Her gold tennis racquet necklace, accented with a diamond ball, only tells part of the story. A latecomer to tennis, she had never seen a tennis match. Friends Vivian Montgomery and Shannon Erickson were going to the Western Southern Open in Cincinnati and invited her to go. After seeing Agassi, Sampras and Chang play, she was hooked. In 2007, she called her first small tournament. Tennis official. Chair. Linesman. Referee. Umpire. Laura Clark is all that.
Her primary roles at tournaments include referee (the person who is officially in charge of everything at the tournament), chair (literally sits in the chair and makes calls) and linesman (stands on court and calls balls in and out). She does junior, college and professional-level tennis. Each place and each responsibility on court has its own set of pressures. “You have to have really good eyes, stamina, be able to stand on your feet a lot and you have to have really thick skin—not only thick skin, but a lot of confidence in yourself. Without that, you’re going to be eaten alive. It’s the most competitive thing I’ve ever done in my life—and the sweetest gig I’ve ever done in my life,” Laura said.
A friend in Henderson was calling tournaments, and by this time, Laura was going to Cincinnati regularly. “I saw her on the court, and I said ‘I want to do that. I want to be there.’ She told me who to talk to.” Laura began the application process: Contacted the local league coordinator. Applied on the USTA website. Read the rules book. Took a test on it. Went to school. “After you go to school, you start begging . . .” Laura said emphatically. Officials can apply online for every USTA tournament, but to break into the ranks is easier said than done.
She did it. Laura has called at Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open in New York and the Davis Cup in Chicago this past September. She aspires to being on the line at an ATP final, and a U.S. Open final. “I have no intention of slowing down at this point, because I am still growing. I’m such a newbie . . . for me, it’s what’s next,” Laura said. “I have had the support of a very, very good man who said, ‘If you want to do this, I support you wholeheartedly; I can’t imagine anything more fun,’ and you’ve got to have that.”
Her first tournament was in Evansville. She recalls it as “comical.” They used Laura’s racquets for her on-court training. “Thankfully it was a woman’s 10K. Some are still playing. They don’t know me from Adam, but I remember them and how much I screwed up that first tournament. That may be why it took me a year to get another tournament,” she said.
One official’s misfortune became Laura’s good fortune. “I broke in because a guy had a mild heart attack the week before and they needed someone local to fill in,” Laura said. The top person in charge of officials is from Newburgh, Indiana, and knew of Laura. That’s when she got the call. They knew Laura lived in proximity to Memphis. “I got home from Telluride at midnight, got up at 6 a.m. and drove to Memphis. I didn’t tell her that part. That got me some ATP grades.” Then the same guy could not go to a Florida tournament, so she was asked to fill in again. “I was not going to say no,” Laura said. That happenstance launched her career.
“We apply for every tournament. We know what the pay is going to be, what the accommodations are going to be, what the travel is going to be. We know up front and we can say no,” Laura said. The first three years, she continued begging to get into tournaments. “Every single time we step on court we are being evaluated. Those grades determine whether or not you are going to work. It’s a catch-22. You need grades to be hired. You can’t get grades unless you are hired. I begged people to let me work the days evaluators would be there, so I could get some grades,” Laura said. Tennis officials work independently, not as a team. She has worked her way up with the ATP and she knows the core people who will work those events.
Her first big-time court, big stage was in 2009 in Cincinnati—quite soon after her start. “I got lucky. A lot of it is luck. I worked my bottom off, but a lot of it is luck, too.” Typically, she’s gone about a week, but some of those are back-to-back tournaments. The crème de la crème of tournaments for her is the Western Southern Open in Cincinnati, “because it’s home, it’s where I see my friends from home,” Laura said.
Keeping her personal excitement in check can be challenging. “The only times we are seen by the people are during our mess-ups. Period. The first time you are on a big court it is terrifying, and it is the coolest, most terrifying experience in the whole world. You are shaking so hard and you’re sure they can see you shaking. As soon as the match starts, as soon as it’s time to stand up and look down at that court, the nerves go away—until you mess up or your voice goes shrill. Then it comes back,” Laura said.
How does she prepare for a tournament, to be her best that day? “I try to remove myself from everything else that’s going on. At a big tournament, there are a hundred of us. We have a big break room where we are all together, playing games all day…catching up or getting to know one another… There’s a bunch of buzz about what’s going on. For me, I play cards or whatever, but 15 minutes before it’s time for me to go on, I get away and remind myself why I’m there and what I’m doing. I have to do that to clear my head, to do my best, to not screw up a call,” Laura said.
Compensation comes in many forms. It is all in relation to the tournament itself. Some are very generous with the officials; some not so much. “I would do it for free. It’s not something you are going to make a huge amount of money doing, but . . . I love it,” she said.
Imagine standing there, knowing your call could change the momentum of the game. “Most of the time you don’t know. Then you realize it was a very crucial point and you realize someone’s not going to be happy . . . someone is, someone else is very unhappy. It doesn’t take long to get past that. It’s a call and it’s either IN or OUT. That’s my call. You tell yourself you are doing the right thing. I can only call what I see. You have to stick with it . . . face it head on. If you can’t do that in good conscience, you can’t be there. You will be eaten alive and you will be the most miserable person there,” she said.
The electronic review plays into the bigger tournaments. “Electronic review is only on ATP and WTA. The only USTA tournament with electronic review is the U.S. Open. It’s only at the highest level. The amount of money a tournament has determines how much that electronic review will be used,” Laura explained. “We love electronic review. It’s a backup for us. To the players, this is the way it is. If you want to challenge, challenge. It ends the discussion. That point’s over. It shuts everyone up. It’s a great tool for us.”
Physical challenges include heat, cold, wind, a tickle, rain delays, a cough—and bugs. At Indian Wells, for example, it could be 100 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night. Officials are layering and unlayering constantly. “It is draining to work August in Lexington, where your shoes are melting and sticking to the courts—and they really are,” she said.
Memorable moments come in many forms. Laura took a 130-mph serve at her lip in one of her first men’s tournaments in Louisville. “I had never learned the technique of move, and it busted my lip totally. That’s probably the most memorable because I was brand new.”
One of the top pros (as in top, top pros) asked her if she was guessing on her call. Typically, officials do not interact with the players. “I just nodded and he asked again, ‘Are you sure or were you guessing?’” She smiled a little and told him she was not guessing. The electronic review confirmed her call and the pro then smiled and said, “You weren’t guessing!” Her husband Phil framed a picture of that exchange, which was captured on TV and it sits on the secretary in their downtown condo.
Laura is sympathetic to the players and the pressure they are under while playing, regardless of the level. “There are no calls that are not significant, that are not important to that player, whether a qualifying match or a championship match. Every call, every match, every point, every game is crucial to someone.” She noted how important that is at the lowest level because it could impact whether that player will continue on with tennis.
The officials have on-the-job training and must re-certify every year. The rules and laws change, so they must stay up-to-date. “I learn something new every tournament I go to,” Laura said. Within a year’s time, for ATP tournaments Laura travels to Memphis; Del Ray; Indian Wells; Miami; Washington, DC; Cincinnati; Winston-Salem and the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. She loves the travel, not so much the hours. The days can be very long. The upside is the constant adrenaline rush, the challenge of making the tough calls.