Game, Set, Match: Meet Chair Umpire Tom Sweeney

Tom’s career as an umpire began almost by accident. But now, about to work his seventeenth Australian Open, the Benalla-native Chair Umpire travels the world officiating Tournaments, Grand Slams and the Olympics. Here we chat to him about his rise through the ranks and the world of umpiring.

Photography by Tara Moore.

How did your career as an umpire begin?

“I started as a Line Umpire at sixteen when a small tournament came to my hometown, Benalla in Northeast Victoria. They were in need of line umpires to officiate the last few rounds of the tournament and I had a friend who was the president at the local club and he asked me if I wanted to help – he said he would buy me lunch, so I said ok! From that experience I met a lot of people who had travelled the world officiating tennis tournaments. That sounded like an amazing summer job to me at sixteen. After I finished school and headed to university I kept it going and worked my first Australian Open in 2003.”

What do you enjoy most about your job?

“There’s the challenge of being on court and pushing yourself to perform your best. Then there’s all the travel – I get to head around the world and see some places I otherwise wouldn’t of have the chance to visit and meet all these people from all these wonderful places.”

Could you talk us through how you ascended through the ranks?

“Well you start off at the local level and do junior tournaments and low level professional tournaments, then break through to the big international events and Grand Slams. Generally you’ll start as a Line Umpire, and then you may have the opportunity to become a Chair Umpire. We have international certifications that come from the International Tennis Federation. The highest qualification we have is a Gold Badge Chair Umpire, and then there is Silver, Bronze and White. At the moment I’m a Silver Badge Chair Umpire of which there are only around seventy of us in the world.”

What’s so special about the Australian Open?

“The excitement and environment they’ve created at the venue. It’s not just a sterile match being played on the court; it’s a party, there’s music, food, fashion, and a kid’s zone. It really brings people from all walks of life together to not just watch the tennis but have a good time. The iconic slogan is that it’s the Happy Slam, and I think everyone embraces that.”

What has been some of your favourite memories from the circuit?

“There are some special tournaments that stand out. The Rio Olympics was my first Olympics; having the tennis event be a part of something bigger, getting to attend the opening ceremony and meet everyone from all the different sports was very special. In the same vein, the London 2012 Paralympics was so great to see the passion and skill those athletes have. Of course the Grand Slams are always special. My favourite (which is probably biased) is the Australian Open because it feels like a big party. And then there’s Wimbledon, which is lovely for the prestige, the manicured grass, the ivy growing up the building. Also very special was last year’s Laver Cup, which is a new team event that pits Europe against the rest of the world. Having twelve of the top twenty players on court at the same time, and with Borg and McEnroe as captains, created a kind of electricity in the air.”

How would you describe the tennis community?

“The tennis community is a bit like a travelling family, especially from the officiating side of things. You’re on the road for about thirty-forty weeks of the year which isn’t always easy, so you become quite close and support and comfort each other. The negative side of that is that you spend so much time away from your family and friends and are living out of a suitcase. It’s important to use the time back home to reset and de-stress so you’re ready to go again.”

What would be your dream match to officiate?

“It would be amazing to do one of those big finals at Wimbledon Centre Court or an Olympic Gold Medal Match. Any match like that when there is so much on the line and there’s that extra level of pressure and excitement – that’s why we do it.”