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Steve Flink: Lars Graff - An Umpire With Gravitas

7/20/2009 3:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Make believe for just an instant that you are one of the premier umpires in professional tennis. You show up for work one day near the end of Wimbledon---- Thursday July 2 to be precise--- and you are told to go see the Chief of Officials, who has an envelope in his hand. You had been worried that something might be wrong, but now you realize that an extraordinary piece of positive news might be sitting inside that envelope. You open it up, and, lo and behold, discover that you have been given the highest honor imaginable for any umpire. You are going to sit in the chair for the men’s singles final three days later at the preeminent tournament in all of tennis, not to mention one of the most heralded events in the world of sports.

That was precisely what happened to Sweden’s Lars Graff at the All England Club not long ago. Graff has been officiating full time for 15 years, and has established himself unequivocally on any short list of the sport’s finest men in the chair. Before he called the riveting title match between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, Graff estimates that he had umpired 5000 matches across his sterling career, including 200 finals, presiding over four Tennis Masters Cup championship matches and more than 10 men’s singles semifinals at the Grand Slam events. But even for a man of such vast experience, being in the chair for the singles final at Wimbledon is a singularly important experience, and Graff’s preparation for the assignment was as meticulous as it could be.

When we spoke several days after the match, Graff recollected, “I did a match on the Thursday I was informed I would be doing the final. And then everybody was saying what a big thing this was, the first time an ATP umpire got to do the final of Wimbledon. That had never happened before. I think the reason was that the Wimbledon referee--- Andrew Jarrett—didn’t want to have any political obligations to anybody. He just wanted to see who was performing best during the tournament and that guy would be doing the final. He took the ultimate decision to give me the final. It was a very difficult decision because he works for the ITF. He wears the Wimbledon hat. And he decided to give me--- an ATP guy--- the final. I was very grateful.”

There was good reason for that gratitude. The ITF wanted to see one of their top umpires--- Pascal Moria (who chaired the 2008 Wimbledon final), Carlos Ramos or Enric Molina--- call the title match at Wimbledon this year. Moreover, a number of other leading ATP umpires could have been considered. So Graff wanted to make certain he was as primed as the competitors for that championship battle. He would leave no stone unturned in the three days leading up to the landmark moment of his professional life.  But he had to deal with his share of distractions.

As he explains, “I did one match on Thursday and then on Friday I evaluated junior umpires. But everybody was coming up to me and congratulating me so it was an awkward situation walking around Wimbledon. The word spread unbelievably. On Saturday I didn’t even go to the site. I went to Stamford Bridge on a guided tour and that night--- the night before the final--- I had dinner with a friend but I told him there would be no alcohol at the table, not even a glass of beer. I drank only water because I would be doing the final of Wimbledon the next day.”

Graff went to bed that evening at 11PM. “That was earlier than normal,” he says, “and I slept all night very well. In the morning I took a run in the park close to my hotel for 45 minutes, had breakfast, and went to the sit early. I was there at 11AM and the match did not start until 2PM. I went straight to the referee’s office and they told me to go to the men’s locker room to try on my tuxedo, which I would need for the Champion’s dinner that night. About an hour before the match, I did an interview for Swedish television since I was the first Swedish umpire ever in a Wimbledon or even a Grand Slam final. Then I went to have lunch. I ate a tuna baguette without having anything to drink, not one drop of water. I realized this is a Wimbledon final and I would have to be able to last possibly five to six hours without leaving the chair to go to the bathroom.”

After reviewing all procedural matters with the referee, Graff was ready to proceed. As he walked out onto the hallowed Centre Court, Graff recalls, “Of course I was a little nervous. But if you are not nervous you are not going to do a good job. But I was also thinking both players must be nervous and it is a big occasion for them, too. But then we had a pre-match meeting and after that I climbed into the chair and you sit there and prepare your computer and all that stuff. Then the next thing you know you are saying,’ Two minutes [until the match commences] and people are talking and there is all this buzz. Then you get down to 30 seconds and you say, ‘Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Andy Roddick to the left of the chair won the toss and elected to serve.’ You say that and then you say, ‘Time’. The crowd is buzzing and then it starts.”

