After serving her country with distinction in the U.S. Army, Allyson Houston now serves the game of tennis through officiating.
A Louisiana native, Houston first followed the sport of her youth to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and after graduating in 1995 following four years on the varsity tennis team, she served for seven-and-a-half years as an aviation officer.
While her military duties included flying as a platoon leader, working as an operations officer and going overseas to Korea to serve as an administrative officer, it was in the early 2000s, when Houston was stationed in Hawaii and looking for new opportunities in her sport, that she found officiating.
“Every time I got to a new duty station, I was always searching for people to play tennis with. Hawaii had a pretty healthy community, so I got started playing,” she said.ADVERTISEMENT
“A friend [of mine] in the Air Force—we knew [each other] through common military circles—was having an exhibition match, and they needed line umpires. So she said, ‘You know how to call lines. You played tennis. I’ll teach you a little bit more, and you can come and call lines for the exhibition match.’ That’s how it started.”
Her relatively unique location helped play a part in her early rise through the ranks as a professional line umpire, as her close proximity offered an opportunity to officiate at USTA events on the Big Island.
“Rather than flying people over there,” she recalled, “they thought to do some training for local officials, so [Hawaii] had some more people available for these professional events that we had.”
While she got her start as an official in Hawaii, the rigors of military travel brought Houston, her husband—he was also in the service and remained so after her own active duty ended—and their family to various other locales, but she was nonetheless able to keep up with umpiring over that time.
“The great thing about officiating is that, no matter where you go location-wise, there’s always somebody that knows somebody somewhere else,” she said.
“When I moved from Hawaii to Texas, the people in Hawaii were like, ‘I’m going to connect you with the person to get you started in Texas.’ They did that, and then when we left Texas, we went to New York, and Texas did the same thing.
“You have a mentor everywhere. I always had somebody that was like, ‘I’m willing to stand by you and contact the next person and let them know that you’re coming so you don’t have to start all over again. You can pick up right where you left off.’ That was a great thing. You didn’t feel like you needed to start brand new every time you set foot in a new place.”
She also quickly learned that, much like in the military, the family ties of officiating were not only limited to the United States’ borders.
“We even went to England at one point, and I thought, ‘Oh, it’ll be hard to transition from the USTA to another country,’” she said, “but actually, the same thing happened... and I jumped right into officiating in England.”
Recalling with a laugh, she continued: “I actually did the main draw of Wimbledon before I did the main draw of the US Open. Not too many U.S. officials get to do that. When I got back to the United States, people were like, ‘How did you do Wimbledon, because you’ve never been here!’ So I was known as the official that went that route.”
Currently living in Florida with her family—her husband also recently transitioned into civilian life—Houston now balances officiating with all that comes with being a mother of four.
“Officiating, it’s flexible. There are so many events out there that you can pick and choose what works for you and your schedule,” she said.
“Being that my husband has a full-time job and I have four children now, it’s really hard for me to go away for a long period of time. That’s kind of the reason why I’ve been able to keep doing tennis, because I can pick and choose what tournaments are closer to me so I don’t have to travel as far, or ones where I can get back home quicker.
“I’ve recently, within the last three years, started doing ATP Tour events, and even Fed Cup, which was great because it was only a two-day stint. I’ve found that the ITA and college matches have also been beneficial. A lot of them are for one day, or not even a day—just one match. I’ve enjoyed going to the US Open, doing Wimbledon. For me, it’s like a vacation.”
Over the past two decades of being an Army veteran and a tennis official, Houston has found that the skills she’s honed in the service and on the court have converged on both a professional and personal level.
“I’ve always enjoyed the camaraderie in the Army, getting together with other Army families. It’s similar in officiating,” she said.
“You’ve got these people from different cultures, different countries and all different walks of life. They’re retired, or they’re moms, or they’re veterans—whatever they’re doing in their lives—and you’re coming together for one common purpose: to work together, to develop communication skills and problem-solving skills amongst ourselves, by being part of a team on the tennis court.
“It was an easy transition [from the military to officiating] for that same reason: the camaraderie that’s involved. I have lifelong friends, from all over the world, who I’ve met along the way at tennis tournaments.”
And at the 2019 US Open—her seventh overall and sixth consecutive—Houston was one of the military veterans among the ranks of the tournament’s umpires who met with Vice Admiral Sean S. Buck, the 63rd Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy, at the Open’s annual officiating awards.
“I was really impressed that we were able to meet with him. Tennis is a small world, and it’s really neat to meet up with people from the military that have the same love of the game as you do,” she said.
“I always think, ‘Oh, why do I love it so much?’ My husband asks me that all the time. I just love the game, and I love what I do. If you think about the Army, it’s like, ‘Why are we here?’ To keep the peace. Just like officiating. ‘Why are we there on the tennis court?’ To make sure that we strive on the tennis court to keep a level playing field and help everybody reach their goals, whatever they may be.
“I really had to sit and think about it, but [the connection] totally made sense to me. It took me 20 years to figure that out.
“You just have to do what you love, because if you’re not having fun with what you’re doing, then it’s just not worth it.”
For more information about USTA Officiating, click here.