Between the Lines
Tallahasseeans rise to top ranks of tennis officiating
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Courtesy Maria Long
Maria Long, a line umpire, in the stadium instead of courtside at the U.S. Open in 2014.
Come late August, the U.S. Open will begin, featuring the best tennis players on the planet, big prize money and lots of excitement. But there are two other prime reasons you’ll want to pay attention to this top-tier tournament: Maria Long and Jake
Garner, homegrown stars in the world of tennis officiating. Long, a line umpire, and Garner, a gold-badge chair umpire, are residents of Tallahassee who have trotted the globe as officiators. Here’s a look at how the two umpires got where they are today.
Maria Long spends weeks away from home, watching players send fast-flying tennis balls speeding across courts. She focuses intently when the ball lands on thin, neatly painted white lines. And she knows the next move could be hers — determining whether the ball is “in” or “out” of bounds.
It’s not the most relaxing way to enjoy the game, but Long relishes her role as a tennis line umpire, officiating at matches that may feature college students or superstars. Regardless of who’s playing, she can count on her concentration, calm demeanor and resolute attention to detail.
And then there’s her understanding of the game.
“I really love the court — seeing the tennis and the players up close,” she said. “You see it differently than you do on TV or in the stands, because you’re on the courts.” She added, “I love tennis. Love it, love it, love it.”
While she appreciates the opportunities to get a close look at the game, she also explained, “You cannot socialize with the players. You don’t even want to have the appearance of favoritism. I don’t even know if a player recognizes me or not.”
Karen Vogter, director of the Tallahassee Tennis Challenger for the past 14 years, agreed that being a line umpire has its challenges. “You have a ball that could be going anywhere from 90 to 150 miles per hour,” she said. “You have to pay attention all the time, and not fiddle, and not close your eyes, and see that ball hit, and make an instant call of whether that ball is ‘in’ or ‘out.’ That’s hard. The concentration level has got to be tremendous.”
Long said that being a tennis player, herself, has helped her umpiring skills. “To me, to be a good tennis player, one has to concentrate and focus. That’s what I do as a tennis player. I pay attention to what’s on my court. I’m not looking around to see what you’re doing on your court or thinking about my grocery list. I’m single-minded on the tennis court.”
Long played a bit for Rickards High School but didn’t pick up the sport in earnest until after college, when she met her husband, Bill, a tennis enthusiast and surgeon. Now a proud grandmother, 66-year-old Long has been playing doubles in the South Georgia/North Florida Women’s League since 1974.
In 2000, Long heard about training for umpires for college games, and she decided to give it a shot. In the past seven years, she’s branched out. Along with officiating, Long has started training others to be line umpires, and she’s working as a chair umpire for college matches, which take place from January through March.
Long’s officiating lineup has included Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, among many other professional events.
“I really enjoyed going to Australia, and I never would have gone there if I hadn’t been working the tennis tournament,” Long said. “After I officiated, I took a week off and went to the Great Barrier Reef.”
One of her favorite events has been the Davis Cup, which gives professional tennis players a chance to play as a team, representing their country in an international competition. The Davis Cup is the men’s tournament, while the Fed Cup is the women’s.
“It was thrilling to be there,” Long said of the 2007 Davis Cup, held in Portland. “It’s kind of like the Olympics, with flags from different countries and big opening ceremonies. It was really, really exciting.”
She said that it’s one of her dreams to work the Olympics, but it’s often a “challenge” to be selected for top events. “There’s competition to get the best assignments.”
Long has seen many changes in the game, including the advance of electronic judging. She welcomes the technology, however. “I’m happy for it to be here,” she said. “To me, it’s a validation. Or if you make a mistake, it’s corrected.”
So far, she doesn’t see technology taking over. “Apparently fans like to have officials,” she said. And that works for her. “I do this for fun. And then, I’ve met so many people, and we’ve become very good friends.”
She explained that officiating also appealed to her “because I didn’t work.” She was a nurse, but she never resumed her profession once she gave birth to her son and daughter. “I was a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “Umpiring was a chance to sort of feel like I was getting out in the working world and pursuing something other than just playing tennis.”
She explains that with pay for line umpires ranging from $85 to $250 per day, depending on the event, “You wouldn’t do it for the money.”
Aside from playing tennis, Long and her husband of 42 years spend a lot of time on their farm in South Georgia. She’s an avid hunter of quail and ducks on their 400 woodsy acres of land, and she’s also a fly fisherman.
“I don’t exercise inside,” she said. “I don’t do the gym. I love to be outside." →