There is a seat in Rod Laver Arena that trumps all others by a mile – a view of the court that cannot even be compared to the comfort of the luxury boxes or the baseline perspective of President’s Reserve.
“This is umpire's chair on Centre Court - Rod Laver Arena,” Fergus Murphy says, the Irish umpire of 17 years gripping the rail that leads up to the seat that is unmatched by any other.
“Things have changed in style from last year ... it looks different, but that's all design. Let's have a look at the chair itself.”
What does an umpire’s chair actually constitute? What started out as a simple box – something for the umpire to stand on to have a better view of the court – has today morphed into a vessel of gadgetry, electronics, centralised communication and (arguably) comfort.
The chair at the Australian Open 2013 could be considered a small space ship of sorts. Its high, curved blue sides sit wide on the court just a metre away from the net, indented steps with two rails on either side guiding the umpire up to his or her perch, which during the day is guarded by a removable cover for shade.
Sitting in the chair, Murphy walks through the various gadgets. To the right is the most important one, a PDA system which handles all of the live scoring as well as a communication device that connects the umpire to tournament control should he or she need.
“We call tournament control at the beginning of a match, the end of a match,” Murphy explains.
“And, if we need anything including court supplies or the physio, or if we need to see one of the supervisors at any point.”
But for the most part, the court is under the direction of the umpire from before the time the players are called on court to the very moment “game, set and match” is called.
What has changed most dramatically for Murphy and his colleagues over the last few years is the introduction of Hawk-Eye and the aforementioned PDA system, which was introduced to the Australian Open in 2008.
The chair is filled with other tennis geekery, including the net cord machine mechanism (it beeps when there’s a let), a walkie talkie to communicate with the Hawk-Eye team upstairs and a pair of microphones, one that’s always live and a second the umpire controls.
“Everything happens instantaneously with Hawk-Eye,” Murphy says.
“Upstairs, they just listen to me through the main speaker. We also have a review official that is a qualified umpire who works with that crew so he or she will be able to tell the Hawk-Eye crew a review is in process.”
For tennis fans who follow live scores online, those scores come from the chair itself, filtered through the tournament control and live on the tournament website. It’s a new-age setup for the 24/7 sports news world.
“If you go back just five, six, seven years ago at this tournament, we used an old paper scorecard,” Murphy recalls.
Speaking of throwback, it’s Wimbledon that still uses plain, wooden chairs with nothing fancy about them. Roland Garros opts for steel chairs with wide, easy-to-access steps (for checking marks on the clay). As for the US Open?
“It’s a big monstrosity of a thing with a platform where you can stand up and sit down - it's big!” Murphy says. “You get all shapes and sizes.
“The way it works in tennis is that the chair umpire takes care of more or less the match - whatever is happening on court - all the ins and outs,” says Murphy, who is based in Dublin and travels upwards of 30 weeks a year umpiring.
“When we get a second opinion is when the player thinks we've had a rule interpretation wrong.”
What’s the weirdest thing Murphy’s been asked in the chair?
“I've had players ask me to remove ball kids because the ball kids smelled,” he recalls, laughing.
“You assume the players are telling you the truth. But I'm not down there near the ball kids, the players are – they’re the ones who can smell them.”