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Steve Flink: Lars Graff closes one door, opens another

12/4/2012 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

When Novak Djokovic toppled Roger Federer in the championship match at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals a few weeks ago, it was the last tennis match of a long 2012 season for both of these stalwart competitors. The Serbian and the Swiss left the court in London not only debilitated after a bruising battle taken by Djokovic 7-6 (6), 7-5, yet they were also surely exhilarated as they planned their 2013 campaigns and looked forward to making more history of a large order in the years ahead. But for the man who called their match in the chair at this year’s season ending event for the top eight players in the game, the Djokovic-Federer contest was not simply another in a long line of critical assignments for an official.

For Lars Erik Magnus Graff, the Djokovic-Federer showdown was the last tennis match he would ever umpire. Here was a distinguished 52-year-old Swede who had done it all across the spectrum of an outstanding career as a chair umpire, presiding over the epic Federer-Andy Roddick 2009 Wimbledon final, sitting in the chair for the Serena Williams-Agnieszka Radwanska 2012 Wimbledon title round meeting, working five Olympic Games, officiating as an umpire at more than 600 tournaments and an astonishing total of 7000 matches.

There is more. Graff climbed the ladder steadily and persistently from the time he became a Sectional Umpire way back in 1974, attaining Regional Umpire status in 1977, establishing himself as a National Umpire in 1985, becoming an International Umpire in 1987 under the authentic banner of the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council. He was accorded a Gold Badge in 1990, and four years later he became a Full Time ATP World Tour Official. In many ways, that opened up the flood gates for significant opportunities. In time, Graff would call six ATP World Tour singles finals, 64 finals at Masters 1000 events, and over 300 combined finals at Grand Slam tournaments, the Olympic Games, ATP World Tour events, and WTA Tour events.

No wonder Graff felt so proud after calling the suspenseful and often electrifying clash between Federer and Djokovic in his last chair venture. He had gone out in style, essentially at the peak of his powers, entirely on his own terms. They call that gratifying. “It was fantastic for me,” recollects Graff. “I was so lucky. First, I umpired the final in Stockholm and it was the No. 1 seed against the No. 2 with Berdych and Tsonga. Then the next week I did the final in Basle with Del Potro beating Federer 7-6 in the final set, and after that I did the Paris final with Janowicz and Ferrer, with Ferrer winning his first Masters 1000 title and Janowicz was the superstar of the week. And then I got to do the Federer-Djokovic final in London, No. 1 against No. 2 at a very high level. It cannot get much better than that. Of course it was tough in London because it was my last match, but I knew it was the right thing to do.”

Clearly, Djokovic and Federer realized that one of the sport’s premier umpires—the very best in my view—was leaving behind a prodigious record in the chair. After the match, as he shook hands with Graff, Djokovic looked up and said, “Thank you for everything. It has been a pleasure having you as a chair umpire and I appreciate the work you have done. You have always been fair and firm and that is what we players like. Good luck in the future.” Federer was no less reverential during the presentation ceremony that followed. Players rarely mention officials, no matter what the circumstances. But Federer was not about to let the moment pass without a few words about Graff’s retirement from the chair. Addressing the crowd, Federer said, “Lars, congratulations on an amazing career. Our umpire is retiring today. Well done.”

Graff’s decision to leave the chair to pursue his new post as a Supervisor for the ATP World Tour—his official title is “Senior Manager Officiating Administration”—was not made in haste. Starting in 2010, Graff pursued his MBA from the Stockholm School of Economics, gaining his degree earlier this year. As he recalls, “I realized I had reached all of my goals in officiating and felt I would like to do something else within the tennis world. It was not a decision made from one day to another. During those two years I was doing half studying and half umpiring, cutting down my weeks on the tour from 25 to 30 weeks to maybe under 20 weeks. I also did some work during that period as a supervisor, so I felt it was time to do something else other than umpiring. I love umpiring and I am sure I could umpire for another ten years, but I did not want to miss the opportunity to do something different in tennis where I can help other umpires and use my experience to develop new umpires, which we need in tennis.”

