Life of Chryst, from bullets to barracking

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The Independent Online

When Norm Chryst talks, it pays to listen. The 57-year-old American, a Vietnam war veteran who took a bullet in the conflict and survived, also happens to be the most senior touring umpire in world tennis.

When Norm Chryst talks, it pays to listen. The 57-year-old American, a Vietnam war veteran who took a bullet in the conflict and survived, also happens to be the most senior touring umpire in world tennis.

He has overseen more flare-ups than a pyrotechnics expert. He has received more abuse for no good reason than every contestant on The Weakest Link combined.

Marat Safin once yelled that he was "fucked up in the head". Lleyton Hewitt has mocked his calls, telling him: "Open your mouth." Even Andre Agassi, in his hot-headed twenties, called Norm a name that does not bear repeating. Agassi was fined. Norm's reputation as a fair and unflappable official grew.

The facts of his long, distinguished career in the chair speak for themselves. He has been the umpire at the US Open final on five occasions, including for Pete Sampras's epic win over Agassi two years ago. He has officiated at the Australian Open five times and at other top-level tournaments all around the world.

This year, for the first time, he is working at Wimbledon, and it is an experience he recommends. "I'd never been here before and was just in awe," he said of his arrival at the All England Club. "This is some place that every tennis official should come and work."

He does not yet know whether he will be assigned any of this week's big matches, rating his chances as "pretty small" until he has more experience at the venue. So far this fortnight, Norm and his distinctive diamond ear stud have been seen most often at men's doubles matches, although he also officiated Mark Philippoussis' first-round win. Whatever comes his way, he will be ready.

"I get nervous, of course," said Chryst, who became a full-time umpire in 1992 after being made redundant from his computing job in a bank. "You get nervous every time, especially for big matches. The players are nervous, you are nervous. But when the shit hits the fan, you have to control things.

"You do damage control. You want to get the match going as soon as possible. You have to explain to the player what you saw, what they saw and get it moving. Typically, you allow the player to ask you twice, then it's 'Time to play, guys'.

"You have to figure out how to make that happen. It's to do with the nationalities of the players. You talk to them in different ways. You speak to an Englishman in a straightforward way and give them a reasonable answer. Tim Henman, specifically, wants a reasonable explanation. He doesn't just want 'the ball is in' or 'the ball is out'.

"You talk to a South American differently. He wants 'yes, the ball was in', 'no, the ball was out'. He doesn't want to talk about it. With the French, they want to talk, they don't want to hear you talk."

Coping with abuse requires "a pretty thick skin", but then Chryst has had to handle more than offensive words in his time. He spent six months as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam. The tour of duty ended when a bullet went through him. The injury was so serious he was in hospital for a year. He still has no feeling in his left leg below the knee. "[Umpiring] is mostly mental strength. Like in Vietnam, it is how you deal with stress."

Asked to name a player he really admires, he said John McEnroe. "He brought a lot to the game," said Norm, a man who appreciates how tough it can get out there.

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