Tennis officials serve game mostly behind the scenes


Howard At Play

August 18, 2002|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

ONE OF the enduring beauties of tennis (and golf, for that matter, but that's for another day, maybe) is the virtual self-policing of play by players. Call it sportsmanship, or as some folks in tennis say, adherence to "the code."

Tradition requires tennis players to rely on one another in all but tournaments approaching the highest public profile and not cheat. Honest calls must be made on out-of-bounds balls, "faults" (when the server's foot touches the baseline during a serve) or "lets," as serves that tip the tape atop the net are known.

Tennis is not without those who officiate, though, and today's mini-lesson in Howard County sports is that this area has a couple of "names" in that arcane field, although they are hardly household names, even in a great many tennis-playing houses.

That's according to Columbian Bob Berlett, 58, an insurance man who has been Maryland's chief official for six of the past eight years. He has also been a certified tennis official for about two decades.

"This is really something of a hotbed for tennis officials," Berlett said after being asked to talk a little about a tennis officiating school he and his Association of Maryland Tennis Officials has coming up at the end of next month.

Indeed. Roy Van Brunt, from Oakland Mills, is a former chief umpire of tennis in the United States and, these days, head of the U.S. Tennis Association's rules committee. There's Ernie Mosby, too, chief umpire for USTA's Middle Atlantic section, another Columbian.

Maybe 15 years ago, a Columbian named Dan Oppenheim, now a Philadelphian in the financial field and out of active tennis, Berlett said, became one of the youngest officials to work a world championship event -- in Frankfurt, Germany. Atypically, Berlett recalled, Oppenheim qualified as an official while still in college -- and after having won two Howard County men's singles titles.

Tennis officials are referred to variously, by rank, as provisional, sectional, USTA and national officials. They're sometimes called referees and umpires. Some function as "rovers," moving around where tournaments are played, available to rule on matters of tennis law but not judgment plays. Some officiate higher-level matches as "solo chair" officials, but with no responsibility for line calls, for example; players still do that.

Officials also help in many events with seeding and setting up brackets in which players compete. But no tennis official wears stripes, blows a whistle or even carries a whistle or signal flag. For that matter, none has much of any visible role in the conduct of matches -- except, of course, on relatively rare occasions when, to date your writer, a Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe-type personality flares off at midcourt at the sport's most televised levels.

But attend any tennis tournament in Maryland during a year, Berlett said, except for two involving pro women ranked 150th through 250th in the world and a couple of other events, and you will not find an official perched in a high chair at midcourt and judges at the court ends calling and signaling balls in or out.

Why not? Too expensive. And even when money is involved, tennis officials get little in the way of compensation, except perhaps per diems when travel is required.

"It's hard to make a living doing this, although a few people do," Berlett said. "But mostly you do it because you love the game and you can be around it. There's always a need for more officials."

Interested in learning more? Berlett can tell you more at 410-997-3863, or drop him an e-mail at

5th place nationally

The First Baptist Crusaders from Guilford finished fifth among under-14 boys teams in the Amateur Athletic Union championship tournament in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

Fred McCathorine, coach and director of the church's extensive boys basketball program, said his team went 7-1, moving through pool play undefeated in three games. Their loss, 68-66, came in the "elite eight" to a Tennessee team that won the age-group title.

Players included Eric Pitts, Steven Brandon, Derrick Burgess, Vincent Mims, Naji Johnson, Michael Dixon, Ronald Jones, LaQuan Williams, Travis Dixon, Reginald Forbes, Devin Gaskin, and Leondre Richardson.

Call the writer at 410-964-2942 or send e-mail to

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