Close your eyes and imagine a ball coming at you at more than 100 miles an hour. Cringe all you want, but the veteran chair umpire, 71-year-old John Parry from Great Britain, remarks with as much grace as an orchestra’s conductor waves his baton: “You just sway" to escape the ball, “not move away altogether; a bit like a boxer".

The key is to keep the eye on the ball, no matter what comes flying your way.

Meet the unsung heroes of tennis—officials dedicated to keeping this gentleman’s sport, exactly that: a gentleman’s sport. You don’t cheer them, but they do not mind. Players get mad at them—you even boo the umpires if you’re a fan—but they do not retaliate.

At the US Open in 2009, Serena Williams threatened to asphyxiate line umpire Shino Tsurubuchi with a tennis ball during her semi-final match for calling a foot fault on her second serve. In 1995 at Wimbledon, American player Jeff Tarango’s wife slapped chair umpire Bruno Rebeuh when he penalized the player for yelling at the crowd.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF)—tennis’ governing body—certifies chair umpires, who become part of a pool that is used not just by the ITF, which conducts the Davis Cup and the Federation Cup (besides sanctioning the four Grand Slams), but also by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP; men’s tennis association) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

With tennis gaining popularity in Asia, the ITF is now holding more training programmes in the continent. A Level 3 school was held in Delhi in April and 5 Asian officials gained international certification. A Level 2 school will be held from 11-14 November in Bangkok. According to the ITF, 18 people from Asia will attend this school.

Getting the basics right

Calling the shots: Confidence is the key quality for a good umpire. Reuters

"While at Level 2 we judge a candidate’s knowledge of rules, at Level 3 we check their interpretation. It gets more difficult," says Andrew Jarrett, chief of officiating, ITF, who is also the referee at Wimbledon.

Candidates who clear this get a bronze badge till they get enough experience and amass enough points (they get rated in every match by their seniors) to graduate to a silver badge and eventually, a gold one. At present, there are 25 gold, 49 silver and 184 bronze badge chair umpires, globally. Parry has a gold badge.

The next level

Nothing can match practical experience though. Swedish chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani had no idea that the match he was about to officiate in at Wimbledon on the morning of 22 June would span over three days, 11 hours, 5 minutes and 183 games, the longest match ever in professional tennis history.

“These are tough conditions mentally," says Jarrett. “Chair umpires need to focus all the time and only the best get to officiate at Grand Slams."

Line umpires have it comparatively easier. Each line official is on court for one-and-a-half hours, followed by a 45-minute break when another line umpire takes over. Line umpires officiate at the lines on the tennis court and ascertain whether a ball has landed within the lines. They also call foot faults. A typical tennis court has seven-nine line umpires, depending on the level of the tournament. A chair umpire is the main monitor on the tennis court and ensures that the game is played within the rules.

Sue Titley, in her late 40s, is an experienced line umpire at Wimbledon who has also officiated in other Grand Slams. She recollects receiving a 142 miles per hour serve from the American Andy Roddick, one of the fastest servers on the men’s tour at the US Open 2009. “Roddick is always a difficult one to receive. I had to bend down in time (to avoid being hit) but yet be sure where the ball landed. It had just kissed the line," she says. Titley remembers when her friend—another line umpire—was struck on the head with a ball; the impact was so strong that the ball went back to where it came from after leaving a distinct mark on the line judge’s hat.

Parry, who was an umpire for 35 years, was a physical education officer with the Royal Air Force, England, in the 1970s before he and a group of like-minded individuals formed a new, breakaway tennis umpiring group. “Back then, there was no code of conduct. Chair umpires had too few weapons—no code violation, no warning system—for temperamental players," says Parry, who claims to have umpired enfant terrible John McEnroe the most number of times at Wimbledon.

That’s also where confidence comes in; a key quality for a good umpire. “When we select lines officials, we look at their confidence," says Nitin Kannamwar, India’s most qualified chair umpire (bronze badge) and a gold badge tournament referee. “When the ball runs past the line in a split of a second, you’ve got to be able to call out instantly. If we see consistent hesitance, they disqualify."

Kannamwar, who was the chief umpire at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, adds that a good personality bodes well, as umpires need to look presentable. Good eyesight, with once a year mandatory check-ups, is needed.

Chair umpire Lars Graff, a full-time official with the ATP, adds: “We are human and make mistakes in every match. It’s just a question of learning from your own mistakes. An umpire who never made a mistake doesn’t exist."

Graff says he has seen some of his colleagues make mistakes and never return to the chair. “The best thing is to get away from the site and do something else—go to the gym, pray, read a book or call your family when that happens," he says.

Fees vary

Fees for officials vary according to the level of the event and the certification of each official. This can range between $550 (around 24,000) for an ITF Junior event to $1,600 for a World Group Davis Cup. Though Kannamwar umpires at least 40 matches a year, he has a job with Western Railway, managing its tennis team; a job that allows him flexibility in travelling.

Line officials typically do not make a career out of it. Titley, for instance, earns about £60 (Rs 4,200) a day as line umpire, a big chunk of which goes into paying for travel and hotel accommodation. She is a property developer who buys homes, renovates them and then either sells them or gives them out on rent.