In 2012, Graff estimates that he did eleven weeks as a chair umpire and eight weeks as a supervisor. He spent the remaining time at the ATP World Tour offices in Florida. “I was continuing as a chair umpire,” he says, “ but I thought if I am going to work in the office and as a supervisor on the tour, it would be a conflict of interest for me to keep going as a chair umpire. It is difficult for me to tell other umpires what to do if I am both an umpire and a supervisor myself. I don’t want to sit in too many chairs, which was why I decided 2012 would be my last year as a chair umpire.”

And so the question begs to be asked: when does Graff believe he was at the top of his craft as an umpire? Is he going out at his zenith? He replies, “I think my peak was in London at the ATP World Tour Finals last month. I wanted to go out on my own terms and I felt I was as good as I could be. But if you want to talk about a peak, maybe it was at Wimbledon in 2009 when I did the Federer-Roddick final. It takes such a long time to gain the experience and the credibility with the players. If players peak when they are maybe 27 or 28, chair umpires probably peak between 45 and 55. But then there can come a day when your eyesight, hearing and reflexes are going down. That is natural when you are getting older. So if I was still umpiring at 60, I don’t think I would have been as good as when I was almost 49 in that Wimbledon final. When you get older you cannot keep up as well with the speed of the game anymore. The ball is travelling faster and faster. It is impossible to say you have the same eyesight at 60 as you do at 45.”

Graff’s performance as the chair umpire for Federer and Roddick at the All England Club on July 5, 2009 was magnificent. That final lasted five tumultuous sets, across 256 minutes, through a men’s final record of 77 games, including a 16-14 final set. It required an umpire of extraordinary character, poise and competence. Graff fit that bill entirely. What does he remember most vividly about that momentous experience? “It was like a dream coming true,” he answers. “It was a goal that you have that you really didn’t think was going to be reached. Doing a Wimbledon [singles] final in the chair is the final step for any umpire to reach. After you do it, you are not considered just an umpire anymore—you are considered the guy who did the Wimbledon final. It took me to another level. A lot of players knew me before that match but suddenly after doing the Wimbledon final you could feel the players treating you with a different respect. I was a foreigner from Sweden, not from a Grand Slam country. I was from ATP. It was a feeling that now you had justified your own position.”

Asked how he coped with the immense pressure surrounding such an arduous task, Graff replied, “There was more pressure. There is the whole hype around Wimbledon, the atmosphere, the traditions there. It is not a normal tennis match. You try to convince yourself that it is, but it is not. So you have to prepare yourself in a different way. You check four times that you have a coin [in your pocket] before you go out and do the coin toss. You make sure you have been to the bathroom and you go one more time extra to make sure there is nothing left in you. When you go out there, you make sure you have an extra sweater. Doing a Wimbledon final is the ultimate pressure for an umpire.”

Since the vast majority of Graff’s work in the chair has been conducted on the ATP World Tour, it was a surprise to some longtime observers that he was selected as the umpire for the Williams-Radwanska women’s final this year. But others realized he was probably the ideal choice for that encounter. Williams is vulnerable to some extreme outbursts in her biggest matches, and it takes a strong, resolute and disciplined umpire to keep Serena in a calmer state at those times. Graff handled the situation with aplomb, and was lauded by everyone in the know for another job well done.

“This was even more of a surprise to me [to get that assignment] than the Federer-Roddick final, “he asserts. “I heard the news on Thursday, two days before the final. I had not done one ladies match the whole tournament so Wimbledon gave me a ladies doubles match the next day with Pennetta and Schiavone on Court 1. But I was happy to do the ladies singles final. The pressure is no different doing a ladies or a men’s final—either way the whole world is looking at you and you still have to make the right decisions so I think those two matches are very comparable. I was happy with my performance this year on the ladies final. It was a three set match and I thought it went well. The women play maybe a little bit different game than the men but as an umpire you have to adjust and be just as sharp. The experience of doing the men’s final in 2009 and the women’s final this year was similar.”

And yet, there was one fundamental difference. Graff’s family was there in person to see him call the women’s final in 2012, which was not the case three years earlier for the classic men’s championship match. As he explains, “When I learned this year that I got the assignment to umpire the women’s final, I called my wife at 10:30 Thursday night. I told her, ‘On Saturday I am doing the ladies final at Wimbledon. This is a [once in a] lifetime chance for you and my daughters.’ On Friday morning one of my daughters went on the internet and found plane tickets. They drove from our home in Bastad to Gothenburg and made the flight a couple of hours later. Wimbledon was very generous. They got tickets for my wife and two daughters. So they were there to see the Wimbledon final live, with me in the chair. The tickets were like second row or something. They were basically sitting right behind me. So doing the women’s final was an even bigger honor with my family there.”

