Saturday, 20 August 2022

I’ve travelled the world as tennis umpire

WIMBLEDON fortnight begins on June 24 and no one is looking forward to it more than line umpire Julia Freeman,

WIMBLEDON fortnight begins on June 24 and no one is looking forward to it more than line umpire Julia Freeman, from Wargrave. SIAN GORDON spoke to her.

TENNIS helped Julia Freeman to cope after she was made a widow.

She was appointed a line umpire by the Lawn Tennis Association in 1992 but just six years later she lost her husband Anthony, a civil engineer.

He had given her his blessing when she decided to train for the role so she felt able to continue when she was left on her own.

She says: “After he died it was tennis that was such a great support to me and got me back on my feet.”

Now the 65-year-old former midwife is looking forward to her 20th Wimbledon championships having umpired at tournaments around the world, including the Olympics.

Mrs Freeman, who lives in High Street, Wargrave, has played tennis since she was a child growing up in Sussex.

She says: “I played at school and then we moved to live with my aunt and she had a grass court.”

She is a member of Wargrave Tennis Club and plays three times a week. “I am not a very good player but I enjoy it,” she says. “Sometimes spectacularly good shots come out but they are mixed with others.”

Mrs Freeman didn’t consider umpiring until she and Anthony were living in Bangkok, where she played a lot of tennis.

She recalls: “I was helping at a junior tournament and the ref came to me and said that I would enjoy umpiring. I replied very flippantly, ‘I am sure I would but I would not have a clue how to get started’.

“He gave me a number and address of an association in the UK and I wrote off and found out that you needed to be a UK resident to go on the courses.

“I did not know at that time that we were going to stay in Thailand for seven years but I did not forget and when we came back in 1992 I wrote to the association.”

Unfortunately, the courses were no longer running so she forgot about the idea. Then one day she received a letter from the All-England Club inviting her to an introductory seminar.

Mrs Freeman said: “Anthony was still going backwards and forwards to Thailand so I asked him whether he minded if I started down the road of umpiring.

“I liked what I saw so started on the training programme and had six months of going to tournaments as a trainee. I had a go on the lines and was shown how to fill in a scorecard. I found it easy to pick up as I had learned how to play tennis when I was growing up.

“I knew the rules but there was an awful lot I did not know when it got down to the nitty gritty of it. I then went on a basic residential course and from that point I could call myself an umpire.”

Mrs Freeman says umpiring has become easier as the years have passed.

“The more tournaments you go to, the more experience you get,” she says. “You always have someone watching you and are marked virtually every time you go on the court as you ascend the ladder.

“You need a combination of a good number of days and a good number of good marks to work your way up.

“The first time I umpired at a tournament I was very nervous and had to really concentrate and just do the job that I had been trained to do to the best of my ability. In those early days you get the odd overrule and you think, ‘was I right, was I wrong’ but that is all part of it. You go to lots of tournaments and try to get good marks.”

She became a junior umpire in October 1992, so was eligible for Wimbledon the following years but was not accepted until 1994.

She started as an L5 umpire and reached L1, the top grade, in 1999, meaning she could umpire on the show courts.

Since then, she has been selected to umpire at three Wimbledon finals. The first was the ladies’ final in 2001 between Venus Williams against Justine Henin.

“That was really exciting as it was my first final,” recalls Mrs Freeman. She remembers waiting at the side of the court to be called into action when Williams was 4-2 up in the second set having won the first one 6-3.

Mrs Freeman says: “I turned to one of the other umpires and said, ‘We might not even get on if she goes to 5-2 but Henin won a game when we went on so she must have appreciated the change of line team. She won the set 7-5.

“We were on for the third set and for the presentation after Venus won the match.”

Mrs Freeman also umpired at the 2005 men’s final when Roger Federer defeated Andy Roddick and in 2011 when Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal.

“I have been on court with all the top players,” she says. “Roger Federer is my favourite — he is just so lovely to watch. You do get to know the players over time and although you do not socialise with them, you see how they react to calls and to the ball boys and girls and how they react to losing a point.

“You make your own opinion of all the players and Federer just never fails in my eyes. He is courteous at all times; I have never seen him throw his racket and he has a single-handed backhand that I strive for.”

She had less fond memories of John McEnroe’s playing days. The American, who is now a TV pundit, was still playing when she first started umpiring.

Mrs Freeman recalls: “One day I remember him playing and Hawkeye was not working. I was on court and at one point a girl called the ball as she saw it and McEnroe went ballistic.

“He swore at the girl and was just losing it. He argued with the chair umpire and the line judge and I was just waiting for someone to do something about it. No one could control him and it seemed awful to be open to abuse like that.

“The ref did not seem to want to do anything as McEnroe was the great draw for the crowds, so he got away with this awful behaviour. We umpires had a discussion about it and said how badly let down we felt in not having any support.

“The next day we had Hawkeye working and McEnroe comes in again and we are all trembling in our shoes as to what he is going to do.

“There was a call that he did not like and he challenged it. The replay came up on the big screen showing that the line judge had been right. Then there was another point which also proved the line judge to be correct.

“The third time it happened, McEnroe said, ‘You are always right’ and I thought, ‘if that is the case, why does he argue?’ That showed he did it because he knew that he could get away with it if he argued strongly enough.”

Mrs Freeman has now umpired at a range of different events around the world and this year was awarded a plaque in recognition of 10 years of continuous service to the ASB Classic and Heineken Open in New Zealand, which takes place before the Australian Open each year.

She says: “When my husband died I thought that was the end of my travels.Then I discovered a tournament in Copenhagen and I got accepted to do nine days of umpiring for that.

“That opened my eyes to the fact that I could do other tournaments abroad and continue the travelling that I really loved.

“I have always wanted to do the Australian Open and have applied many times but have never been accepted. Then I discovered that I could do this pre-Australian Open tournament in Auckland, which I started going to in 2003.

“I use my money from Wimbledon to fund my travels and I really enjoy it. I shall keep applying to umpire at the Australian Open until I die but I do not hold out much hope as they want the young, good- looking thin umpires so I know my limitations.”

Despite having travelled the world, Mrs Freeman’s favourite tennis venue is still Wimbledon.

“It’s classed as the top one by all the players,” she says. “From the officiating side, I think we have a really good record and we are at a higher standard than the Australian Open.”

The one thing she doesn’t like is the umpires’ Ralph Lauren uniform which she says is not practical.

Mrs Freeman explains: “It is a woollen jacket, which is strange for a summer tournament, with long-sleeved cotton shirts with white collars which are made dirty with sun cream.

“The cream skirts and cream trousers are also difficult to keep clean but there are strict rules and regulations.”

She was back at Wimbledon for last year’s London Olympics and Paralympics just weeks after the tournament itself.

“That was strange,” she says. “We were at Wimbledon and it was the Olympics yet not in the Olympic Park, so we felt a little bit out on a limb, although I enjoyed it a great deal.

“For the Paralympics we stayed in the Olympic village. We had to walk right across the Olympic Park each day, which was amazing. We also ate in the athletes’ food hall, which was enormous with every food possible.

“We were given tickets for the opening and closing ceremonies, too, which was a tremendous privilege.

“I had no idea when I started that I would be involved in all these amazing events. As I am on my own, I am a bit more free to do more.”

Mrs Freeman plans to continue umpiring for as long as possible.

She says: “It used to be that we had to stop at the age of 70 but now they have taken away the age barrier.

“I think that means that if you are performing well and you want to carry on you can.

“Hopefully, I will do that. I have not done badly for an old codger.”

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