Sitting in his umpire’s chair at the side of the court, Graff could not help but feel the reverence of the crowd for both the players and the occasion. “ I said ‘First set, Andy Roddick to serve’ and a few people were talking but then I said ‘Ready’ and “Play’ and the moment I said that it is so quiet you cannot even believe it. And then you realize: this is a Wimbledon final. And as you sit in the chair, you realize if you move your body even slightly you can hear the noise clearly. You know that there are microphones everywhere around you and in front of you are hundreds of photographers. And then the match starts and I felt comfortable. I think it went very well.”

Indeed it did. I asked Graff if it ever crossed his mind that the showdown would consume a men’s final round record of 77 games and conclude with a 16-14 fifth set in favor of Federer. He replied, “No it never crossed my mind. I was just focusing on the next point. I always say as the chair umpire the most important point is the next point and the most important decision is the next decision. So I didn’t even think about how the match would go. Of course, I made a short reflection for myself when Roddick is having 6-2 in the second set tiebreaker. It comes to your mind that if he wins the tiebreaker he is up two sets to love and Federer is in trouble.

“But there were only two occasions when a big problem could have been created, where I believe my experience saved me. One was after the second set tie-break. The players went to sit down and when I said, ‘Time’, Roddick runs out to my left side and I knew that Federer is supposed to be on that side of the court. So Roddick runs out to the wrong side and with the crowd noise I can’t scream because he won’t hear me. So Roger looks at me and I say, ‘Roger, you are supposed to be on the left side but I will tell Andy as soon as the crowd noise calms down a little. So that’s what I did. I said, ‘Andy, you are on the wrong side. ’Andy had actually taken the balls so this could be a disaster if the guy stays on the wrong side. Andy heard me when I called him the second time and then he changed to the other side. If Roddick had stayed on the left side and Federer thought maybe I was wrong, the wrong guy could have started serving that set.”

Having averted that potential crisis, Graff dealt with another demanding moment. As he recalls, “Roddick hits a ball on the left far sideline and Federer is running for the shot and barely gets to it. At the same time as Roger hits the ball the linesman makes a call of out on Roddick’s shot. But Roddick wasn’t aware of the call. It was 30-0 at the time for Roddick and the crowd was going bananas so I called Roddick once and he didn’t hear me. So then I waited until it was completely quiet and I said, ‘Andy, the ball was out on the far sideline. If you want to challenge it, you can.’ He said, ‘Who called it?’ I told him the linesman had made the call and he said he didn’t want to challenge it. If I had gone ahead and called the score 30-15 without explaining to Roddick about the call, he would have said, ‘What’s going on?’ But I had not called the score yet. I wanted to be sure I told Roddick first about the call so I could give him an option to challenge. People told me later that John McEnroe said I showed very good experience to do that.”

That was absolutely the case. Graff had displayed his wisdom as an official and had reassured both players with his equanimity in the chair. When the major of all majors is on the line, and the two competitors are clashing for the third time in a Wimbledon final, and one of them is attempting to win a record breaking 15th Grand Slam championship while the other is seeking his second “Big Four” title victory and his first in six years, it is imperative for the umpire to exhibit his very best qualities under the most stressful of circumstances. Graff did just that, living up to the magnitude of the moment.

He told me, “I would like to see this match on television and I would learn a lot from doing that. But I remember at one point Roddick told me about Federer, ‘He’s [playing] too fast.’ Federer was serving at the time and Roddick is saying that Federer is too fast between points. I said, ‘Andy, if you are not ready, please put up your hand.’ Somebody said that also showed good experience on my part as an umpire in communicating. Andy accepted what I said very well. I think there was a good feeling between the players that day and I think as an umpire I was not noticed very much during the match, which I think is a good sign because the players are the center of attention.”

