Chair umpires go to work every day expecting to be publicly harassed and humiliated by players who rough them up when the going gets tough, writes Editor at Large Louise Evans
When players lose it on court, it’s officials like Marijana Veljovoic who come under fire.
As one of just nine “gold badge” female chair umpires working at the 2024 Australian Open, the respected Serb official is the police officer enforcing the rules, the judge handing down punishment and the court psychologist counselling angry players who invariably plead not guilty and claim victimisation.
She also has the thankless task of keeping boisterous spectators seated and quiet.
In absence of line umpires, who were replaced by Hawk-Eye technology at the 2021 Australian Open, chair umpires have become lone and easy targets for players to publicly abuse, intimidate and bully.
On day five of the 2024 AO, Denmark’s eighth seed Holger Rune smashed a microphone attached to the back of Veljovic’s chair with his racquet. Rune was on his way to losing his second-round match and received a code violation from Veljovic as a keepsake.
At last year’s Open, top seed Rafael Nadal gave Veljovic a verbal volley for not giving him enough time to towel down between points. Veljovic sat resolute in her chair and listened to Raffa’s rant, unmoved. Nadal was trailing when he threw his tantrum and then threw the match.
At the 2021 AO, Veljovic was again in charge when Australia’s Nick Kyrgios delivered another verbal volley over a malfunctioning net-cord vibration device. “It’s bulls***, look at the score,” Kyrgios complained to Veljovic. “It’s ruining the game. It’s ruining the game. You don’t understand it’s f***ing one-all in the fifth set.”
Aided and abetted by veteran offenders including Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe who turned umpire harassment into an accepted gladiatorial sport, behaviour that would not be tolerated in most workplaces is accepted in tennis as part of the cut and thrust of competition.
Other sports, especially the football codes, have taken strict measures to stop umpires and referees being questioned, harassed and abused, with players suffering sin bins, heavy fines, and match bans.
Tennis players however routinely take their frustrations out on the chair umpire who is too often judged, not on how they impose the rules but on how they defuse the situation and placate petulant players.
The sport’s world governing body, the International Tennis Federation (ITF), lauds chair umpires as the “guardians of the rules of tennis and enforce them to ensure a match is played in a spirit of fair play”.
But its failure to provide a safe, harassment-free workplace environment where umpires are respected and the rules routinely enforced may be one of the reasons contributing to a lack of gender equity among tennis officials.
According to figures supplied by the Australian Open, gender equity among on-court officials is creeping towards equality in 2024.
Of the total number of 69 on-court officials working at Melbourne Park, 46 per cent or 32 are female.
Among the 214 umpires, 41 per cent or 87 are female. In the elite gold-badge category of 21 highest-qualified chair umpires, 43 per cent or nine are female.
Even the majority of ball kids are male. Of the total of 424 ballkids this year, 46 per cent are female, 226 boys v 198 girls.
As part of their code of conduct umpires can’t talk about what happens on court. However in an ITF profile Veljovic lamented the lack of female officials in her sport.
“Normally we don’t have enough female officials,” Veljovic said. “We have 3.5 times less female officials than male. Tennis as a sport is already quite equal. If you are good enough you should be there no matter of gender.
“It can be tough, you are away from home and things are not always going in a good way. But it is a great experience, a life experience.”
Veljovic played tennis as a child and going to Wimbledon was her dream that came true when she was selected to officiate at Wimbledon for the first time in 2018.
“Whether you are a girl or a guy, if you do well and they think you are good enough to do the biggest matches like a Davis Cup final or grand slam final – it feels amazing that our sport is allowing us that,” she said.
“Are we going to determine is she good enough really because she is female – can she really do it? If we start thinking from that side, it is not fair or good.”
Veljovic earned her gold umpiring badge in 2015 and has also officiated at the 2018 Australian Open women’s singles final and the 2019 Wimbledon women’s singles and Fed Cup finals.
At the 2024 AO, she’s a regular fixture on Melbourne Park’s centre and show courts.
So is fellow gold-badge umpire Louise Azemar Engzell from Sweden, who was in the chair for last year’s AO final between Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Having earned her gold badge in 2007, Azemar has also received her fair share of player harassment which is made worse on social media when fans double down with their favourite player to personally persecute the person who is qualified to make the tough calls with derogatory slurs.
Gender equity in tennis began over 50 years ago in 1973 when the US Open became the first of the four Grand Slam tournaments to offer equal prize money to men and women, a pioneering decision that put tennis on course for an equitable future.
When Chris Evert lost to Martina Navratilova in the 1984 Wimbledon final, chair umpire, the late Georgina Clark, earned her place in tennis history becoming the first woman to officiate a women’s singles final at the All-England Club.
Fast forward to 2021 when the first woman to oversee the men’s final at Wimbledon was Croatian chair umpire Marija Čičak, who is also officiating at the 2024 AO.
Both Tennis Australia and the ITF have published strategies aimed at encouraging more female participation at all levels. The Women & Girls’ scheme run by Tennis Australia is a five-year strategy to improve access and opportunities for women and girls to achieve gender equality. Its vision is: “No limits for women and girls on and off the court.”
But according to the ITF’s Gender Equality Strategy 2019 – 2024, officials and coaches are three times more likely to be men. In an Advantage All ITF video made for International Women’s Day 2020, female legend Billie Jean King addressed the obvious issue with low female participation.
“If you can see it, you can be it,” King said. “That’s why all of us need role models growing up. It helps us to decide who we are going to be, how we’re going to be and how good we are going to be.”
But it’s hard to attract role models when their work place is populated by bullies armed with racquets who rant at them in front of thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers.
So don’t expect the culture in tennis to change until players are forced to respect their workplace and all their work mates, and stop treating umpires, and particularly female umpires, like fair game.
Louise Evans is an award-winning journalist who has worked around Australia and the world as a reporter, foreign correspondent, editor and media executive for media platforms including The Sydney Morning Herald (eight years), The Australian (11 years) and Australian Associated Press (six years in London, Beijing and Sydney).
A women sports’ pioneer, Louise was the first female sports journalist employed by The Sydney Morning Herald and the first female sports editor at The Australian. Louise went on to work at six Olympic Games, six Commonwealth Games and numerous world sporting championships and grand slam tennis events.
Louise is the Founding Editor of AAP FactCheck, the Creator of #WISPAA – Women in Sport Photo Action Awards and national touring Exhibition and the author and producer of the Passage to Pusan book, documentary and exhibition.
In 2019 she was awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) Queen’s Honour for services to the media and sport and named an Australian Financial Review Top 100 Woman of Influence for services to the arts, culture and sport.
In 2020 she won a NSW Volunteer of the Year Award plus the NSW Government Community Service Award for her women-in-sport advocacy work.