While sexism in tennis is an oft-debated topic, so rarely does the conversation delve into its role in the sport’s officiating. Great Britain’s Georgina Clark became the first woman to chair a Wimbledon women’s final just 30 years ago, but the number of female umpires at the highest level still pales in comparison to their male counterparts. Currently, the number of active men who hold a gold badge, the highest certification an official can hold in tennis, outnumber their female counterparts by a nearly 3:1 margin.
Alison Hughes (née Lang) of Great Britain has chaired 14 Grand Slam singles finals in her career. The recently-retired Lynn Welch worked a total of 15 Grand Slam finals in hers. Neither woman, possibly the two most decorated female officials of the past decade, has a men’s singles final on their resume. In fact, only one woman in tennis history has done so – Frenchwoman Sandra de Jenken chaired the men’s singles final at both the Australian Open and Roland Garros in 2007. Since then, Eva Asderaki chaired back-to-back men’s doubles finals at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2012 and became the first woman to chair a men’s final of any kind at the All-England Club. No other woman since de Jenken has been tasked with a singles final.
These issues are not exclusive to tennis, as women have struggled to break into the officiating ranks in all of the major American sports for decades. Since the inaugural National Football League (NFL) season in 1920, there has never been a permanent female official. Shannon Eastin was hired as a temporary non-union official during the controversial 2012 NFL referee lockout. In 1972, Bernice Gera sued to become the first female umpire in Major League Baseball (MLB). Pam Postema umpired a MLB spring training game in 1988, but no woman has ever featured on the diamond in a true MLB game. Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner were trailblazers in the National Basketball Association (NBA), as the two became the first female officials hired by the league in 1997. Kantner left the league in 2002, but Palmer became first woman to officiate an NBA playoff game on April 25, 2006 and worked as a referee in the 2014 NBA All-Star Game.
Those select few and female umpires in tennis differ in their numbers…but it sends a strong message when you can still only count the latter on two hands. While no woman since de Jenken has chaired a men’s singles final, women do often chair men’s matches on both the ATP Tour and in Grand Slams. The reaction to their presence has been mixed. When Marija Cicak spoke with The Changeover’s Ana Mitric at the Citi Open last year, she said that she’s “personally…never felt discriminated against in any case.” At the 2008 US Open, David Ferrer told Kerrilyn Cramer that “girls can’t do anything.” At the Monte Carlo Masters in 2011, Ernests Gulbis had a heated exchange with Mariana Alves over a double-bounce call, in which he asked if they could go out together afterwards. When Asderaki penalized Rafael Nadal with two time violations in his Australian Open match against Kei Nishikori earlier this year, Toni Nadal commented prior to the final that “they had a problem with a girl” and hoped that the umpire for the final would be “a bit better prepared.”
At Roland Garros on Friday, a female chair umpire found herself amidst controversy in a third round match between Daniela Hantuchova and Angelique Kerber. With Kerber leading 7-5, 3-1 and Hantuchova serving, the German hit a return that was called out on the baseline. Hantuchova returned the ball in play, and began walking towards her chair; chair umpire Louise Engzell came down to inspect the mark, and correctly overruled the ball as good. However, instead of ordering a replay, she instead incorrectly awarded the point to Kerber. Hantuchova, incensed, began to argue and call the supervisor to court. As the ruling was a matter of fact, not a matter of tennis law, the supervisor was forced to stick with Engzell’s decision.
A fixture in the chair, Engzell has had her share of dubious moments in recent memory; in the grand scheme of things, however, those moments have made up a small percentage of the matches in her career. Contracted by the ITF, she’s a regular at Grand Slams and in Fed and Davis Cup, while only working the occasional WTA event. As a result, the times she’s come under fire have all been on the biggest stages, perhaps none bigger than the 2011 Roland Garros final featuring Li Na and Francesca Schiavone.
Hantuchova went on to hold serve, but the entire exchange in itself proved inconsequential as Kerber still managed to win the match, 7-5, 6-3. By no means is this an attempt to defend, or explain away, the poor call Engzell made. The point should’ve been replayed without question; for whatever reason, she missed the fact that Hantuchova returned the overruled ball back into play. However, the personal vitriol Engzell received as a result of it is certainly misplaced.
A cursory Twitter and forum search of her name in the hours and days that followed Friday’s controversy revealed not only customary phrases like “incompetence” and “unacceptable,” but also a whole host of derogatory names for women. Multiple comments also suggested that she should “go back to raising her child,” in reference to the maternity leave she took from the tour in 2013.
Despite the firestorm, tournament officials put her back in the chair early Saturday for the men’s third round match between Donald Young and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. What began as a fairly straightforward affair turned into a five-set struggle, and late in the fifth, Engzell came down from her chair to check a close call. She hesitated for a moment in finding the mark, and immediately, her competence again was called into question by many of the same voices.
She found the right mark, and got the call right.
On Monday, she was in the chair again for the fourth round match between Kiki Bertens and Andrea Petkovic on Court Philippe Chatrier. With the controversy of Friday having somewhat died down, chatter started again about her qualifications when the official tournament website made note of the fact that she recently married tournament referee Remy Azemar, calling it “anecdote-tastic.”
Late in the third set, at a critical juncture no less, Engzell overruled a linesman on the far sideline on a Bertens winner, despite Petkovic’s insistence to the contrary. Engzell was right. In the next Bertens service game, Petkovic questioned a serve from the Dutchwoman that was called an ace; Engzell insisted that it was well inside the line, and denied Petkovic’s request to look at the mark. She was right again.
Was it redemption? Probably not. But, was Engzell’s personal life responsible for her excellent officiating performance on Monday? Certainly not. Does it then become “anecdotal” because she’s a woman? Take it another way: Would any of us had known if Mohamed El Jennati, the Moroccan umpire at the center of a similar controversy and social media firestorm earlier this year at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, was married to a female USTA referee? Would it have been deemed of consequence if he was?
Most would say that de Jenken broke the glass ceiling for women in tennis officiating nearly a decade ago. The harsh truth is, she barely cracked it.