Ana Mitrić spoke with popular chair umpire Marija Čičak, who is officiating the women’s final at the Citi Open. Ana’s work can often be found over at The Tennis Space.
Ana Mitrić: Are you aware that you have a cult following among serious tennis fans?
Marija Čičak: No, not really.
AM: There’s even a Twitter account (@Cicaking) with updates about your activities. I don’t know what the name, Marija Čičak’s wink, refers to–but perhaps you do. Did something happen at the Australian Open last year?
MČ: Yeah, well, it ended up on YouTube. It was pretty funny, I’ve got to say, even I was laughing at it.
AM: What was the incident?
MČ: It wasn’t an incident. It’s just the way I kind of communicated with the lines umpires during the match–and it was caught on camera and put on the big screen.
MČ: I started playing tennis when I was six. My uncle, actually, put me into a tennis school. I tried all the other sports–I was doing everything kind of simultaneously, but tennis was always the priority somehow. So, yeah, I used to play competitive tennis, but I quit (practicing and all that stuff) when I was 18. Then I entered uni in Zagreb, where I grew up–and studied kinesiology. When I was 15, I was asked if I could go and do a national course, just because they were missing umpires for some men’s satellites back home. And I said, “Yeah, why not?”
AM: So, 15 was your first official training?
MČ: Yes–and it was funny, because for three years, I was playing my own tournaments and doing my own things and umpiring men’s matches and satellites. It was interesting. But, yeah, then when I entered uni, I just started doing officiating more as a hobby. Even now, I consider it a hobby because it’s something I enjoy–I love it. So, I’m just lucky enough that I could actually make my hobby a job.
AM: Did you complete the university degree?
MČ: Yes, with my major being kinesiotherapy.
AM: Did you ever have a full-time job in that field?
MČ: No, I pretty much found what I want to do, then I finished my uni. So, it’s kind of the other way around from what people normally do.
AM: At what stage of your officiating career did you start traveling with the WTA?
MČ: I started to do this a bit more seriously and on a higher level about eight years ago. And since then, I’m traveling a lot. A couple of years back, I was part of a joint group between ATP, WTA, and ITF. Then, last year, I started working for WTA and some other tournaments, including Grand Slams.
AM: When did you earn the gold badge?
MČ: Last December. 
AM: Have there been other high-profile umpires from the former Yugoslavia?
MČ: Umpires, no–not that I remember. But the are some other gold-badge officials, like chief of umpires or referees, and there are quite a few silver badges. It’s a good region. I mean, good region, tennis-wise–really good region.
AM: What are the best and worst parts of your job? How many weeks of the year are you on the road?
MČ: Well, I’m on the road around 30-32 weeks a year. I love traveling, I love being around, and I love flying–though to some people, that’s incredible to hear. The downsides of the job … I don’t really see them. As I said, I love being on the road, so I’m not homesick–I don’t have that in me. So, if I had something like this–if I would miss my family or my friends–maybe that would be it. But, these days, you can so easily keep in touch with them, that–for me–it’s hard to miss them. I always have them in front of me on any of those gadgets, or I can chat with them any time–they’re always with me, so that’s why I don’t miss them that much.
AM: So, Zagreb is still home-base?
AM: Recently, we saw pictures of a bunch of officials at a WTA event dressed up for a ’70s-themed party. Since you’re always traveling as a group, do the officials get to be close friends?
MČ: Yeah, sure. Sure. It’s easier for you if you know there’s someone you can rely on–this is an important thing. And a lot of us are more flexible, more open-minded, I don’t know how to define this. But a lot of people just have more understanding for other people, and we help each other a lot when someone is going through a tough time–or even if there’s something really good, then everyone is just enjoying it together. You have people at home, but then you have people in officiating and it makes a really good combination, I would say.
AM: So, when you’re done with the day’s work and you all go back to the hotel, do you have some sort of agreement, like, “Let’s not talk about on court; let’s leave the work behind,” or do you still do shop-talk?
MČ: Well, we try not to–because from the time we get here ’til the time we go back to the hotel or wherever we stay, we kind of work. So, on off-time, we try not to talk about tennis at all or any of the things included in tennis. We try to stay away from it–just like any other job, I would say.
AM: Yeah, the difference is that other people aren’t necessarily traveling and staying with their coworkers; they can go home, and get away from those people.
