Lucy Grant: Queen of the court

When the world's greatest tennis tournament begins next week, all eyes will be on the stars – and the officials. David White meets umpire Lucy Grant
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The Independent Online

Roger Federer, Andy Murray and the Williams sisters aren't the only ones preparing to demonstrate their skills under the pressure of Wimbledon next week. Those keeping score at the matches will find their performances scrutinised and debated by both courtside and TV audiences.

It will be 26-year-old Lucy Grant's tenth Wimbledon as an umpire – she first arrived at the hallowed grounds at the age of 17, on her first trip away from her home in the Scottish Highlands with her parents. "I remember sitting at Inverness Airport and thinking 'what am I doing?'" She now spends up to 30 weeks a year travelling the world to umpire at Grand Slam and other tournaments. "It's a role requiring intense concentration, keen eyesight, knowledge of the rules of tennis and judgment to interpret them fairly, and it's also the most perfect job I can imagine – huge responsibilities combined with the drama and excitement of matches played out before you with fantastic skill and stamina."

Grant's road to Wimbledon started aged 16 with a letter from the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), the governing body of British tennis, offering promising young players the chance to train as line umpires. While talented enough to play at county level, she believed that umpiring was her best chance of taking part in top tournaments.

"Playing tennis helps to understand the competitive pressures faced by players," explains Grant, who first picked up a racquet aged nine while a member of her local home club at Grantown-on-Spey, to which she still belongs. She came through umpire training with flying colours – an education that covered everything from knowing when to change ends and balls, to practice sessions in making accurate calls and handling tricky players upset by decisions.

"Training is continuous, with performance assessed by experienced officials as you move from small tournaments to bigger ones," says Grant. "I was selected to umpire a junior event in Aberdeen, followed by an International Tennis Federation tournament in Edinburgh, which led to selection for Wimbledon. I loved putting umpiring theory into practice, but the prospect of doing this at the world's most famous grass court tournament was a challenge and a half."

Memories of her first day making the calls at Wimbledon, in 2000, are hazy. "I was a line umpire on Court 4 with Michael Chang – but I can't tell you who he was playing or who won. Stress and excitement at the time make details hard to recall. But I do remember being surprised at the intense interest from spectators – I hadn't realised Chang had such a huge following."

Since then, she's been on court with almost all the top 10 players, but won't be drawn on individual behaviour. She stresses that off-court contact between players and tennis officials is not encouraged. "Umpiring has to be totally objective and accurate, and officials can't allow even the suspicion that personal links with players might influence rulings."

While acknowledging that "players can be very challenging at times", she adds: "Umpires have to remember that the anger is against the role of umpire, not at them as individuals. You have to soak up anger like a sponge when in the chair. You cannot give any abuse back." But Grant believes that technology – including the controversial HawkEye, which displays computer-generated images of where a ball lands to confirm if a serve is in or out – has helped defuse on-court disputes. "HawkEye calms situations that in the past would blow up. So, in the long run, we take less abuse."

Does being a young woman make it more difficult to imposing her authority on testosterone-fuelled young male players? Grant insists that top-level players see umpires only as umpires. "They are professionals and expect the umpire to act the same, regardless of their sex," she says. "But umpires have to be strong-minded while also being open-minded. We need to believe in our calls, but be open to the possiblility that mistakes might be made."

If players are now better-behaved, the weather has become no more reliable: she endured temperatures of more than 40C at this year's Australian Open. And she welcomes the contribution Wimbledon's new Centre Court roof will make to defeating the rain. "But the other Wimbledon courts will still have to hope for dry weather," she smiles.

Grant is paid a fee decided by the organisers of each tournament. "It's possible to make a reasonable living, but you won't get rich," she says. Apart from grand slams in the United States, France and Australia, her globetrotting has included tournaments in China, India, New Zealand, Turkey, Lithuania, Germany, Spain and Portugal.

"It's a fantastic career, showing me places and offering experiences that I'd never otherwise have," she says. Her most memorable moments range from the "heart-stopping" excitement of walking on to Centre Court for the first time in 2006, watched by 15,000 spectators (and millions more on TV, of course), to coping with IIie Nastase at the Royal Albert Hall. "The umpire's seat could be raised or lowered by a button - which Nastase kept pressing when he wanted to being me down to ground level to discuss a ruling. But it was all good humoured and the spectators loved it."