New balls, please? For longtime WTA umpire Anja Vreg, the theme of year’s WTA Asian swing is taking charge… of a new job.
The Slovenian has made the transition from on the court to behind the scenes for the final leg of 2019, working in event operations - the latest career change for the 29-year-old, who speaks six languages, has two master’s degrees, and whose first foray into tennis came as a promising talent in central Europe.
A contemporary of current WTA players Polona Hercog and Petra Martic who competed in the prestigious Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl tournaments as a young junior, Vreg might have been primed for a playing career on the tour before a back injury largely derailed those plans in her teens.
"When I came back, I didn’t have the same results that I wanted, so my motivation dropped, and I said to my parents, ‘I don’t think this is something for me,’ and that I wanted to quit," she said.
"I was going to school like everybody else, and my mom said, ‘Oh, there’s an officiating school in our town — you should go. You never know where it could go.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to go. Who wants to be an umpire?’ You get yelled at, and all those things — I’m not interested.’
"She said, ‘You should go, you should try it,’ so I went. I was 15 at that time, but since I wasn’t interested in any officiating, I had my badge but I wasn’t really umpiring. Then, when I was maybe 17, 18, I started to do more, and I thought that maybe I could just earn some extra money, do some traveling…to see the world while doing tennis."
Born in Slovenia to Slovenian and Croatian parents, Vreg spent much of her youth in Croatia with her mother — and was certified as a national official by both countries’ tennis associations at the beginning of her career — before being sent by the Slovenian tennis federation to attain her ITF white badge, the first step in international officiating, in 2009.
"At an ATP Challenger [in Rijeka, Croatia], I was talking to someone who was a very good friend of mine, and he said, ‘Oh, you’re doing many more tournaments, and you’re officiating more and more — what would be your interest, your goal? Where would you want to go — which Grand Slam?’," Vreg recalled of her early officiating years, which took her to countries abroad including Austria, Qatar and Switzerland.
"And I was like, ‘Come on, I’m not going to do any Grand Slam — I’m far behind that — but if I could choose one, it would be the Australian Open. The next morning, I woke up, and I was selected for the next Australian Open.
"I applied thinking I don’t have a chance — at that time, I was already a white badge, doing quite a lot of lines at tournaments around the area, and I applied, but I said, ‘I don’t have a chance. I come from small Slovenia, you know, nobody knows me.’
"I just couldn’t believe that the day before, I spoke to somebody and I said that was my wish but it would never come true, and then I woke up to an email... from there, I was getting more and more into it, and it started to be one week after another. I had enough matches, and I decided that I was going to apply for this [ITF bronze badge] school in Turkey.
"I got selected and I said that I was going to prepare so well that nothing could go wrong. I studied a lot, I asked a lot of questions to my colleagues. I think is important also, because you cannot learn everything from a book — so they passed on their experiences to me, which I was very grateful for and that helped me."
In her officiating career, Vreg, who worked her way up the umpiring ladder to a silver badge, was selected for nearly two dozen Grand Slams, the 2012 London Olympics, the 2016 Paralympics in Rio – where she officiated the gold medal match in women’s doubles – various Fed Cup and Davis Cup ties, and hundreds of WTA and ATP events on the lines and in the chair.
She also played her part in two modern developments in tennis officiating over the past decade. As one of more than a dozen female officials who regularly feature in the chair on tour, Vreg saw a different kind of evolution during her time as an umpire — one that had little to do with the how of calling lines, but instead those who are calling them.
"There are more women — we are still a minority, but it’s much, much better than it was before. There are more opportunities. The WTA…they’ve been doing a fantastic job in that manner," she said, noting the support she received from other WTA umpires in her career and the tour’s program for assisting and supporting new officials.
"I think now, more and more, everyone is starting to realize that whether you’re a female or a male in that job, it doesn’t really make a difference.
"Before, it was very, very separate — the guys were doing men’s matches, the women were doing women’s matches, but now, everyone started to realize that if you are good at what you do, it doesn’t matter which gender, which sex you are.
"If women weren’t doing a good job, it wouldn’t be happening. There is a reason for that, I believe. If you’re good, you’re able to handle men’s matches as well, because you have the respect from the players — you have the respect if you’re doing a good job, and it doesn’t matter what your gender is.
"That’s my opinion, and it’s coming more and more across the board, because we have some good female officials. They’re consistently doing a good job, and that is opening the door for other women and also the way that people think of it, the way it’s accepted and the way it’s evolving."
For weeks in which she did not work as an on-court official, Vreg could also routinely be found in the Hawk-Eye booth, assisting in the official review system for matches and television replays.
"I always asked for [Hawk-Eye work] because it gives me a good break from being on court. I felt it would be beneficial to me and for my on-court work, that I could be better if I was mixing it up and not being in the chair constantly," she said.
"I think one good part of doing that job for future chair umpires and the ones that are coming up is the fact that you get to see a lot of the other umpires, and you get to see a lot of situations from which you can learn."
It was that desire to keep learning that led to her latest career change: working with the tournament management group APG, or Ace Pro Group.
APG is an event management organization which owns and operates several tennis events across Asia throuought the year, including the Premier-level Zhengzhou Open, which debuted on tour last week.
It also provides consulting services, in addition to representing a number of tennis players from around the world.
"I am very proud to be part of the great APG team, with whom we work hard every day in order to deliver these events with highest standards. We are a multi-national team here, composed into one, with the same goals and vision," Vreg explained.
"You don’t realize, when you’re not working behind the scenes, how much work it actually is and that’s what I was interested in: to find out, and to learn, how much work is put in during all of these weeks that we just come to -- where everything is presented, finished, and you just see the final package.
"I wanted to experience how much people need to input, and what they need to do to make it work for all of us who just appear there for a week."
From player to official to operations manager, Vreg has seen more sides of a tennis court than most over the past decade — and wants to pay it forward to the next generation.
"I think tennis is a great sport and most of the people who are in it, they’re doing it for the passion and the love of it," she said.
"There are a lot of emotions involved in it, and it’s a very emotional sport. I think it can give you a lot of great opportunities in both perspectives, personal and professional, in whatever career you pursue.
"The most important thing I can say for young people who decide to get involved in tennis early is to continue to pursue education. I do believe it’s important to get some sort of higher education and broaden your horizons, as it gives you options later in life, should you want to make a change.
"If being on the tour, and traveling and being active, going from one place to another is something that can fit in your profile and character, then tennis is definitely something to explore.
"It can give you so many benefits, so many memories and experiences that are hard to get through any other job."
Photos courtesy of Anja Vreg.