Between the Lines
Tallahasseeans rise to top ranks of tennis officiating
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Tallahassee resident Jake Garner sits atop his perch with the best view in the house for a gold-badge chair umpire.
As a gold-badge tennis umpire, Jake Garner has traveled to more than 30 countries and officiated at some of the world’s top matches; but on a sunny afternoon in Tallahassee, he was back where it all started.
“The first event I ever officiated was here, at a satellite tournament,” said Garner, overlooking the courts at the Forestmeadows Parks & Athletic Center.
That event was in 1996, when Garner was just 16.
Garner said he had been an “average, at best” tennis player on the Marauders team at the Maclay School when he walked into Forestmeadows and noticed a flyer advertising a tennis certification school, with the prospect of officiating games for Florida State University and FAMU.
"I knew I was never going to be good enough to be a player at any significant level past high school,” said Garner, now 37. “To an extent, I always had an interest in officiating.”
Garner became certified when he was 15, but he wasn’t able to jump right into umpiring college games.
“Coaches were not entirely comfortable with having a 15- or 16-year-old trying to control the game,” said Garner, who was a high school sophomore at that time. “College tennis is pretty intense.”
Instead, Garner said he honed his skills working junior and adult tournaments as a roving official: someone who walks around, observing multiple courts and matches “and helps as needed.”
After graduating from high school, Garner started summer classes at Tallahassee Community College, knowing he had a chance of officiating at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, New York. In late August of 1997, just after his 18th birthday, Garner became a line umpire during qualifying rounds at the event. He doesn’t recall who was playing, but does remember being “very nervous.”
Garner was quickly captivated by the world of professional tennis and was recognized as a top rookie umpire in 1998, a year after his first trip to the U.S. Open. At that time, he was given the Jr. McGovern Award, which is only presented to a worthy younger official with great potential.
The travel and the excitement were lures that kept Garner on the court instead of in the classroom. “It was going well,” he said. “I was enjoying it, and I was traveling with a great group of friends. I first thought of it as a ‘gap year.’ I never thought it would turn into this.”
“This” is a journey that has taken Garner to the top rung of the officiating ladder, as a gold-badge chair umpire. In the tennis hierarchy, umpires progress from white badges to bronze, then to silver and finally to gold.
Confident, calm and even-tempered, Garner is one of eight gold-badge chair umpires under contract with the United States Tennis Association and one of 28 current gold-badge chair umpires in the world.
In 2012, 14 years after being honored as a junior recipient, Garner again received the John T. McGovern Award, which is also given to a chair umpire or line umpire for a lifetime of dedication to and service and expertise in tennis officiating.
Garner has officiated some of the most important tennis tournaments in the past two decades, including the 2007, 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2014 U.S. Open men’s finals; the 2011 and 2015 Australian Open men’s finals; the 2010 and 2016 Wimbledon men’s final; and the 2008 Olympic Games men’s singles final. He was also the umpire for the U.S. Open women’s doubles in 2015.
“He’s one of the very best in the world, because that’s who gets to do that,” said Vogter, in reference to Garner’s impressive list of officiated tournaments.
Garner’s success is also a boon for local tennis fans, she said. “It’s a sort of collective ‘oh my gosh, there’s Jake Garner and he’s doing the Men’s Wimbledon final,’” she said. “Everybody was buzzing about that.”
Just don’t expect Garner to join the buzz. “It’s always a goal of an official to walk off the court or field in a sport and hope they weren’t seen or heard,” he said. “We don’t like to be the center of attention. If someone says they saw me on TV, I think, ‘Uh oh, what went wrong?’”
Garner lost his anonymity in a much-publicized match between Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro in the U.S. Open in 2009.
Federer was fined $1,500 for swearing at Garner during his final defeat to Del Potro, using a profanity that was picked up by microphones on the court for the live broadcast of the match.
“These are matches being played at the highest level with the highest intensity,” said Garner, who was quick to explain that he can’t discuss specific incidents or players. “Some are going to be upset with the umpire’s decisions. … We know that the personalities will be a little different from time to time, but it doesn’t change how we officiate or the decisions we make. We’re still officiating the way we need to officiate, making decisions we need to make no matter who’s playing, no matter the match, no matter the situation.”
It all comes with the territory of sitting in that “hot seat,” overseeing all that happens in the game. Chair umpires “are the guardians of the Rules of Tennis,” according to the International Tennis Federation.
“You have to be prepared for every situation,” said Garner. Even at this stage, he still feels the pressure of umpiring the huge events with superstar players. “From the time you walk on the court 15 minutes before the match until the time the match is over, everything that happens on that court is your responsibility. … There needs to be some level of nerves leading up to any match, just to have a little of that edge to make sure you’re as sharp as possible.”
That’s the case even when it’s an epic tennis battle like the one Garner officiated between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco in 2009, when the superstars played for five hours and 14 minutes at the Australian Open Semi-Final (Nadal won).
“It was just a fantastic match,” said Garner, who finds that the atmosphere and the “feelings around the match and not necessarily the match itself,” can make an event memorable.
During the past two decades, Garner, like Long, has witnessed a lot of memorable changes in the sport itself. “Players are pushing their limits,” he said. “They’re such great athletes, and they’re so well-trained, and everything’s thought out: their diet, fitness — all that stuff.”
It all leads to “the best tennis,” he added.
Aside from its superstar champions, the sport gets more media coverage than it used to, particularly with the Tennis Channel. “It used to be you’d see tennis on weekends,” Garner said, “and now there’s live streaming” — including streaming of the Tallahassee Challenger. “True fans can follow their favorite players and events all year, and that leads to the sport being an even bigger deal.”
One downside to umpiring is the time spent away from his family: Kelley, Garner’s wife of 13 years, who works as a medical insurance company claims manager, and their two daughters, ages 9 and 4.
Garner has cut back some traveling, although he’ll be away about 20 weeks during 2017. When he’s home, he’s “a full-time, stay-at-home dad.”
He’s also an achiever — so he returned to school online, through Tallahassee Community College, and then through the University of Florida, earning a degree in business administration.
Those who haven’t seen Garner in years will also discover that there’s less of him to see: He dropped 75 pounds by walking and counting calories over an eight-month period. “I’d walk for hours, but I could never get my head around running,” he said.
After 20 years, Garner’s head is still in the world of tennis officiating. “It’s great,” he said. “It’s the type of job where nothing’s ever the same. It’s always challenging, and it always keeps you on your toes.”