Much was made later over Roddick’s quandary at 6-5 in the second set tie-break. On the last of his four consecutive set points, he approached the net on Federer’s forehand. Federer drove a high trajectory forehand passing shot down the line. Roddick conceded later he had initially thought that shot might be going long before he changed his mind and missed a backhand volley he should have made. From his excellent vantage point in the chair, what did Graff think at the time?

“I thought it was going out,” he reflects. “That was the feeling I had when Federer hit that shot. Roddick took it very high on the volley. As soon as Roger had hit that shot, I thought that ball was flying out. As an umpire and if you play tennis yourself, you can feel if a guy hits a ball that seems to be going out. But sometimes you are wrong when there is a lot of topspin on the ball.”

In any case, when Graff left the court following the spirited, four hour, 16 minute final, was he able to immediately assess how skillfully he had done his job? Did he have a strong sense of the quality of his work? “Of course,” he answers. “You know when you blew something in a match. But in this match I felt very good. And the first guy who spoke to me was Andrew Jarrett. He said, ‘Congratulations Lars. Outstanding performance. Top class. I knew it when I gave you this match that you were going to do it well. This was what I expected from the beginning.’ This was very nice for me to hear. But you do feel it. It was a great match and I felt everything went well.”

In his final analysis of that match from his perspective, Graff comments, “When I got the assignment, I decided I am going to enjoy this match, and I did enjoy it. But I could never in the chair think if this guy wins he has 15 Grand Slams and if this guy wins he has a second Grand Slam title. You can never think like that in the chair but now of course the enjoyment is much bigger because everybody is talking about the match and so many people were complimentary to me about the job I did. Now the enjoyment is really there and the match is a part of tennis history.”

Now that we had covered every aspect of his work on the Wimbledon final, I wanted to know what made officiating so appealing to Graff? He is now a wily veteran of the trade at 49, but how did he get involved at the outset? He responds, “I was a junior player in Sweden. I beat Mikael Pernfors in the juniors but Pernfors went on to win the NCAA Championships and made it to the final of the French Open and he was a top ten player. I went into the military because we had compulsory military service in Sweden. That basically took care of my tennis playing days. I then went to the Naval Academy and stayed there for ten years in the Swedish military.”

Tracing his roots even further back, Graff recalls, “When I was younger my grandparents had a summer house in Bastad, Sweden. I started as a ball kid there and then became an usher at the tournament in Bastad. One year I was in charge of the flags, another year I was in charge of the programs. Then someone said that if I played tennis I could become a linesman. So they put me on a line one year in 1974. I was a linesman for many years and then they said, ‘Why don’t you try chair umpiring?’ In Sweden we had a system that if you played a junior tournament and lost a match, you had to umpire the next match. So at a national junior tournament, you could lose in the quarterfinals, go take a shower, and come back and umpire a match.”

As Graff explains, “In Sweden we had a rule that said to be a top umpire in our country at the highest level, you had to be 25-years-old. So during the 1980’s, I did two tournaments a year in Bastad and Stockholm. And then between those tournaments I was a linesman. When the famous Davis Cup Final between Sweden and the United States was played in 1984 with McEnroe and Connors in Goteborg against Wilander, Jarryd, Edberg and Sundstrom, I was on the service line. I got the highest education you can get in Sweden. Then, in 1987, the Swedish Federation recommended me to go to the M.I.P.T.C (Men’s International Pro Tennis Council) school in Paris so I went there and got my blue badge.”

Thereafter, Graff was accepted as an official at Davis Cup, and he worked at the U.S. Open and at a few other tournaments. He completed his military service and took a job as a director at the second largest club in Stockholm. The club knew he wanted to pursue his work in officiating but the contract they established with him allowed Graff only five weeks a year in that capacity. As he recalls, “I could officiate under that agreement about once a month but every year I did about 100 matches. And then, in 1994, I got a telephone call from David Cooper, the head of officials for the ATP. I had a meeting with him and [former prominent umpire] Richard Kaufman and all those guys and I was told I had been recommended to be hired by the ATP as a full time official. They asked me if I would like to do that, and I said it sounded interesting. So I talked to my wife and I said why don’t I try that for a year? Now, 15 years later, I am sitting here and still doing it.”