All through his umpiring career, Graff demanded an awful lot from himself, striving for as close to perfection as is humanly possible. Over time, he found a way—as all leading officials do—to balance the scales between constructive and excessive self-criticism. How did he manage that complicated feat? “I think a turning point for me and the game was around 2000. Before that, there were matches on television and you got occasional tapes of your matches, but the quality of those tapes was not always good and the sound could be bad. But around 2000 the ATP had television on Centre Court for every match in Masters 1000 tournaments. The umpire was miked-up and after every match the company who provided it gave us a DVD of every match so you got a chance to watch yourself and you could hear everything you said pre-match to the players. And you would say to yourself, ‘Why did I say that? I should not have said that.’ Or you would think, ‘Why did I miss that over-rule and how could I miss that call on the left sideline?’ So television and technology made me much more critical of my own work. I watched those tapes and tried to learn from them and then we had meetings at the ATP to review them. Today is completely different for an umpire than when I started. It is a high tech world. Two minutes after I make a comment it can be on You-Tube.”

Meanwhile, Hawkeye has become a permanent fixture in the game, altering the outlooks of all umpires, affording the players a recourse for all calls that that they feel are wrong or, at least, questionable. Graff is very enthusiastic about the benefits of Hawkeye and how it has improved officiating, although he realizes that umpires have a tendency to perhaps back away from bold decision making as a result of the technology. “What has happened with Hawkeye,” he says, “is that it has made some umpires and even myself a little more passive. Sometimes you know the second a guy is challenging a call that the ball was out and you didn’t call it. That is being too passive. You should call it the way you saw it. If you see the ball out, you should call it out.”

I mentioned to Graff that it must make umpires more reluctant to overrule when they are aware that players can challenge that and potentially prove them wrong. “That is one of the toughest moments for an umpire,” he says. “But sometimes when you make a wrong overrule, if the player respects you, he knows you had guts. With Hawkeye the player can always challenge you. Without Hawkeye, they can’t challenge you which could be costly in terms of the outcome of a match. As an umpire you must have the guts to overrule and to call the ball the way you see it. You cannot sit there and just wait for players to challenge.”

Over the course of his umpiring career, Graff enlarged his reputation by honing his considerable skills regularly. It all began for him as a junior player growing up in Sweden. He was a very respectable player who had a good win over Mikael Pernfors—the 1984-85 NCAA Champion and 1986 French Open finalist—in the 14-and-unders. “In Sweden at the time I was playing in the juniors, “recalls Graff, “we had a rule that when you lost a match that you had to umpire the next match. So I just got thrown into it and by doing that I learned how to handle matches. I went to umpiring school when I was 14. I didn’t want to screw up matches with my junior players by now knowing the rules…. I didn’t plan to be an umpire; it just happened.”

By the middle of the 1980’s, in his mid-twenties, Graff was gathering steam as an official. He was calling lines at the 1984 Davis Cup Final between the host nation Sweden and the U.S. as the American “Dream Team” of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors lost to Mats Wilander and company. “That was my first taste of the real big tennis,” says Graff. The rise of this formidable tennis umpire through the 90’s and beyond was not only impressive but inevitable. Through the years, Graff became a figure of unquestionable authority as an umpire, as estimable as they come. He worked marquee matches for everyone from Pete Sampras to Andre Agassi, Gustavo Kuerten to Lleyton Hewitt, Federer to Djokovic. And we must not leave out Rafael Nadal.

Now Graff is moving full time into the supervisor’s role. His grooming in that capacity has left Graff exceedingly well prepared to serve the ATP World Tour more than capably; he is bound to excel at the new job because he knows the terrain so well. Graff has already put on his thinking cap, and is determined to do everything in his power to raise the level of officiating to an all-time high. Says Graff, “My job is to train the umpires and give them confidence in what they do. They have to be ready to go on the big stages and be prepared. I think there are different ways to prepare them. We have to start using other instruments. There are systems where they train batters in baseball to see how the ball is coming to them, what spin is on it, things like that. Tennis umpires have to be ready for the next generation of players. There are ways to train the eyes. Pilots are trained to see twenty different things at the same time.  A pilot can see light coming from the left side and suddenly see something else on the right side. The same thing has to happen with tennis umpires. We have to train them to be more even aware of everything that is happening in a tennis match.”

