Being my first overseas international tournament, the Yonex Latvia International 2021, will always be something to cherish. The entire process of being selected, travel arrangements, travel and the actual tournament has been an experience and thanks to number of people from our association was able to get through it easily.
The process started with selection and uncertainty around the invite and the tournament itself. Thanks to David for continuously keeping me updated and connecting with the MoU of the tournament, Gunnars Lusveris, who was very helpful. Next was the detailed guidance from Doug and Ian around flight bookings, travels and Covid testing, which booked the tickets, parking, tests etc. just 2 days before travel as soon as confirmation of tournament was received. For reference, I was able to get away with the Lateral flow test before leaving UK and had to carry the vaccination status report along with completing a passenger locator form for the Latvian government. The guidelines mandated to carry the paper copy of the vaccination report and not the one you get on NHS app.
The journey started with a very early morning start (3:30 am) on Wednesday, from Peterborough to drive to Stansted, to land in Riga around 11:15 am local time was interesting including a rare chance to stretch and sit comfortably on a Ryanair flight The tournament was hosted in Jelgava, a city around 30 miles from Riga, Capital of Latvia. Although the pickup arrangements were good and a volunteer standing with a Badminton Tournament board, it took us more than 2 hrs to reach the venue as we had to drop players off at different hotels. Till the time other umpires arrived, I got the chance to do some work with Tournament Director Kristians Rozenvalds, who was kind enough to drive around Jelgava and show a few tourist spots. In the afternoon, two more overseas umpires arrived, Joke Renckens from Netherlands and Alexander Heuer from Germany, with whom we went to our Hotel accommodation. The Hotel was a little outside the city and was like a small resort with all green surroundings and a nice Café on site. We had to go back to venue for the briefing, where we were able to meet other umpires from Latvia and few other countries. There were a lot of new things to take in given the Covid situations and local government guidelines.
As always there was daily briefing 30 mins before the start every day. Thursday was the qualifying round and very busy given there were a number of last-minute withdrawals and good opportunity for a number of local players to be part of main draws. With 6 courts in action, the number of matches were high, and we were constantly on, one match after another. The line judges were predominantly school children and most of them had no experience of line judging. On a number of occasions, they would not give any signals or even incorrect signals. This resulted in lots of disputes and players’ frustration and as umpire, we had to take extra efforts to calm situations. There was quite a late finish to the final match, however everyone was up for ‘Technical discussions’ at the hotel with some local beers and finger food. With the time difference and long day, we skipped it for that day. Friday was a later than expected start with the schedule consisting of completing the qualifying rounds and formal opening ceremony of tournament. The opening was attended by Mayor of Jelgava and most of the players, it was a nice little ceremony which included a memento of the City being presented to all officials by the Mayor. There was a live telecast of the ceremony and all the matches on main court. One of the different thing was that each court had a sponsored name and instead of referring as ‘court 1, 20 seconds’, we had to call ‘court Tervete 20 seconds’ and the announcements were also made accordingly, it took a bit of getting used to. With the combination of TV telecast and Covid guidelines, there were changes to some of the regular routines like while doing the toss the players had to be on either side of courts, walking to and from courts etc. As the first round matches were to be completed, It was a long evening, however many of the matches were quite one sided. Although late I enjoyed the Technical discussion meeting with all the umpires and their stories from various tournaments.
The penultimate day was again busy with some Pre-quarters and quarter finals scheduled over two sessions. A number of close matches made the day very interesting. Another new thing for me was that two of the courts were designated for betting and had live telecast on the website and there were slightly different protocols around scheduling, walking on and off and intervals. Also, the English challenge was finished on this day with a loss in men’s doubles QF.
Event of the day was the group photograph of the officials, which, for some reason was talked about a lot!! I had to do my pre-departure Covid test, which involved filling out the form in Latvian (with Gunnar’s help) and book the Day 2 test in UK. One of the problems I personally had, being a vegetarian. was around food. It was quite a surprise to the catering lady that I did not eat any meat or even fish! However, over the number of days, she made attempts to make Salads, Pastas out of whatever was available and serve with Tabasco sauce. After couple of days, she just asked me to take anything (Juices, chocolates, crisps) from the canteen around the value of voucher!
That evening there was an official get together, which turned out to be awesome, Thanks to Gunnars for organising it. Due to the rainy weather and Covid restrictions, they had arranged this within the lawns of hotel in a covered shed with a live fire and lots of local beers and wine. Thanks to Kristian’s family and friends who bought lots of lovely home cooked food and most importantly a number of vegetarian dishes. Thankfully it was late start and a dry Sunday, so got to go out for my customary run in a new city. In the venue, the morning session was Semi-finals and afternoon session was finals. I got to do 2 Semi-finals, one of which was the all Malaysian mixed doubles match, which was the longest one I had to do across the tournament. We had a break before the Finals and another round of briefing, given the live telecast on national TV and presence of guests. For the finals it was agreed that the players’ bags would be kept on the court and they would walk along with the officials, however for the first match everyone forgot to take those to the court and when players reached, there were no kit for them to start! I was fortunate to be selected to do Women’s Singles Final, which was third in the sequence and between Ukrainian pair of Polina Buhrova Vs Mariia Stoliarenko. Polina, who is very vocal and loud in her celebrations on the court, won this in close but straight games. Post-match, along with the players, the umpires were felicitated with a goody bag and framed certificate with the details of the officiated match. It was an unforgettable experience with cameras, microphones and first final in my first international tournament!
In the evening we travelled to the capital Riga to stay in a guest house owned by one of the officials. We (Joke, Alex, tournament referee Jochen Heumos and I) decided to make most of the evening to roam around the capital including walking for a long time looking for the ‘Freedom Monument’ and a late dinner in the town square. Overall, Joke and Alex were great company, I got to learn a lot from them and had a great laugh. In the morning I had to get up early to catch a flight back to Stanstead and after a nice breakfast and short taxi ride, reached the airport well ahead of time for several document checks. The flight coming back was almost full and made us forget there was something like Covid existed! On arrival to Stansted, we were greeted with a very long line to even go through the automated passport checks and ended up spending almost 90 mins there. I think all of that can be forgotten by the exciting experience of my first oversees tournament as an Umpire representing England!