It was not until Graff took on that full time offer and joined the ATP as one of their top officials that he started earning a good, full-fledged living from that endeavor. But now that he has been immersed in his field for so long--- enjoying so much success along the way--- I wanted to get his impressions on how officiating has changed over the years. Graff points explicitly to the kind of men and women who now preside in the chair compared to days and decades gone by.

“When I started,” he reflects, “or even a little earlier than that, the umpire was the man with the highest position in society. So if you were a lawyer or a doctor or a professor at a University, you would umpire. If you were a normal person, you were a linesman. It is great how this has changed. Today the umpire is well trained for his job, is very experienced, and comes from a completely neutral perspective.”

Having offered that as more or less a broad overview of umpiring, Graff turns to the central topic these days in terms of fundamental changes in the recent professional game. That subject, of course, is the Hawkeye instant replay system that has become prevalent over the last four years.

“I think Hawkeye has changed the role of the umpire in a very positive way,” says Graff.” I always say I don’t want anybody to lose a tennis match because of a bad call. It is great that a player can challenge a call at match point down and if that player wins his challenge, the match goes on. Hawkeye has helped a lot in that way. It also has great entertainment value for the crowd and probably makes the commentator’s job easier because they have something else to talk about.”

Graff, however, realizes that some chair umpires are better than others at not allowing Hawkeye to become a crutch of sorts. He says, “I think the chair umpire has to be active and can’t be afraid to take decisions. There is a tendency maybe with some umpires that because of Hawkeye they don’t take as much action as they should. That is one of the criticisms from the players--- that umpires are not overruling enough because of Hawkeye. It is a very difficult thing because sometimes if you make an overrule and the overrule is wrong, you can lose your confidence. But, for me, it is easier because even if I make a mistake the players won’t worry about it since I have built up credibility with them. With a young umpire just coming in, a mistaken overrule can make the players say, ‘What are you doing up there?’”

As a prominent umpire, it would be inappropriate for Graff to weigh in definitively one way or the other on the notion of whether or not it would be preferable for the game to alter the system and allow unlimited challenges for the players. But he does offer some interesting observations. Graff says, “People say the players would abuse unlimited challenges, but if you start challenging balls that are one meter out, I think there is a system in place to avoid abuse. There is the chair umpire and the opponent [to take care of that]. I think the system we have now [with limited challenges] is good. But, as I said, I don’t want to see a player lose a match because he doesn’t have any challenges left. That would be a disaster if a ball was called out on the far sideline on match point when it is on or just inside the line, and I or another umpire could not touch it as an umpire. That would be very bad for tennis.”

It is beyond dispute that during Graff’s tenure as a top flight chair umpire, the speed of the pace of the game and how it is played has increased substantially. With players demonstrating power on a scale never seen before, does that make umpiring decidedly more difficult?

“Absolutely,” answers Graff. “I think it makes my job much tougher. The physics of the players today are getting stronger. They are getting bigger and faster and racket technology has now reached a peak. Ever since I started 15 years ago they are serving bigger and hitting the forehand and backhand bigger too. An umpire has to be very, very sharp. But it is not just the speed of the game that makes the job tougher these days. It is the pressure. If I have a conversation with a player ten minutes after a match, you can go to YouTube and probably find it. So I think there is more pressure on umpires today than there ever was. You have so many microphones and television cameras around the chair. Can you imagine if I said something I shouldn’t say to a player? There could be a lawsuit against me.”

Another officiating development in recent years has been the calling of lets by machine, rather than having a human being stationed by the side of the net making a judgment call. Graff believes that has been a very positive step for the game. “When the machine is set up in the right way,” he asserts, “it works 100 percent of the time. Players are sometimes telling me about phantom lets and I tell them there is no such thing as phantom lets. If a ball is one meter over the net, it should be impossible that the net machine beeps. I think the debate could come up one day about maybe getting rid of the let. How many times in the Wimbledon final did a ball hit the net, jump up, and allow the other player to hit a winner? I don’t think that happened the whole match.”

