You always know when a professional tennis player is performing well. They’re defeating opponents, earning trophies and hearing cheers from the crowd.
The best players become popular and wealthy, and tennis enthusiasts know their name.
But what about tennis officials? They don’t hear any supporters cheer their success. They aren’t popular. They don’t endorse athletic shoes or equipment. And fans don’t know their name.
Usually when they’re recognized it’s because of an unpopular call or a verbal dispute with a player, like the famous court conflicts with player John McEnroe back in the 1980s.
Officials don’t get the accolades, the glory or the money that some players earn, but their job is just as difficult. A player makes several mistakes each game, but can forget about them and bounce back for a victory. But an official is expected to be perfect all the time, stay focused for every point of every game in every set of a match, and stay composed no matter what challenges they have to face.
And they do it sitting by themselves in a large chair overseeing the match, both an integral part of the contest and an invisible spectator.
But occasionally, the best officials will get some recognition for their hard work. On Dec. 7, the U.S. Tennis Association’s Florida section awarded Lutz resident Kim Bonk the Official of the Year award at its annual meeting in Orlando.
“It’s an honor and it’s very humbling,” said Bonk, who also was elected president of the Bay Area Tennis Officials Association in 2013. “After 10 years of hard work, it’s an honor to be recognized.”
Bonk’s desire to become an official stemmed partially from her late entry into the world of tennis. She didn’t start playing until her mid-30s — when many singles players would be retiring — so a lucrative professional career wasn’t in the cards. But after her husband (and avid player) Pete drew her into the game, she wanted to be part of the action.
When the opportunity came up to learn officiating, Bonk took advantage and excelled in the role. Now she works matches at the junior, collegiate and professional level, even serving as line judge at U.S. Open matches.
But regardless of the level of play, Bonk maintains the same attitude heading into the match: She wants to know everything about the rules, and almost nothing about the players.
“Unless I’m in the chair, a lot of times I don’t know who the players are,” she said. “I’ll recognize the face, but I don’t like to know their name, I don’t like to know their seeding, I don’t like to know their ranking. To me they’re just another player on the court. I try not to know anything about them or their playing history so that (the officiating) stays as a non-biased opinion.”
While Bonk remains non-biased, she realizes that those playing the game are naturally biased and emotional, and sometimes that emotion turns into anger and conflict with officials. But when coaches or players get upset, she responds calmly.
When they react unprofessionally, she doles out the appropriate punishment (such as warnings or point or game penalties). And when they later come back and apologize for their behavior — which they often do — she accepts and doesn’t take offense at the outburst.
“People can be upset at you, but it’s not necessarily that they’re upset with you,” Bonk said. “As an official, you have to be there and willing to listen to them, not take it personally and make a decision based on the rules.”
If it sounds like Bonk has an almost superhuman ability to stay calm, her background contributed to her officiating skills. As a former pharmaceutical sales representative, she learned how to interact with a wide variety of customers, read body language, and hone people and listening skills. Now, those same traits have helped her deal with players of different ages, abilities and personalities in her job as an official.
And while it’s a full-time job, being an official is not a traditional 40-hour a week position. She’ll spend many days on the road, then have some time off, then gear up for the start of different seasons. Currently she’s on break, but will have a full schedule from January until May, which will mean officiating junior, college and professional matches all in the span of just a few months.
When Bonk does get some free time, she doesn’t stray far from the court. She’s happy to grab a racket and play recreationally or in a league, and said that playing the game is an important activity for a good official because it allows them to better understand the players and their motivations. But when asked whether she would prefer a great day on the court as a player or as an official, she made a tough-but-decisive call befitting an award-winning official:
“That’s a draw,” she said with a laugh. “They’re both good.”
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