Knowing he’d have to remain in the chair for hours, Haigh decided to skip his usual dose of coffee. Around 4,000 people had turned up to watch Leander Paes and Purav Raja battle it out to keep India’s hopes alive in the Cup. For someone whose job is to maintain decorum on court, Haigh had a tough day in office. During play, spectators would shout ‘out’ whenever they thought the call should have been in India’s favour. When crowds booed the Korean players, seconds before their serve, Haigh had to say the customary ‘thank you’ to silence them. His call of ‘silence please’ would invite a Mexican wave of ‘sshhh...sshhhh’ throughout the stadium. In case of extreme offences on part of the crowd, the home team can end up losing points, so the umpire has to be careful when drawing the line.
“The numbers were not a problem. I’ve officiated matches with crowds swelling to more than 15,000, but you can never anticipate when they will shout. And during Davis Cup ties, you don’t want to spoil the spectator experience. You need to let everyone have a good time,” Haigh says.
However, the only thing that made his life easy was his chair. Fixed with a canopy and a cushion—something most umpires would consider a luxury—the chair was what the six-footer from UK enjoyed most. There was another highlight to his tiring day: a post-match ‘thank you’ from Paes—a remark umpires take as a gesture of their good performance. So, which other top-rung players had done the same? “Not many,” he laughs, before adding that the Williams sisters had thanked him after an easy doubles win at Wimbledon last year.
For chair umpires, brickbats often outnumber the bouquets. Andy Roddick, once famously quipped during a match at Melbourne, Australia, “stay in school kids, or you’ll end up being an umpire”. Haigh quickly adds, “that wasn’t me.”
Haigh has officiated three John McEnroe matches. Famous for his on-court antics, Haigh says he’s heard a lot of “you can’t call that ball in” from McEnroe. “But I’m waiting for him to say ‘you can’t be serious’ to me,” Haigh says of the phrase that became synonymous with the temperamental American.
In an average two-hour match, a chair gets barely four to six minutes of break in between games. But, the umpire is not expected to relax. Haigh admits he loses sleep over bad calls, but players “giving you trouble” is not something he takes offence to. “It’s nothing personal. If Andy Murrary shouts at you during play, it’s probably because he’s trying to get through a situation. He’s trying to win a match by letting it on you.”
Haigh grew up in York, UK, playing tennis and was introduced to officiating by a family friend when he was 16. He recalls that the recruitment training was like taking part in X-Factor—tennis balls hurling at him to check his reflexes and eyesight and a test to see if he could call points loud enough. Now, Haigh is a member of an elite 45-member umpire group with silver badges. The next promotion would see him say ‘game, set, match’ at the Gentlemen’s Singles Final at Wimbledon.
In 2008, Haigh was a linesman for the Wimbledon final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer—an epic battle that lasted four hours 48 minutes and the longest final in Wimbledon history. “In some matches, when you see the intensity, you get this feeling of ‘oh boy, this is gonna go long’. That match was so high quality that you could get dazed by the shot-making and lose track a bit,” he reminisces. He was at the venue for over 10 hours. But Haigh has clocked even longer hours.
At a tournament in Germany, he was supervising 64 matches a day and the work alone lasted 15 hours. But the perks of the job balance it out, he says. “You get to watch the best matches at the best stadiums in the world.” Another thing Haigh loves about his job is the travel. He has been to more than 20 countries and has seen everything from the Great Wall of China to the Leaning Tower of Pisa before he even turned 23. The only place left on his wish-list is South America. “Can’t wait for Rio,” he says of the 2016 Olympics.
In fact, the job requires so much globetrotting that Haigh shifted cities some months back just to be closer to a major airport. It does get lonely on the circuit but familiar faces help you get by, he says. After a Great Britain Davis Cup tie, he got one back for the umpires when he called Murray’s fashion judgment “awful.”
“He was wearing a dirty, multi-coloured jersey which was a total fashion disaster. I told him it looked like someone had puked on it. For once, I gave trouble to a player.”