yourself on their time zone as quickly as you can, which of course I do because I want to do the best job possible, whether it’s in Arthur Ashe Stadium or a smaller tournament where there are no TV cameras.”

A former college player and teaching pro in Florida, Welch started her umpiring career as a line judge at the Family Circle Cup in 1991 and, on advice from the United States Tennis Association, began training to be a chair umpire two years later. Intent on reaching the top level and “going as far as I possibly could”, she soon earned the white badge, the first of four ITF certifications that are mandatory for international tennis officials, allowing her to officiate at the highest level within America by 1993. Ten years later, after passing scrupulous tests for her bronze badge and gaining plenty of experience on tour to earn silver, Welch was credited with the top officiating award; the gold badge.

“There’s 27 people in the world with a gold badge and 21 of them are men, so there’s obviously a big difference there,” voices Welch, understandably keen to encourage more women to pursue a career in the chair. “We’re promoting to get some new female officials interested and trained and at every tournament we go to we talk to female officials to see if we can help in any way and allow them to move on from calling lines.”

Thirty years ago, Catherine McTavish became the first woman to chair a Centre Court match at Wimbledon – a rarity on any main court back then and a welcome  change in tradition at the All England Club. These days Welch and others under contract from the WTA will  often don an ATP shirt and occupy the chair for men’s matches, but Welch admits that switching occasionally brings its challenges.

“Sometimes players will look at you at the coin toss as if they’re not used to you doing one of their matches,” she explains. “It’s nice to be able to prove to them that you can handle the occasion and that you are just as good at handling their match as one of the ATP guys.”

It’s not just the culture of officiating that has changed, but the rules too. British umpire Gerry Armstrong, also an assistant referee at Wimbledon, has sat through much of the evolution. One of the first to be awarded the Gold Badge soon after the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council embarked on their mission to professionalise officiating in the mid-1980s, Armstrong has overseen a huge change in the manner in which the game is played.

“It’s very, very different now, particularly in terms of behaviour,” says the 55-year-old Brit, who famously defaulted John McEnroe at the Australian Open in 1990 after the American smashed a racket and followed up with a foul-mouthed tirade.

“One of the reasons we were originally hired was because of the likes of McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl. A whole generation of players had grown up, not without any rules, but without having to adhere to a code of conduct. When you went out on court in those days you knew there was going to be a battle. Now, everyone is a lot more professional.”

The integration of HawkEye can take some of the credit for increasingly cooler heads on court. Now that the doubt on tight calls can be instantly eliminated with a flick of the index finger, fewer players have felt the need to take umpires to task. However, such is the escalating influence of top players, it has been suggested that the reverse is also true on occasion; that chair officials have become too lenient to the habits, tactical or not, of some players.

“It’s a tough job being an umpire, the players know that, but I think officials should and could be more strict,” declared Roger Federer at this year’s US Open. “Sometimes I wonder if they’re more strict on the outside courts than on the big courts. I still think we can push the boundaries. Look at how much time we can take walking onto the court before the first ball is hit. [Also] there are many times where it takes way too long between points.”

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have caused much debate with their respective tendencies to fiddle with clothing and bounce the ball incessantly between points. Both have been brought to account in the past, but by the same token both have unquestionably been afforded leeway.

“I don’t think anything can be totally black and white,” reasons Welch. “Judgement is a huge part of what we do and it’s a question of what you feel is fair to both players, not just the one appealing to you.”

Calling women’s matches is arguably a little easier for Welch because, as a full-time umpire on the WTA, most of the players have seen her face often enough to know her credentials.

“I have always looked to build trust and credibility with the players on court,” she says. “I don’t like to be officious. I want to step in and do what I need to do and keep control of things but I don’t want to be in their faces too much.

“If a player is banging her racket around a lot but hasn’t broken it, then I’ll softly warn her at the change-over. I use the player’s name and I’ll say, ‘Can you please keep your racket in hand.’ I’ll say thank you, they’ll get the message and about 90 per cent of the time I see them change and they stop smacking the racket around.”

For someone who has officiated 11 Grand Slam finals in her homeland – two mixed doubles, three women’s doubles and six women’s singles finals at the US Open – you would be forgiven for thinking the sport may not capture the interest of the former tennis coach the way it once did. But there’s a reason she lives and breathes the game.

“It’s a thrill for me and a privilege,” says Welch of life on tour. “People often ask me if I can actually enjoy a match when I’m sitting there and obviously focusing so hard, but I think because of my background I can sit there and say that, along with doing my job, I can appreciate the shot selection and player athleticism.

Sometimes it can be the best seat in the house and sometimes it can be the hot seat, but it’s a thrill to be out there with some of the best athletes in the world.”

She is clearly a tennis fan through and through, but does Lynn still watch the game on TV?

“All the time,” she says with a laugh. “My friends all think I’m crazy. I’ll work all day at the US Open and then I’ll come home, flip on the TV and watch the night matches!”

‘The best seat in the house’ featured in the November 2011 issue of tennishead magazine. For more information about how to subscribe, click here.

Now get the WORLD’S BEST TENNIS MAGAZINE here


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