As Graff reflects on other aspects of officiating that have improved in his time, he unhesitatingly points to the quality of the linesmen. “They are so much better now,” he points out. “When I started, the linesmen were the local guys from the clubs. Today we have rigorous training of the linesmen. Every chair umpire in every match evaluates linesmen. I give the linesmen a grade after every match that I do, and at the end of the week I give the linesmen a grade based on accuracy and performance. Officiating has been very, very professional the last ten years and some linesmen make a living travelling from city to city and doing a good job. Lines calling has been better because of Hawkeye. It is kind of like George Orwell’s ‘1984’: somebody is looking over the linesmen, and the linesmen don’t want to make bad calls. So it is almost like a competition now between Hawkeye and the linesmen, which has improved officiating.”

As for leading umpires like Lars Graff, they self evaluate frequently. As Graff explains, “We learn all the time from different situations. Many times when I do a final, I look at the tape later at home. I do that with other close matches as well. You make some decisions that people might not have liked, or you look at clay court procedures to see if your decision was right or wrong. When we train chair umpires now, we watch a lot of videos of matches and take different situations that happened on court and ask them what they might have done differently than the person who was in the chair. Having tennis on television so much helps us a lot as umpires to constantly learn.”

In 2008, Graff was away from home on the job for no fewer than 240 days. The previous year he was out there 233 days. He officially works 25 tournaments each year. As he says good-naturedly, “My wife always jokes that the weeks I am gone are ATP weeks. You leave on a Friday and come home ten days later on Monday. Those are what my wife calls ATP weeks, which last ten days! So it adds up to a lot, but I love what I am doing.”

How much longer can Graff continue umpiring at the highest levels of the game? He replies, “As long as I am healthy I can probably go on for another ten years. Good health is very important for me and good eyesight as well. I don’t have glasses even for reading. I am very lucky that my eyes are so good. I also try to stay very physically fit and I do a lot of running. So if you take care of your body and eat right and you think like an athlete--- which you have to do--- you can do this for a long time. In the beginning when ATP started, there was a perception that umpires have to be younger, but a lot of umpires from that time burned out. If Andrew Jarrett told the All England committee that a 22-year-old would be umpiring the Wimbledon final, they would say, ‘Are you joking with us?’

“The point I am making is you can’t buy experience. When you have experience like I am fortunate to have now, you can compensate even if there is something that a younger umpire could do better. The experience that you get from doing the big matches and dealing with the big players and the tough situations is very important. We don’t have any young umpires anymore. Look at some of the top people we have.  Mohammad Lahyani is 45 and one of the best umpires in the world. Carlos Ramos is in his forties. Norm Chryst is 60. Carlos Bernardes is over 40. There is no guy who is 22. The youngest guy, Enric Molina, is probably 38 or 39.”

But life is changing in some ways for Graff at this stage of his highly successful career. In addition to umpiring, he works at some other events as an ATP supervisor. “The ATP has been grooming me to be a supervisor. I was a supervisor in Miami and I will be a supervisor in New Haven and I did some Challengers this year. I love being a chair umpire but I also think it is a good balance if you are a chair umpire and the players also know you are a supervisor. It gives you even more respect from them and it is easier for them to talk to me about other chair umpires and to discuss things that have happened in their matches. But I have to say that I love chair umpiring so much that it would be difficult to stop it.”

My hope is that it will be a good long while before Graff steps down from the chair and moves on to other aspects of officiating. He is right up there among the very best in his profession; in my book, as someone who watches the game religiously from start to finish each and every year, there is no better umpire in tennis than Graff. Wimbledon made a wise decision to allow Lars Graff the opportunity to call that historic men’s final, and Graff reaffirmed for one and all who have seen him at work across the years that he must be considered one of the ultimate professionals in his field.

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