On Sunday I was granted the privilege of umpiring the Women’s Singles Final at the 2016 Yonex All England Badminton Championships in Birmingham. The match, between China’s Wang Shixian and Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, was long and very intense, from both the players’ points of view and from my point of view in the top chair.
Being the umpire of a match is not a lonely position. At every top-level tournament, the umpire is accompanied onto court by another qualified umpire, who acts as the service judge, and by a number of line judges. Being a final of a World Superseries Premier event, every line was covered by the ten line judges appointed, and for added fairness, a third qualified umpire was appointed to oversee the IRS (Instant Review System) for player challenges of line calls. The ten line judges were a mix of qualified line judges from the Badminton Line Judges Association of England (BLJAofE) and visiting foreign line judges, mostly from Denmark (thanks for your support!)
An unwritten part of an umpire’s role in the chair is to act as a sort of team manager of all the officials on court. As such, therefore, we umpires are always encouraged to acknowledge every line call made by the line judges. This usually takes the form of establishing direct eye contact with the line judge who made the call, accompanied by a nod of the head and a smile, to which the line judge responds in like manner.
Another aspect of this action is that, by focusing my attention on the line judge(s) for a brief moment, while being acutely aware of the body language of the players, I am able to intercept any potential issues between a player and a line judge. For example, a player may call a close shot themselves, with the conscious or unconscious intention of influencing the line judge to call in their favour, so I am able to tell the player that they must not influence the line judge. With the IRS in operation, there is usually less aggression from players towards line judges when a close call has gone against them – they merely challenge the call and happily accept the “final word” of Hawkeye and the designated umpire who oversees the decisions. However, in the absence of IRS, it is an umpire’s duty to protect their line judges from any such aggression.
While the interaction between umpires and line judges is fairly well known, there is another bit of on-court interaction that is crucial for the effective management of a match – that between the umpire and the service judge. Umpires are strongly encouraged to make eye contact with their service judge right through a match, for a number of very important reasons, some of which are listed below:
- After every serve (especially if it was a flick or drive serve) an umpire should briefly glance at the service judge to ensure that they haven’t made a call that has gone unnoticed due to, for example, the noise of the crowd in the stadium;
- When calling the score at the end of a rally, it is a good idea to make brief eye contact with the service judge so that they can acknowledge your call and, perhaps, correct you if you made an error, such as giving the wrong side the point;
- When an on-court incident happens, such as a faint tip of a shuttle on a player’s racquet or the shuttle brushing a player’s clothing, for which you have called “Fault”, a quick glance across the court at your colleague can give you peace of mind that you made the right decision;
- When a change of shuttle is requested by a player, it is vital that eye contact is made with the service judge so that they are aware of your decision to accept (or not accept) the shuttle change;
- When a service judge makes a call against a player for a service fault, more often than not the player concerned will, with varying levels of intensity, or even aggression, approach the service judge to remonstrate with him or her, or to query what the call meant. In these cases it is imperative that, as the umpire, you are aware of what is going on and move to intercept the confrontation by calling the player to you and explaining, in the briefest terms, what the service call was. Just as the umpire needs to protect the line judges, so too must he or she protect the service judge.
Being the service judge for a singles match is typically an exercise in watching legal serve after legal serve, distributing shuttles, and working as a vital team member with the umpire of the match. Service faults are far rarer in singles matches than doubles matches, especially so for women’s singles, where the vast majority of players serve with a conventional singles forehand serve that is very difficult to serve illegally. Some umpires perceive singles service judging to be “a little boring” or “an exercise in futility”, and the temptation is to let the teamwork element slip too – they think of themselves as shuttle dispensers only!
Such should not be the case, and certainly was not the case with the All England Women’s Singles final. Early in the second game, the score pad failed and I was forced to keep score “manually” for the remainder of the match. My service judge, Allan Potter, was absolutely brilliant in his support, clearly acknowledging every single scoring announcement and giving me the confidence to know that, with scoring well covered, I could concentrate on the more important umpiring issues of that match, particularly the time wasting.
I would like to express great appreciation to the ten line judges, who all did their jobs excellently and responsively, and to the umpire on IRS duty, who ensured a prompt turnaround of challenges, but I would particularly like to commend Allan on a job brilliantly done in the service judge chair. A true example of the broader role of the service judge.