Sporting Life

Up in the chair, women umpires get a historic view

Tennis umpires Marija Cicak (seated) and Eva Asderaki-Moore made history at last month's US Open, in which they umpired both the men's and women's finals - for the first time in the tournament's history.
Tennis umpires Marija Cicak (seated) and Eva Asderaki-Moore made history at last month's US Open, in which they umpired both the men's and women's finals - for the first time in the tournament's history.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

In her bedroom in Melbourne rests a picture of the happily-married Eva Asderaki-Moore surrounded by two men, neither of whom is her husband. One is Novak Djokovic, the other is Roger Federer. The photograph is of a coin toss and quite understandably takes pride of place. Because for 3hr 20min on Sept 14, she did what some sports still cannot conceive of - she ensured the men played tennis to her command.

Asderaki-Moore, 33, made history in becoming the first woman to umpire a men's US Open final and second - since Sandra de Jenken in 2007 - to officiate at a men's Grand Slam final.

A day earlier Marija Cicak, 37, umpired the women's final, making it the first time both finals were ruled by women. Other sports are free to blush in embarrassment.

Women have refereed boxing bouts... blown the whistle in the NBA and this year the NFL hired its first full-time female official. These are small steps for womankind but tennis has long stood on the moon.

Women have refereed boxing bouts - Belle Martell did so in 1940 - blown the whistle in the National Basketball Association and this year the National Football League hired its first full-time female official. These are small steps for womankind but tennis has long stood on the moon. Asderaki-Moore's feat is the equivalent of a woman refereeing a Champions League final. Remarkable, yes, but tennis will shrug.

After all, women in tennis now coach men, earn equal prize money at Slams, don't care about sexual preference and ask that men play at a centre named after one of them - the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. When it comes to real achievements beyond the symbolic, they are unrivalled.

As Cicak says: "I have never felt discriminated in any way by our (male) colleagues." Adds Asderaki-Moore: "At the end of the day we are umpires, men or women. As long as we do a good job, that's all that players care about."

In Singapore, both women sit clad in dark jackets and luminous smiles. They are lucky. To adjudicate most modern sports on this crude planet is to be booed, abused and assaulted. But tennis is at its civil best. Of course, Cicak has had Jerzy Janowicz hit her chair with a racket and Asderaki-Moore was told "you're just unattractive inside" by Serena Williams, but the sport leans towards the decorous.

Yet this is a demanding job - and a "lonely one", says Asderaki-Moore - of many requirements. First, a world-class bladder. Just ask Cicak, whose first Davis Cup match took five hours and 50-odd minutes.

Second, a little linguistic expertise in swearing is useful. Both umpires are familiar with a list of abuse in various languages but glitches in translation are not unknown. Cicak once misheard a top player's muttering and after handing her an audible obscenity violation later offered her an apology.

Third, be invisible. If an umpire is not noticed it's a good match? "It is an amazing match," says Cicak. "Less you see me, better it is."

Fourth, learn how to eat small chocolate bars slyly. Apparently they do, evidently we never see it. "If you ever catch it on video," says Cicak, "I owe you a drink."

Fifth, be ready for anything. In Dubai once a cat strolled onto Asderaki-Moore's court. On Cicak's watch a player once produced a mobile phone and had to be reminded it was not a legal tennis instrument.

Sixth, do Marcel Marceau impersonations for constantly they wink and nod at linespeople and mime their reassurance. "After every close call," says Asderaki-Moore, "we try to have eye contact and encourage them. And always at changeovers."

There is an almost cultish video of Cicak doing this on YouTube. Seen it? "Of course," they laugh.

Seventh, don't lie to a player because they hate it. Which, explains Cicak, is what happens "when you say that you're sure about a call when you're not sure about a call and the call ends up being wrong".

Eighth, once a match is done, reflect, review and read your body language. "How was my facial expression?" explains Asderaki-Moore. "Are we positive or are we too defensive?" Could she have used a different word or not talked at all?

Both women relish the travel of tennis and find novel ways to stay connected to their families. When Cicak officiates, her mother who has "no clue about tennis" switches on the TV in Zagreb and then proceeds to do her chores. "She just listens to my voice," says Cicak. If she can hear her child, it is enough.

The conversation returns to the US Open final when Asderaki-Moore was "very concentrated", made brilliant overrules, received a rare, collective hug from Twitter and had a top male player walk up to her a month later and say "good job". She had become almost famous. Cicak knows the feeling for there is a fan club devoted to her.

That night in New York, in act of friendship, Cicak sat in the photographers' pit, right across from Asderaki-Moore. Djokovic was soaring but Cicak laughs: "Eva was in the zone." It was a beautiful moment. A woman at work in a high chair looking down as men played.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2015, with the headline 'Up in the chair, women umpires get a historic view'. Print Edition | Subscribe