Tennis players have a knack for spotting Frank Smith, no matter how inconspicuous he attempts to be. Maybe it's because some of them view him as an Orwellian Big Brother checking up on their court behavior. Most, however, know he's there -- at tournaments around the world -- to make sure things run smoothly.
A majority of the top men players are so convinced of this that they threatened to boycott this year's US Open unless Smitn, and his fellow "Grand Prix supervisors," were used by the tournament. (A compromise solution has since been achieved.)
Most people don't even know such supervisors exist, much less what they do. For the past two years, though, four of them have quietly traveled the men's circuit. Hired by the Men's International Professional Tennis Council, the governing body of the Grand Prix tour, they oversee the officiating, monitor player behavior, and generally ensure that proper tournament procedures are followed.
Their presence, observers tend to agree, has brought a professionalism and consistency to the game often missing in the past.
Until the supervisors were hired, the players didn't always know what to expect from one tournament to the next in terms of match scheduling, officiating , rules enforcement, and the like. Now they do, except at a few major tournaments, which still insist on hiring their own referees.
Not surprisingly, the supervisors are viewed with suspicion by the game's Old Guard.
"Some people ask me how I can do this with so little experience," Smith indicates. "What they forget, though, is that most officials work only one tournament a year, while I work one every week. In a sense, then, I already have 32 years' worth of experience, and this is present, everyday experience."
In the course of a week, he sees a dizzying number of matches, perhaps parts of 80 during a 90-match event.
An Annapolis graduate who became interested in tennis officiating while stationed in Newport, R.I., Smith has found his air traffic control background invaluable in making quick decisions.
He was hired by chief supervisor Dick Roberson, an anonymous figure outside the game, but a respected one in it. Before World Team Tennis folded, Roberson was responsible for the league's streamlined officiating crews. The same sort of mobile, six-member crews have replaced 12-member ones at Grand Prix tournaments.
The key on-court officials are the chair umpires. They are totally responsible for a match. The only time the supervisor intervenes is to offer a rules interpretation or hear a request by a player for an official's removal. In the latter situation, the supervisor must determine the competence of the official in question, not by second-guessing judgment calls but by evaluating the consistency and assurance used in making them.
"The concept of removing an umpire or linesman is one we'd like to see eradicated," Smith states. "I think with the better training officials are getting today, we're only one or two years away from it.
"Of course, the players expect the officials to start out perfect and improve as the match progresses. So right now there are problems. But eventually we want it to be like it is in baseball, where a player can argue over a called third strike, but he knows he better not argue too long."
The pro circuit has instituted a disciplinary system of point penalties and monetary fines aimed at bringing order on the court.
The point penalties are issued during play, while the fines ($250 and up for obscenities, $200 for abuse of equipment) are meted out by the supervisors afterward. This, Smith says, may be the hardest part of the job, since it often involves confronting an angry player after a defeat.
Another difficult task is to critique the officials after every tournament session, then decide which ones are best qualified to work the quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals. Such assignments were once based more on who one knew than competence.
Fortunately, qualified officials are being turned out by training schools and seminars in greater numbers. There are at present more than 100 certified Grand Prix officials circulating on the tour.
"When a good umpire and a solid group of linesmen are working a match, they should slip into a sort of anonymity," Roberson explains. "The best chair umpire is the one you don't know is there.
"Of course, this person can't be afraid to make good, loud calls. Today's players want a decision. They don't want some wishy-washy umpire telling them to play a let."
Asked why the Grand Prix circuit hasn't followed the lead of other sports and hired full-time officials, Smith replies, "It doesn't compute. If you hired 100 people at $20,000 each, plus expenses, you'd be talking $4 million. There's just not enough money in the game right now to spend that."