Calling the shots!
She is close enough to hear the gritty skid of a tennis shoe across the clay. Close enough to hear a 100 mph serve cutting through the air. Close enough to hear the words a player utters under her breath when she misses a shot. And close enough to feel the emotion of a hard-fought point when it’s all on the line.
Meet Tamma Klassen, chief of officials for the Volvo Car Open and a veteran line umpire in the world of professional tennis. Klassen, who just wrapped up an officiating stint at the Miami Open, arrived in Charleston last week to begin her duties at the VCO, where she handles recruitment of officials, processes applications, and oversees logistics for a team of 59 umpires. The Daniel Island News spoke to Klassen by phone at her home in Holly Springs, N.C. before she left for the Holy City.
“It’s got a great vibe,” said Klassen of the Charleston tournament, emphasizing the word “great.” “It’s a beautiful setting - and line umpires love to work there…The people you’re working with are outstanding. And the crowds who come are tennis lovers and there is a lot of positive energy on that site, truly enhanced by the wonderful staff that they hire. It’s the staff that is the real nuts and bolts.”
Klassen should know. In her 35 years as a line umpire working on the professional tennis circuit, at events for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), and the International Tennis Federation (ITF), she has built an impressive resume of court experience. She’s worked at four Olympic games and dozens of Grand Slam events (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open). In the late 1990s, she was among a select group invited to participate in the very first ITF school for chiefs of officials. Varying levels of badges - bronze, silver and gold - are awarded based on an annual review of work rate and performance. Klassen has earned the gold.
In addition to her work at the VCO, she is also currently chief of officials for an ATP event in Newport, Rhode Island (Dell Technologies Hall of Fame Open) and a combined WTA/ATP tourney in Cincinnati (Western & Southern Open). Klassen also serves on the technical advisor team at Wimbledon.
“I worked as a line umpire for many years there,” she said, of her time at the London event. “And they asked me to be part of this technical advisor team. Our role is to coach and assist the line umpires in terms of their techniques to increase their success on the court. There are seven of us from all over the world. I’ll be going back this year to be part of that program.”
Aside from global travels, there are many other perks of the job when it comes to officiating, added Klassen, but there are a few in particular that stand out. First and foremost, it’s the people, she said.
“We’re a very eclectic group and we come from lots of different backgrounds and got into tennis officiating in lots of different ways. And so I think people really enjoy the folks they’re working with.”
“People who want to be officials are people who love tennis,” continued Klassen, whose husband is also a line umpire and is part of her Charleston team. “It’s very exciting to be on court with the top players in the world…And I know people feel by being able to be in a position like that they are able to give back. Giving back to the sport is something that I think every single person out there is wanting to do.”
But to do the job well requires a tremendous amount of skill and training. Klassen has been a chief of officials for almost 20 years now and has served in the role in Charleston for 12 years. She is certified as a line umpire, the person placed on various lines of the court to call a ball in or out.
“They are the ones who will be making that indication,” said Klassen of the line umpires. “And they also will be involved in calling a foot fault on a baseline for example...That person is also involved with the ball changes.”
At the Volvo Car Open, chair umpires take on a more active role.
“Clay is a unique surface in that there will be ball mark inspections,” she said. “The chair umpire sometimes will come down from the chair and go out to a mark to take a look up close to see whether or not a mark is touching a line. And that is done only on clay.”
Overall, the job of officiating is one that requires undivided attention.
“I think the most challenging part of being a line umpire is maintaining a high level of concentration throughout an entire rotation,” added Klassen.
The maximum amount of time umpires stay on the court at the VCO is one hour, she continued, and then a shift change takes place.
“You can imagine there are lots of factors, whether they be weather, or a crowd, or intensity of play...For us to be our best we have to be absolutely 100 percent focused and have 100 percent concentration on what we’re doing…That’s where you really see the difference between very experienced line umpires and new umpires – it’s that consistency of maintaining concentration.”
An off-court referee, completely separate from chair and line umpires, helps rule if needed on the laws of tennis, added Klassen. There is typically one referee designated per tournament.
“If indeed a player were to question something that occurred on court that they felt was not following the law, the rules of tennis, and they didn’t feel that the chair umpire was interpreting correctly, they could call for the referee to come and make a ruling. A player cannot call a referee on whether something was in or out.”
As those who have watched pro tennis matches know, there is not always agreement between a player and an umpire on a ball’s landing position on the court. But in keeping with the true etiquette of the sport, Klassen keeps those interactions to herself – choosing to focus instead on the thrill of the experience while serving in the job she loves.
“We have a front row seat,” she said. “There is no question about that… I have had a lot of wonderful opportunities along the way.”
Now that’s a good call indeed.