AM: Has being a woman in the sports world–or a female umpire sometimes officiating men’s matches–ever been a challenge? What are the key differences for you between officiating men’s and women’s matches?
MČ: For me, every match in general is a challenge because I just want to see how far I can go with myself. So, if players are female or male, to me it doesn’t make much of a difference because I want to do the job the best that I can. So, I don’t see it that way. I can’t say for their side; but to me, I set it up that way–it doesn’t matter which match I do.
AM: It doesn’t seem like there are that many women who do the men’s matches.
MČ: Well, there aren’t that many women to start with, so you mostly see the same women on and on and on. I can’t say a number, but I would say that actually most of us who are golds–or even some silvers–do men’s and women’s matches equally.
AM: So, growing up, when you were playing, through university and a little later, you never felt there was discrimination against you because you were a woman in a sports world?
MČ: Me, personally, I’ve never felt that way. I’ve never felt discriminated against in any case. I was always surrounded by good guys–and some guys actually helped me a lot. And I know that a lot of guys I can ask for help and I know that they will be there. I’ve never felt treated any differently from any other officials. Personally, I think a lot of things start with us. The way you present yourself affects how people will see you. So, that’s probably why I never had any problems, because that’s how I go out. That’s just how I am–and I’m not trying to be any different.
AM: How do umpires get assigned to matches when the order of play comes out–specifically, how much do experience and language play in these decisions?
MČ: Language of the players doesn’t have a lot to do with it–it’s more the country of the players and where you’re coming from. You’re not going to see, in singles especially (unless both players are from the same country), that the official is from the same country. I’m not going to say it’s not possible, but it’s unlikely to happen. They try to avoid it, especially if there are a lot of officials, because why put extra pressure on someone? Because it is an extra thing, coming from the same country. But, if you happen to speak several languages, it’s easier for you, because then you can cover a lot of angles. [In addition to her native tongue and English, Čičak is trying to learn Spanish. She says it’s both “easy and hard to do it in the road: yes, you have the chance to talk to people, but then you don’t have the chance to cover the basics and grammar. So, I’m going kind of slowly with that one. But it’s good to know an extra language.”]
About show courts and big matches, yes, everything goes with experience. But eventually, you have to be thrown into the fire. So, when the supervisors and people in charge of scheduling and assignments think that somebody is ready to get a big match, they will give you a big match.
AM: If there is such a thing, what’s the biggest match you’ve officiated? Is there anything that stands out in your mind as big or memorable?
MČ: Nothing that really stands in my mind so that I would say it’s an extra thing. Yes, it’s an extra thing for an umpire to officiate semifinals at Wimbledon. But that’s, again, at the end, if you do everything good, then you say, “Yes, I’ve done it.” It’s kind of like a cherry on the top of a cake. I’m going back to what I already said: for me, every match is the same and that’s how I treat every match. So, for me, Court 18 is the same as a stadium.
AM: What’s interesting is that I feel like from the fans’ perspective, they come to know certain umpires partly through exposure (obviously, if you watch a lot of tennis, you notice the umpires), but then also through big matches–by which I mean a historic match, a memorable match. To use one of the most obvious examples, Isner-Mahut at Wimbledon. I think that was Lahyani, right?
AM: So, everybody knows that. Or if there’s a dispute with a player or some kind of drama on court, it goes up on YouTube. Those are some of the ways on the spectating side that people are aware of the big-match status, but it makes sense that you’re saying it doesn’t really matter.
What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue officiating as a career?
MČ: Well, first of all, to be in it, you have to love it. There is no other way. Then, be persistent and really, really stubborn, and be flexible, and learn. Learn, learn along the way.
AM: When you say “stubborn,” what do you mean? Because some people might think that stubborn and flexible are in tension.
MČ: No, no, no–like stubborn in the sense of don’t give up. Don’t give up once you have a bad day or bad match–because those kinds of things happen and it’s what makes you stronger. It’s the same as if a tennis player were to give up after the first tough match.
AM: So, when you say a tough match or a bad match, what is that?
MČ: It’s what you, yourself don’t feel good with, even though there was nothing necessarily bad happening in the match. You know, like when you’re self-critical and you’re not happy with it, and you say, “Yeah, it’s not good. I should have done it different, different, different.” Then you have a couple of those matches and then you just say, “No, I’m not for this; I’m outta here.” Nah … then you’ll never learn.