You make the call: Officiating a great way to stay involved with the game

Nick Flentie officiating a Big 12 conference match.
Greg Allensworth officiating at the 2009 US Open.
Greg Allensworth working the baseline at the 2009 US Open.
By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com

Greg Allensworth had been playing tennis his whole life growing up in Ohio and continued through high school with visions of continuing his playing career into college.

His senior year in Canton, Ohio, however, changed all that.

Allensworth tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in one of his knees, a common but serious knee injury among athletes usually requiring surgery and months of rehabilitation.

The injury dashed Allensworth’s hopes of a collegiate tennis career, but as a lifelong fan of the sport, he was not about to give up on the game of tennis. Looking to stay involved in the game, Allensworth started making some phone calls, sending emails and visiting USTA.com to see what other options were out there. Officiating caught his eye as a possibility.

And the rest is history. By his freshman year at Ohio University in 2005, Allensworth, now 23 and a senior, had started working as a certified official, and his outstanding work has taken him from the junior and collegiate levels all the way to a linesperson at the 2009 US Open.

Allensworth is just one of a small but hopefully growing pool of college students who have discovered that officiating is a great way to be involved with tennis, be an integral part of matches, have a flexible work schedule, and earn a little extra money – all for just being part of the game they love.

“I would love to see more people my age or the college age get involved (in officiating),” Allensworth, who still plays tennis recreationally, said. “It has been the most rewarding experience that I have done in my life as far as learning, as far as being able to handle conflict resolution situations, and it has even improved my study skills within college.”

After officiating first caught his eye, he contacted the then-district chair of Northeast Ohio Tennis Association officials, Alan Steinhauser, to find out how to become an official, and the rest fell into place, with Steinhauser becoming a valuable mentor in the process.

“He (Steinhauser) really emphasized what I wanted to hear – that it was a great way to stay involved. He said I could work as much or as little as I wanted to, that it was up to me,” Allensworth remembers.

Nick Flentie, 28 and a graduate student at Kansas State University, discovered the same thing. A tennis player in high school and a huge fan of professional tennis growing up in the 1990s, Flentie had some free time during the summer four years ago working in Kansas City and, having not been around tennis as much as he would have liked at Kansas State, looked into what volunteer work he could do around the game.

He emailed some people at the USTA, saying he just wanted to be involved in the game, whether that was volunteering, working a tournament desk, or doing whatever they needed.

What was needed was an official. The director of officials in the area, Billie Owen, replied first, and Flentie has soared since then.

“She (Owen) quizzed me a little on my knowledge of the game and said she was in need of someone who could be a strong official and work a decent amount in Kansas City,” Flentie said. “I got out on court and flourished. Each level I progressed through went well, and soon enough, I think my second year of officiating, I would do a 10-year-old girls’ event one week and a $50,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Champaign, Ill., the next. I got to see all levels.”

The process of becoming an official for Flentie, Allensworth and all aspiring officials is the same and fairly straightforward. The first step is to take a written provisional exam, available online, to familiarize a person with the rulebook and broaden knowledge of the rules of the game. After the written test, an aspiring official then shadows a certified official on-court for a varying amount of matches. Once certified, officials (with the exception of officials holding a National or Professional level) then take a test and re-certify each year.

Flentie recalls mentoring with an official for five times, being right on-court and observing. After those five, he received his first officiating assignment at a University of Missouri at Kansas City men’s collegiate match. He was hooked from there.

“I remember being so impressed with the level of play. This was tennis that I had never experienced in person. I had not seen a D-I men’s match before, and I had never traveled to a pro tournament,” Flentie said of his first match.

“For me, I am young enough, and I am such a kid at heart, and it is such a passion for me that I would do this for free,” he added. “Just being out there and being courtside, I get such a kick of out it. The fact that I am actually a part of the match just takes it to a whole new level.”

Allensworth remembers his first match at a local junior tournament at the Hall of Fame Fitness Center in Canton. He thought it went well and smoothly, and from there he has only continued to progress up the ranks.

“In northeast Ohio, there are not a whole lot of officials, so you will move up to the collegiate level pretty quick. But you will not do anything that the district chair feels you are not prepared for,” he said. “I had been fortunate enough to move up from collegiate up to professional tournaments and officiate at the US Open this past year.”

USTA Director of Officials and US Open Chief Umpire, Richard Kaufman, points out that many current officials began their careers as college students and training is widely available.

"Many current certified officials began their careers in tennis officiating while in college, working professional tennis events in the summer with some given the opportunity to work the US Open as line umpires prior to their school year in the fall," Kaufman said. "On court training as a line and chair umpire is offered throughout the year by the USTA to those less experienced officials of college age. With this training many are given the opportunity to work on court at professional events."

Allensworth and Flentie both continue to officiate at all levels of tennis, from junior tournaments to the collegiate level and the USTA Pro Circuit as both lines and chair umpires. Flentie is applying for ATP and WTA Tour events – including the US Open – for the first time this year. Allensworth applied to the US Open for the first time two years ago and was accepted for the first time last year. For this year, he has been accepted to work as a linesperson at the prestigious ATP and WTA tournament in Miami in March (during his spring break) and is reapplying for the Open.

