“Who run the world? Girls!”
Beyoncé once sang it, but it’s certainly true at the Fed Cup final in Prague this weekend — not just on court, but also in the chair and behind the scenes. For the first time in the event’s history, an all-female officiating team will oversee procedures and call the shots — literally — when the Czech Republic and Russia battle out the 2015 Fed Cup title. One of the women in charge is Marijana Veljovic, a silver badge umpire herself, who’ll work as the review official at the O2 Arena. The Serb’s rise through the officiating ranks has been almost meteoric over the past few seasons — a theme that’s followed her for her entire career.
“I started with tennis when I was nine years old,” she said, during the BGL BNP Paribas Luxembourg Open earlier this fall. “I did a few sports before I found tennis and fell in love with it. Let’s say, I was not really good enough to be a professional tennis player or the situation back then wasn’t really going my way, in that way. I continued playing tennis until I got to university basically, and then by chance, I got this information about the umpire school in my national association.
“So I went there, passed the school [and]…I ended up being the best student of the national school. I got some chances and opportunities to do some professional tennis matches in the chair that same year and I really enjoyed it.”
While she might have excelled in the classroom, the Serb might not have been entirely sure what she was getting herself into — at least at first.
“They kept saying ‘Oh, this is going well for you!’ and I was like, ‘What exactly?’ (laughter). I wasn’t really sure what I’m doing, if I’m doing it right [at that time]. In a way, that’s how it started. So from then it all went quite quick and here I am today — that was eight years ago.”
The 28-year-old is now a regular on the umpiring chairs around the world — a job that involves a whole lot of traveling, planning and scheduling. This season, Veljovic has been to Perth, Melbourne, Paris, London, New York, Fes, Zielona Gora, Gdynia and Quebec City among other places.
“My travel and schedule is set up at the end of every season,” she said. “We basically know what we are going to do at the start of the next season…I’m pretty much doing all the Grand Slams — that’s what I certainly will do next year. I already know I’m going to be in Australia at the start of the season — so we all are tempted to book our travels well in advance and try to be well-planned in that aspect, and then we get some weeks from WTA or ATP or Challengers.
“Sometimes it’s nice to have, let’s say, a month and a half of an off-season. This year — for me at least — the offseason won’t be as long, but I look forward to do this different stuff in officiating as well. I like the variety of it.”
Other than working her first Fed Cup final this weekend — where she joins referee Clare Wood and umpires Alison Hughes and Louise Engzell on the historic team — the variety of the job sees the Serb traveling to Brazil this “offseason.” With Rio 2016 looming, the ITF will run on-site tests next month to make sure everything will be prepared when the tennis world descends on Brazil in August next year.
“As we all know, next year we’re going to have Olympic Games in Rio which I’m personally really looking forward to,” she said. “I’m part of this group that’s going to Rio in December to do different tests of the site where tennis is going to happen: a research of everything…the facilities there, work with the line umpires and get familiar with how everything’s going to work next year, to help out a bit…with regards to being more prepared. [We’ll] see how everything’s going to develop.”
Veljovic is also a member of the ITF development group that was initiated in February of this year in order to support a group of promising umpires. Beginning next season, she will join the ITF/Grand Slam officiating team in a full-time role.
“There are a couple of development groups and I’m part of the ITF development group,” she explained. “The WTA has their own group of female bronze badges they are developing and silver badges as well. I think for me, from my perspective, and all the other girls that came through this program, it’s great to see the support we are getting from the organizations.
“Also, the guys are getting a lot of support from the ATP and it’s a great chance to learn from more experienced umpires, to get the chance to speak to them, to feel that support, to get their experience and apply it on us. All of us have different styles and we’re all different personalities but certainly, we all need to listen to more and more [to] what they have to say because they are so experienced. In a way, we develop all together as a new generation, so that’s a great thing from what I’ve experienced.”
Although just six women currently hold a gold badge from the ITF, Veljovic was one of a handful of female umpires to come to the forefront during the 2015 season — the leader, of sorts, of a diverse next generation that includes Kelly Thomson (Great Britain), Anja Vreg (Slovenia), Aurelié Tourte (France), Isabell Seefried and Miriam Bley (Germany) and Anastasia Kosheleva (Russia) — who are all at varying stages in their young officiating careers. This weekend’s officiating team carries on a history-making autumn for female umpires, as one of the talking points of the US Open was having two female umpires officiate the tournament’s singles finals — with Marija Cicak umpiring the women’s final and Eva Asderaki-Moore the men’s final. Both excelled at their job and Asderaki-Moore’s keen eye during the high-pressure environment in particular earned her rave reviews — from even the most unlikely sources.
Veljovic not only joined in on the praise for her two colleagues, but also the decision to have two women in the chair for both finals for the first time ever.
“I think it’s really great that we had two female umpires umpiring the finals of the US Open. I was very proud of them and very happy for them in that manner. I think it’s huge step forward for a female to have two ladies…umpiring these matches. Both of them did so well and I was really happy for them, so I hope it continues in the future,” Veljovic said with a smile.
While umpiring is a job for the stern and focused, that’s not always the case. Are there any fun moments or anecdotes the Serb remembers from this year or maybe her career in the chair?
“It’s very difficult to think about it; there are small things we laugh about in the chair but it doesn’t necessarily have to be something from the court,” she said. “Sometimes things happen during a match on court — a ball kid doing a funny face [or something]. We sometimes have those small things happening, that maybe other people don’t see — the details.
“I know that we all look so serious — well, maybe not everybody — but we try to do our best at all times. It’s expected from us to be very [serious], but there’s always fun involved in everything.”