- Tom Eastman
Keeping an Eye on the Ball
The glamour of being a lines-umpire at the Volvo International Tennis Tournament wears off fairly quickly when 8,000 tennis enthusiasts, an inquiring umpire, and two occasionally temperamental tennis players stand there, waiting for you, the linesman, to verify your last call.
To err may be human, certainly enough, but it can also be very uncomfortable under these circumstances. The best that can be hoped for is that you were being a good official at the time of the call - you were as alert as the players, you saw the ball land fair or foul, and most importantly, that you gave the appearance that you were on top of things.
The art of posturing is one of the most important aspects of good officiating, according to tournament assistant referee Dave Dwyer, the man who along with referee Sean Sloane is responsible for the training and recruiting of the 100 or so volunteer linesman manning the playing lines of the Mt Cranmore Tennis Club Stadium's clay courts during the eight day tournament. Dwyer and Sloane critique the performances of the linesmen along with the Volvo Grand Prix supervisor attending the tournament, as do a few of the more experienced lines callers when they are not out on the courts themselves. In the assistant referee's opinion, good positioning is one of the three primary qualities that he and the others look for when evaluating an officiating performance, the others being a good dose of common sense and confidence in their own ability.
"Linescalling is really not that complicated or difficult a job, but you do need some experience and confidence to be effective," Dwyer stated. He commented further on just what separates good officiating from poor, citing key factors which greatly influence the reputation and quality of a professional tennis match. the Volvo International has consistently received favorable grade reports from the Grand Prix and the Association of Tennis Professionals as a result of the internal and external efforts to improve the officiating, largely because Dwyer and Sloane make it a point to see that corrections are made. "We look for a distinct hand signal for close calls on fair shots and a loud and assertive "Out!" when it is due. If the linespeople look too relaxed out there, we let them know afterwards to correct it."
Approximately half of the linespeople are local residents, either on a full-time or part-time basis, while the others are imports on vacation from Massachusetts and other regions. Their ages range from 17 to mid-60s, but all share a love for the game. Husbands and wives often volunteer together, devoting all or part of their vacation time to sitting on the sidelines in the often hot sun. Most of the linesmen are amateurs and Volvo trained, while a few, such as local second home owner Jack Armstrong, go on and earn their New England Lawn Tennis Umpire's Association certification.
Armstrong was one of the experienced officials asked to critique an opening round match earlier in the week. Sitting on the sidelines, he shook his head from time to time while watching the balanced crew of veteran and new linemen, jotting down remarks about what the seven-man team was doing wrong as he did so. His notebook had margins under such voice clarity, court presence and overall cooperation. "We've got a good reputation at the Volvo for fair and consistent officiating. We work on the .05% or so of errors in an effort to make it better," Armstrong said. "When we do see an error, we tell the people in a low key manner afterwards what steps can be taken. They're all out there with a goal to be good officials, and they'll never know what they're doing right and wrong if no one tells them," he continues, explaining that consistency and uniformity are the aims of the Grand Prix supervisors, the tournament referees, and the linesmen as well as the players. "Players, umpires, and audiences all expect certain calls or actions at specific times, just like a symphony orchestra expects a certain note on cue when playing a piece. If that note comes late or not at all, it really shows, and that's what we're trying to improve here at the tournament."
Alertness and concentration are not always easily maintained when officiating under a hot sun in a long match, and sometimes the chair umpire will send a note around to the team captain for him or her to perk up the other linesmen. As first year Volvo linesman Nubi Duncan described it, "It involves a great deal of concentration. You should try to keep a good mental image of where the ball lands all the time, so that if you are called upon to go out and show the mark on the court, you'll be prepared." The way in which the linesman shows the mark is just as important. Commented Armstrong, "If you were watching the play but leaning on your elbows, your credibility with players and the audiences, as well as the umpire, will be a lot less than if you had been on the edge of your chair. It's all a matter of little things which do make a difference."
Sloane and Dwyer conducted three clinics earlier this summer for persons interested in becoming linesmen, with the last taking place at the Cranmore Lodge on July 13th. Through on-court game experience the linesmen were given pointers by Sloane as they went through mock tie breakers, player outbursts, and all the other typical aspects of a tennis match. Once Sloane had finished with his on-court training, Dwyer's job of organizing the teams of seven or so linesment began. That job has become easier over the past few years as more and more locals become involved as linesmen, returning each summer with greater experience under their visors.
