Umpiring Isn't for Everyone
A Local Dentist Takes the Chair
There is no question that being in a dentist's chair puts one in a very vulnerable position. As you sit there looking up, you can only hope that the person looming over you wielding a drill or some other awful instrument has had all the proper education and knows exactly what he's doing.
Although he's looking up at the person in the chair, it's much the same for a professional tennis player out on the court during a match. "I see a definite correlation between my profession," said Dr. Charles Beck, retired dentist, "and my role as a tennis umpire. If you're going to be successful in either, the patients or the players have to feel a certain amount of confidence in you." Dr. Beck -- Charlie to his friends -- was able to instill that confidence into his patients. Just last year he retired from a successful 35-year practice in dentistry for children, sold his home in New York, and made his Stonehurst Manor condominium in North Conway his home base. "I've thought a lot about it," said Charlie, "and I think the calmness and patience that I had to have in my profession has carried over very well in tennis officiating. It's important to understand people and their frustrations and fears. My assistant for 15 years says that she can see a relationship between the way I deal with players and the way I dealt with my dental patients -- and they both have to be dealt with," he emphasized. "You have to give them a certain amount of confidence that they may not feel."
Charlie first got into tennis officiating about 10 years ago when he was still living in the New York City area. Always an active tennis player who has a ranking in his age division, Charlie felt that bad knees might curtail his tennis playing. He saw officiating as a way to stay in the game.
At that time officiating was just starting to catch up to the game of tennis, which had become open in 1968. Official officials were coming into the game, schools were springing up and certified "professional" umpires and line callers were in demand in the rapidly expand-ing sport. "In the early days, officiating was all volunteer — sort of a pick-up off the porch," explained Charlie. "Tennis was a society game and they'd ask the people relaxing on the porch of the club, 'Who wants to call lines today' "
Though it was an unsatisfactory system even then, the advent of open tennis and huge purses, made uniform rules and enforcement mandatory. "I was fortunate enough to get help from Jack Stahr who is now in the Tennis Hall of Fame," said Charlie. "He took a lot of time to teach me and explain what they were doing. I got a good understanding of the rules and how to behave from him." Charlie also called a lot of lines with Frank Hammond, a well known tennis official. The two of them called lines and umpired throughout the New York area, until Frank started taking Charlie on some trips further afield. "My first Grand Prix event where I was in the chair was in Lafayette, Louisiana," said Charlie.
That was six years ago and since then, until last year, Charlie has been combining careers, spending about 20 weeks a year working as a tennis official. He is a member of the Eastern Tennis Umpires Association and has his Men's International Professional Tennis Council Certification, which requires written tests and eye exams every year. "We are also evaluated and graded in every match that we do by the Grand Prix supervisor," explained Charlie, "and those that are deemed to have had the best performance over the week are chosen to chair the semi-final or final matches."
Charlie may have retired from dentistry (he does still occasionally see patients in his office here), but he is now busier than ever. Once the one leaning over the chair, Charlie is now the person in the chair week after week. He started this year by umpiring at the Masters in Madison Square Garden where he was chosen to do the final for the third time in his new career. He was then moved on to the U.S. Indoor in Memphis, then to Florida where he chaired in three or four more tournaments. Tennis rules and officiating are not sexist and Charlie will officiate at both men's or women's tournaments.
For the first time in his career, he got the opportunity this spring to go to Vina del Mar, Chile, as a Grand Prix supervisor. He returned to the United States to serve as a supervisor at some subsequent satellite tournaments in Florida. Charlie then went back to New York City to chair in the Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills before heading off for six weeks in Europe, his first trip there as a tennis official, where he worked at the French Open, the men's tournament at the Queen's Club in London, and the women's tournament at Eastbourne before heading home. Charlie then sat in the chair at the grass court tournament in Newport and at the U.S. Pro at the Longwood club in Boston before heading to his "home" courts here in North Conway.
A competent official is always in demand and since his "retirement" Charlie's involvement in umpiring has expanded until he is now working 30 to 35 weeks a year. "I don't think I could work any more than I am now," he said. "It can be an exhausting existence -- the pressure, the need for concentration, the traveling and always living out of a suitcase." Charlie considers himself lucky that his wife Mary enjoys the game and enjoys the traveling. "Mary plays herself and likes to watch, so she enjoys what I'm doing," Charlie said. "I know others who can't do as much as they would like to because their spouses aren't as supportive or just don't want that much tennis in their lives."
