With rain wreaking havoc on this year’s edition of Roland Garros, much of the chatter surrounding the season’s second Grand Slam centers on the Parisian event being stuck in the past. A massive renovation of the complex has hit several snags in recent years, and the tournament currently operates not only without any retractable roofs over its courts, but with no floodlights — another wrinkle in the city’s laws says matches can’t be played at night.
However, it’s outside the white lines — but elsewhere on the court — where the tournament also seems to be frozen in time.
Much like with female players — Roland Garros was the last of the four Grand Slams to adopt equal prize money in 2007 — the French Open’s history towards its female officials is a murky one. After the reign of Sandra de Jenken and Anne Lasserre, who are the only two French women to have held a gold badge in chair umpiring, the tournament hasn’t exactly had a strong history of having women presiding over its biggest matches. Since 2004, a woman has been tasked with the ladies’ singles final at Roland Garros just twice — as Louise Engzell and Alison Hughes (then Lang) umpired the championship matches in 2011 and 2012. In that same period at the other three Grand Slams, a woman sat in the chair for 29 of 34 women’s singles finals.
Over of the first quarter of 2016, 10 different women have been tasked with overseeing a singles final on the WTA Tour. In the shadow of Eva Asderaki-Moore making history as the first woman to umpire the men’s singles final at last year’s US Open, the sport’s officials continue to creep towards equality — in terms of opportunity and sheer numbers.
Except, it seems, in France.
Aurélie Tourte, holder of a silver badge and France’s best female official, continues to shine since being thrust into the mainstream courtesy of Victoria Azarenka at last year’s US Open. Beyond the woman from Yvelines, however — there isn’t much of anyone, and that’s a problem.
It’s in Tourte’s backyard where things for women in officiating continue to lag behind — much like many other tournament infrastructures at Roland Garros.
“Now that I’m the highest-ranked French woman, I’d like to see where it leads, as there have been only two [female] French gold badge umpires in history,” Tourte said last year.
“Promoting women [in] umpiring is [as] complicated in France as it is elsewhere. You need to find your place in a man’s world.” (Tennis Translations)
Her words are backed up by the statistics, both structurally in the FFT’s ranks and annually at Roland Garros. Last winter, two French men, Renaud Lichtenstein, 35, and Pierre Bacchi, 49, were awarded their gold badges by the ITF — giving France a record number of seven umpires at the top of the game headed into the 2016 season. The seven gold badge chair umpires — all men — give the country more top officials than the other three Grand Slam nations combined.
Good for France, right?
A closer look at France’s hierarchy of the rule-makers of professional tennis reveals that just three women out of the country’s 33 hold an ITF badge of bronze or higher across refereeing, chief umpiring and chair umpiring. The horizon doesn’t look promising in terms of gender diversity either, as the overwhelming majority of France’s white badge officials — essentially the first step on the path in ITF officiating — are also men.
Out of the 237 French officials selected for this year’s Roland Garros — a figure which includes both chair umpires and line umpires — just 44 of them are women. That’s approximately 19 percent, and the number shrinks when comparing the number who hold a white, bronze, silver or gold badge from the ITF. Of the 44, just three are holders of an ITF badge: Tourte, and white badge umpires Morgane Lara and Emna Chahed. (In more recent news, however: post-selection for Roland Garros, Lara passed the ITF’s Level 3 school from April 25-28 to earn her bronze badge.)
In comparison, 19 men hold such distinction — including one who withdrew from the event.
With the WTA’s Zhang Juan and Marija Cicak not working the tournament and Engzell on maternity leave, three of the eight women currently certified with gold badges from the ITF are also absent from Roland Garros. Elsewhere in the hierarchy, Miriam Bley, Anja Vreg and Gabriela Zaloga — who, between them, have officiated seven WTA Tour finals already this year — are also absent. It might seem oddly coincidental that some of the best female officials in tennis elect to take a vacation during one of the biggest tournaments of the year, and it probably is — several of the ATP Tour’s contracted umpires also aren’t working in Paris, and the ITF has its own team of officials that are contracted for Grand Slams and its other events. However, the timing certainly lends itself to the discussion of the larger context of women officiating tennis in France.
Despite — or in spite of? — the history facing them at this tournament, the women who have been in charge on court have had a strong first week in Paris, and are certainly making their case to feature at the business end of this year’s event.
Marijana Veljovic got caught in the crossfire — *literally* — in a fiery first round men’s match between Paul-Henri Mathieu and Santiago Giraldo. The Serb, who is in her first year as a gold badge umpire, handled the tempers of both players and the partisan crowd with aplomb — somewhat fittingly, as it was at this very tournament where Tomas Berdych remarked that she had little experience with or handling on crowd control two years ago.
Italy’s Cecilia Alberti has been a rock this clay court season, and Kelly Thomson, Great Britain’s heir apparent to Hughes, got her silver badge this year. Both are working this tournament in the chair alongside the gold standard of Asderaki-Moore, Hughes, Veljovic, Mariana Alves and Julie Kjendlie — as are veterans Tamara Vrhovec and Paula Vieira Souza. Overall, the 26 international female officials selected for Roland Garros come from 21 different countries — an eclectic group which includes women from Uzbekistan, Romania and Taiwan.
While countries whose tennis tradition is in its infancy are beginning to also make strides in officiating, the lack of progress in this area in a tennis-rich nation like France is equal parts frustrating and unsurprising — and outside of its borders, it essentially falls on Tourte to fly the flag.
“You learn about yourself, you discover countries, people, ways of life [in this job],” Tourte said. “If you have a passion for it, you must grab on to it.”
The passion which Tourte speaks of can’t be taught, of course, and is very much up to the individual herself — the job is a lonely one, with weeks away from friends and family at a time just to arrive at the elite level. While the FFT has done an excellent job in investing in its officiating pathways — as evidenced by the sheer number of French officials who’ve experienced success — its role is also to recruit, train and assist women who want a future in tennis officiating. A responsibility falls squarely on the FFT’s shoulders to create opportunities for growth in this area.
Most officials would say that being inconspicuous — not being noticed in a match — is the mark of a good one, and that’s a fact. However, inconspicuous does not mean non-existent — and although it’s never been better to be a female official in tennis, it seems like France is again taking its time in moving forward in the name of progress.