The trend toward more locals is actually by design, according to Sloane. "We've made a breakthrough on getting more locals involved, something we've been working on for the past few years for several basic reasons. In our opinion, locals are more relaxed since they're familiar with the surroundings, staying in comfortable homes of their own. As a result they can also be counted on more readily to return every year, adding to the consistency of the officiating to the tournament's betterment. The third reason is economic," the referee and Williams College varsity tennis coach explained. "If all the linesmen were local, the tournament would not have to pay for lodging and meals for visiting umpires."
The tournament's budget for linesmen this year is $6,000, with the majority of that paying for the lodging for non-residents. The officials themselves are not paid anything more than the free daily meal vouchers and a free pass for the week. Both Sloane and Dwyer commented that they would like to see the linesmen at least receive a token fee of $5 per day as an expression of the appreciation that the tournament has for their efforts, but noted that such a change couldn't be instituted until the ranks were filled by locals. "I think that the time is coming for paid local linesmen, possibly as early as next year. We're right on schedule for changing over to local residents, and I feel that we could pay them with a budget of $1,600," Sloane said. Added Dwyer, "Paying people doesn't make a difference in terms of the quality of the officiating, since here at Volvo it's a matter of pride and spirit behind everyone's circuit. We just feel that the good job the linesmen do should be recognized as such, and the nominal amount being considered would simply let them know that we do appreciate their work." Tournaments director Jim Westhall agreed with both referees, remarking, "The volunteer linesmen do such a great job that we're going to have a hard time justifying not paying them. With more locals, it's conceivable that we could offer some payment for Volvo '81."
Financial betterment then is obviously not the motivating factor which leads persons to volunteer their vacation time in favor of calling lines. Civic duty of sorts, and a desire to see tennis, are the reasons most mentioned by the volunteers. As North Conway resident and linesment team captain Maury Geiger stated, it's also a matter of pride in the Valley's tennis extravaganza. "We've been told that we have some of the best linescallers on the entire 93 tournament Grand Prix circuit, and I think that it's due to the way we all personally identify with the Volvo and take pride in doing our part. there's a real camaraderie which exists between the linesment, as well as a good spirit of cooperation. You can see it just by sitting in the officials' tent, watching the more experienced linesmen giving pointers to the newcomers and relaxing with one another," the North Conway lawyer and linesmen team captain stated.
As one of the team captains designated by Dwyer, Geiger is responsible for keeping his seven man crew organized and punctual during the tournament. He also helps Dwyer throughout the rest of the year by recruiting and recommending new volunteers to serve as linesmen, a word-of-mouth system that has worked well for the Volvo.
In the instances where a new linesmen doesn't improve even after he or she has received pointers and critiques from the more experienced callers, they are gently phased out as the week progresses, calling less matches as the semis and finals approach. While their first-year performances may sometimes be below par, many often gain more experience throughout the year at other tournaments and clinics and return the following summer to try it again, according to Dwyer. "It's an example of the spirit which is so much a part of this tournament. Jack Armstrong and Loretta Ford are now two of our best linesmen, even though they both only started here at Volvo last year. They both attended the ATP's clinic for umpires in Dallas, received their accreditation from the NEUTA, and recently worked at Longwood, gaining a good deal of experience in only one year's time."
A new seven-man system is being used at the Volvo International this year for the officiating along the lines in an effort to minimize what some feel is the excessive number of referees on the court. In the past, the tournament has always used nine linesmen, a chair umpire, and a new judge, and will probably do so again for the semis and finals. Early round action, however, has seen the initial use of the seven man system a set-up which Sloane and Dwyer think is superior to the new Grand Prix allowance for only five officials used recently at Longwood. The new set-up makes the linesman's jobs more demanding, since the sideline caller must call service lines when the server is facing from a diagonal court. After the serve, the linesman then runs back to call his sideline. "Professional tennis wants to cut back on the number of officials calling a match while keeping the quality of officiating high. Eventually we'll probably have to use the five-man set-up, but Sean and I prefer the seven-man system since it doesn't require officials to call through the net as the five man does. We're both pleased with the way it's worked for us so far, and we intend to see that quality officiating for which this tournament is known continues," Dwyer commented.
In that effort, Dwyer began planning his recruitment of linesmen for next year the day before the opening round of play last Sunday. Never one to let things get ahead of him, he always tackles the job on schedule, staying right on the ball.