If you have ever watched one of the current crop of professional players give an official a tongue-lashing, you may wonder why anyone would want to become a linesman or umpire. According to the people who are in it, it's not something you do for the money, so it must be for the love of the game. "I don't ever get tired of watching tennis," said Charlie. "I enjoy watching any sport done well, but I especially enjoy a good tennis game:"
In his current vocation as a tennis umpire, this is essential. Umpires are required to watch every ball bounce throughout a match. "Not everyone can do this job," said Charlie, "and they usually find it out pretty quickly. The key element is concentration." Although line umpires are rotated or changed during a long match, the chair umpire never changes, and some matches can last four, sometimes five hours. "Somehow you have to have the ability to watch every tennis ball bounce for four or five more hours," he explained. "As soon as you might let up, that's when you know something will happen and then you'll be in trouble."
Umpires have a large blue rule book listing basic tennis rules and all the Grand Prix rules. Unlike a judge who can retire to his chambers and mull things over, chair umpires have to have all these rules at the ready, no matter how obscure. They can't say, "Uh, just a second," to someone like John McEnroe and quickly leaf through the rule book. "The hardest thing in tennis officiating are the split-second decisions that you are called on to make," Charlie explained. "When you have two or four players waiting for an immediate ruling, you have to make a decision just based on your feeling right at that moment. There is no time to weigh much."
Just a few weeks ago, at the tournament in Longwood, Charlie had a player get something in his eye that was playing havoc with his contact lens. His first reaction was to consider this an injury and allow the player three minutes to recover. A contact lens, however, is considered equipment -- "like a bra or a jock" — and if a player has an equipment "failure" they are allowed as much time as necessary to correct it. "It makes it difficult because even though getting something in an eye with a contact lens is extremely painful," Charlie explained, "it's not something that you can really be sure is happening."
In men's tennis, there is a four-stage procedure an umpire follows if someone is misbehaving or getting coached (something that is often hard to detect) or delaying the game. First the player is warned. If he continues to disrupt the procedures, he then loses a point. The next step is to award a game to the opposing player, and if the unacceptable conduct continues, the final step is to default the offending player.
"I've gotten through three of the steps but I've never had to throw anyone out," said Charlie. "I've been prepared to do it but I just as soon I didn't. I understand that winning or losing one match can mean quite a bit to some of these players," he added. "They are often under a lot of pressure to succeed -- especially those that are not making a lot of money -- and a bad call might mean a major loss of revenue. Most of them are fine young men who are working very hard."
Charlie said that he is most often asked about his confrontations with John McEnroe, the current bad boy of tennis. "As soon as someone finds out that I work as an umpire, the first thing they want to know is if I have ever worked a John McEnroe match," he said. Admitting that he has had some "dandies" with McEnroe, Charlie said they have been getting along quite well in the past couple of years. Lest you forget, it isn't just the men who have given officials a hard time. The women professionals can sometimes be just as difficult to deal with on the court. The times have changed and Charlie still admits some surprise at what he considers the unlady-like things that come out of the mouths of the women players.
The purpose of the chair umpire is to make sure that all players are given fair treatment during a match. "The system is designed to give every player a fair match," he said, "and we try very hard to to that. As officials we want the match to be right, and so, I think that players have a right to question calls -- that's why we have the ability to overrule linesmen and have them check their marks -- but questioning should be done in a reasonable manner.
"The idea is to be fair to both players," he continued. "In attempting to be fair to one player, you have to be careful not to be unfair to the other one. It's sometimes a very tough balance. The players like to know the person in the chair and to feel comfortable with him," Charlie explained. "So far, I don't have anyone who I don't work because of having a major incident with him or her."
Charlie thinks that even though tennis is now "an immense athletic endeavor -- show business and huge" that it is nice that some of the old qualities of the "gentlemen's game" remain. "I'm glad it's out of the country club, but I don't think the crowd should be as vocal as in other sports." Although he has never thrown out a player, he has had a disorderly fan removed from a stadium. "This person was so drunk and loud," Charlie explained, "that he was disturbing everyone, not just the players."
At 62, Charlie is one of the older people involved in umpiring, but he is planning to stay in it for at least a few more years. "I enjoy being a part of the tennis," he said. "I've always been involved in sports and competitive athletics have been a big part of my life. Moving into umpiring has been a remarkable transition after my 35-year professional life, and my wife and I are enjoying every bit of it. I'll continue to work as long as I know I'm doing a good job -- and it's easy to tell when you're not -- then I'll retire for a second time. Right now, though, I'm still seeing the ball pretty well."
Editor's Note: Dr. Charlie Beck passed away in 2012 in Delray Beach, Florida. Hi obituary notes that he was the first American umpire to sit in the chair for each and every Grand Slam tournament. In 1985, he was honored and received The John T. McGovern Umpires' Award.