Allensworth’s original assignment at the 2009 US Open was to be a linesperson during qualifying week but after receiving some outstanding evaluations was extended into the first week of the main draw. It was also his first time ever attending the US Open, and officiating provided him with a unique place unlike most people’s first match experiences: on the court.

“In all honesty, the first time I stepped out on the court, it did not hit me I was officiating at the US Open. It did not hit me until the second day. The first day went really smooth; it just felt like a normal tournament,” he remembers.

“The second day, a (qualifying) match got really heated, a lot of spectators came, fans started getting into it. It was a lot of fun,” he added. “A veteran umpire talked to me at a changeover. He said, ‘We really need to step our game up, the pressure is on. The chair umpire is relying on us.’ At that point, I realized, ‘Wow, I am at the Open.’”

One of Flentie’s standout moments on the court came a few months ago while working at the $50,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Champaign. He was calling lines during the match of Serbian player Ilija Bozoljac, when Bozoljac thought he clipped Flentie in the face with his racquet, immediately stopping play.

“He turned around, his eyes were as big as could be, he was expecting to see blood on my face,” Flentie said of Bozoljac. “But I nodded my head, I said he was fine, he did not hit me. And he stopped, gave me a hug and announced to the crowd, ‘I thought I hit him, I would have killed him.’”

Both Allensworth and Flentie have gained great reputations as officials and are in demand for their work. On the junior and collegiate levels, the officials are recruited to work specific events by assigners at universities or a district or section chairman of officials in an area. For professional tournaments (from the Pro Circuit and up), each official submits his or her availability online for every tournament in the country and then waits for a response.

As students, of course, Allensworth and Flentie have to carefully balance their time between schoolwork, officiating and other demands on their time. But both have found college or graduate school to be the perfect time to be an official. With school breaks and several months vacation in the summer, it allows them the time to commit to tournaments that they would not be as able to do with full-time jobs.

They rarely see many officials their ages but are hoping that will change.

“As a career option, as a supplemental income option, people do not know about officiating,” Flentie said. “I do not run into anybody my age when I go out, whether it is juniors, colleges or pros events. I run into college-age fans all the time that I try to push into officiating. Your schedule will never be as open as it is in college; never again until you retire can you give six weeks a year for a hobby. The opportunities are absolutely out there.”

USTA National Manager, Tennis On Campus, Glenn Arrington, is quick to point out that college campuses are a natural fit for recruiting new umpires into the sport.

"There are hundreds of talented tennis leaders on college campuses today looking to get more involved with the sport of tennis at varying levels," Arrington said. "Officiating is a great way to break in (to the sport) while still attending college and working on your degree. There's pretty good money to be had, the hours are flexible, and it may include some really exciting travel! These are exactly the kind of opportunities that we want to place in front of our Tennis On Campus participants."

It is still a balancing act that involves frequent travel, especially to professional tournaments, but having established themselves as great officials, Allensworth and Flentie often work the same tournaments each year, making scheduling a little easier.

Flentie spends a third of his year as a roving umpire at junior events – moving from court to court and resolving any disputes – a third as a chair umpire at collegiate events and the last third as a linesperson at professional events. He regularly works for the Big 12 Conference each year during the collegiate season before spending the summer on the Pro Circuit.

Allensworth regularly works in the Big 10 Conference, as well as the USTA National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich. Like Flentie, he is a roving umpire at junior events and a chair umpire in collegiate events, and while he often does lines at professional events, he is moving up – literally and figuratively – to be a chair umpire more and more on the professional level.

“It is really hard actually to organize my college schedule with the level of tennis officiating I am doing, the professional circuits,” Allensworth said. “There are an abundance of events that are over the summer break. I do benefit having my summers off. I look for when I have breaks (when doing his schedule). Miami is over my spring break – that happens to be luck. I will go to college matches on the weekend and go from there. School does come first for me. But it is definitely doable.”

And besides being able to be an integral part of every match, the pay is great side money as students. The pay varies from tournament to tournament and, in college, from conference to conference. For working a Big 12 match, Flentie will receive three checks – one for working the match, another for travel and another per diem for how many days he has given up. He can make up to $500 for working just one Big 12 match.

Junior tournaments pay by the hour, and on the professional level, pay is per day. For professional events, Flentie has been paid as much as $100 a day and makes the most money working collegiate events. During the 2009 US Open, Allensworth made the most money he has ever made at a professional tournament but per hour says college does pay the most overall.

But neither Flentie or Allensworth – or likely any official – is doing it for the money. As cliché as it sounds, they agree it really is a love for the game.

“It has been a great way to earn extra money. Some of my friends joke, ‘Greg, you have the best summer job out of all of us,’” he said. “I travel to places, I make more money than most of them. But I do not see it as just a summer job; I see it as more of a hobby and something that I love to do. I just love being out there, in all honesty, and the people that I work with. The people you work with are great.”

Flentie could not agree more. There are few, if any, opportunities for college-age tennis fans like officiating.

“Being my age, I get such a huge kick out of these little things. Being on court, being around these people, it is so amazing. It so cool to me that there is an opportunity like that out there,” Flentie said. “None of us are in it for the money, anyway. That first email I sent out, I just wanted to donate my time. The fact that they wanted to compensate me financially was great, but I would keep doing it even if it wasn’t there.”

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