Graff has other notions that could also change the face of officiating. As he explains, “I am thinking about getting a voice coach who can teach the chair umpires how to use their voice in the best way. That is very important. There are some umpires who have great voices and some who don’t have such a good voice. There can be complaints from the people in the crowd and from television people that they cannot hear the chair umpire. So maybe I can bring in a voice coach so we can raise the level of the chair umpires. They are all different personalities but if you don’t have a good voice it is difficult to be a good chair umpire.”

Graff wants to make certain, too, that the umpires are entirely on top of the rules and how they should be implemented. “Every year there are rule changes,” he asserts. “This year we had this change for 2013 announced for the time [between points] violation. If the server gets a second time violation, he loses the first serve and has to hit a second serve for being late [going beyond 25 seconds]. If the receiver gets a second warning, it will be a point penalty. These rules have to be enforced by the chair umpires and they have to be aware of rule changes. I am working in Brisbane and Sydney as a supervisor so I will have meetings with the chair umpires to monitor this. Then there will be other rule changes coming up, some with the clothing relating to commercial patches that players are allowed to wear. It is important for me to make sure chair umpires interpret the rules the right way.”

Graff plans to be on the road 14 weeks as a supervisor in 2013, and will spend the rest of his time working out of the Florida ATP offices. He will be looking at other sports and the way they train their officials. “What does the NBA or NFL or NHL do with their officials? Maybe there is something we can learn from them about how they train officials. I know there is a big seminar every year in America where they bring in all of the officials from different sports. Gayle David Bradshaw [ATP Executive VP & Administrator of Regulations) ] has been there before and he told me that now that I have this role he would like me to go there. I can learn something from what they are doing in the other sports.”

Although Graff clearly has moved on and is entirely comfortable with his decision to leave the chair and take his talent and experience in a new direction, he would not be human if he did not find himself daydreaming every once in a while about the good old days when he controlled matches so efficiently and even majestically from that familiar position above the net and right beside the court. When I asked him how much he will miss being an umpire despite his unmistakable vigor about the new post, he said, “I think you realize you are going to miss that moment when you say, ‘Ready, Play.’ You know that you have to make decisions in a split second, make that call of out or let or whatever it is. If you are tired when you go on the court to umpire, as soon as the match starts you are not tired anymore because the adrenaline goes up and you have the pressure. That you will never get as a supervisor. But I am very comfortable with the decision I have made to give up being a chair umpire to become a supervisor. I am ready for this.”

Bradshaw has seen a good many top of the line umpires during his tenure at the ATP. I asked him to put in perspective what Graff brought to the table of umpiring, and what set him apart. “If I had to pick one area, it would be his presence in the chair. That has signified control. Lars just had this professional approach. Everybody can learn the mechanics of being a chair umpire, but not everybody has that presence. I would also say that one of the hardest things for some umpires is to do the same job on Court 13 as they can do on Centre Court. There have been some umpires who are high profile that are good on the big courts but not as good on the outer courts. Lars has been the same umpire no matter what the court or the match. If the younger officials could take one thing from him, I would think it would be that.”

Meanwhile, Lars Graff will surely bring the same high degree of professionalism to his role as a supervisor that he once brought to the chair. As he sums up a major professional shift in his career, Graff is unequivocal in his belief that he can make a big difference in another capacity. “As a supervisor,” he concludes, “you have to see the big picture. I have a good understanding of why things are happening in the chair because I was there myself. If a player is screaming at an umpire, I can feel empathy for the umpire and support him in a good way. After the match, maybe I can teach him how not to make the same mistake next time. My experience as a chair umpire becoming a supervisor is I think a good combination to have.  I can contribute more back to tennis by working in the ATP headquarters on major issues facing officiating and ATP than I could by continuing to work match by match as a chair umpire. I think we had our best year at ATP ever in 2012, both on court and off. This is an exciting time to be a part of tennis.”
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.