The only woman from the Americas to currently hold a gold badge as a chair umpire, Paula Vieira Souza’s position at the pinnacle of international tennis officiating is historic in more ways than one.
Her promotion to the highest certification a chair umpire can earn in 2018 — making her the first woman from Latin America to ever earn this status — was the culmination of a journey that’s taken the 38-year-old Brazilian around the world, but which started just steps from her front door in Porto Alegre.
“Tennis, in many ways, has been all my life. I started to play when I was 10 years old at a tennis club two blocks away from my home and I still go there now,” she said.
“At 16, I already knew that my tennis talent would be better used in other areas, since I never liked to compete—just to play and enjoy. I think it was also due to my personality. I like to be kind and nice to everyone, and so when I went on court as a player, it was like, ‘I have to win a match and the other person has to lose because of that.’ So, for me it was, ‘No. I don’t like this feeling!’
“I saw opportunities in national events, events in my city, and people from the local federation who knew me were like, ‘Paula, would you like to try officiating?’ …So I said, ‘Why not?’
"At this time, I was never dreaming, ‘Oh, I want to really become a chair umpire,’ but I was there. The opportunity was there.”
At age 17 in 1999, she enrolled in a national officiating tennis school in her home city of Porto Alegre, and her road to the WTA began shortly after.
Her early career took her throughout the region: she earned her white badge, the first certification in international officiating, at an ITF Level 2 school in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2004 — taking her to ITF events elsewhere in Brazil and Mexico — and her bronze badge two years later at a Level 3 school in São Paulo.
Her work in the area was subsequently noticed by the WTA officiating department, and she was invited to join the tour’s development program as a promising talent from the Latin America, which was, at the time, short on female officials.
“When I started, we were three: myself, [current WTA supervisor] Cristina Romero from Mexico, she was a silver badge [chair umpire], and there was another bronze badge from Argentina. Cristina, she started way before us… so in Latin America, I almost grew up by myself in officiating, which was not easy,” she said.
“Now, the girls in Latin America, they have me. We are close, especially because a lot of them are from Brazil. We speak the same language, so this helps them a lot… I want to give them the same opportunity that I was given years ago, and to provide similar help and support that I received from officials who are now my colleagues in the WTA team.
"I am a mentor for a bronze badge throughout the year, supporting her and helping to develop her skills, in addition to being an evaluator of younger and upcoming chair umpires during tournaments. [The WTA development program] is a program that is growing year after year, and now I think it’s very, very good.
"I think the number of female officials around the world, especially in Latin America, is way better than it was even 10 years ago.”
And in recent months, that particular group welcomed a new addition — although, this one might not be ready for umpire school just yet, but only because she sits in a different kind of high chair.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I went to Canada, to Washington, D.C. and through the U.S. swing [in 2018], and not many knew. It took me 12 weeks to tell others not in our team. I had a good pregnancy—I went to China when I was five months pregnant, and nobody realized,” Vieira Souza said with a laugh, “I think nobody realized at all until I was around with a baby in my arms and people were like, ‘When did this happen? Is she yours?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I’m pretty sure she’s mine!’”
Last March, Vieira Souza and her husband, Fabio Souza — who is also an international chair umpire from Brazil — welcomed their first child, a daughter named Bethania. As a result, she spent much of the first half of last season off the court on maternity leave, which was in itself an adjustment.
“This was the first time in my life, since I was 20-something, that I spent this much time at home," she said. "It was a new world for me. Since I was 17, 18, I was traveling. I got my white badge in 2004, and from that moment, I never stopped.
“You have a baby and it’s like, ‘Okay, I have a baby,’ but it took me a few weeks to really get what was happening. Everything changes. I spent two months home with her, and then I was doing my calendar, and I was like, ‘I need to work. I need to be myself again.’
“She’s the most important thing — she still is — but I needed to do something for myself. I was like, ‘I need this. I need to be on court for a few hours. I miss being on court. It’s the only place I belong, I think—the place where I was all the time, that I’ve never missed outside of one month every year being at home for the holidays.’ That was it.”
So when she returned to the WTA for the Nature Valley Open in Nottingham last June, Vieira Souza joined an exclusive club: moms in tennis officiating.
She is one of just three in the top ranks of international chair umpires along with Louise Azemar Engzell and Eva Asderaki-Moore — both of whom are members of the ITF's team of umpires and work primarily at its Grand Slam, Fed Cup and Davis Cup events.
“We’re in touch. When I was at home, they reached out to see how I was doing, how I was feeling. They were excited for me," she continued.
"I like to talk this out with the other female officials. This is the life I’m living. I’m on the tour. Nobody said, ‘Paula, you have to come back.’ That was completely my choice. This is the life that I know, this is the life that I like, and my daughter has to be a part of this.
"I think it’s been completely possible for me, and for the baby that I have, to do what I’ve been doing. She traveled with us to eight WTA events and two Grand Slams last year. Almost all the months of her life so far, she’s at tennis events. Fortunately, she’s a calm and easy baby. She doesn’t cry at all. She gets along with everybody.
"Many babies, they have a routine and they need a routine… we go to different hotels, different places every week, and she doesn’t care. I think she was born for the parents that she has.”
In her current role as a part of the WTA’s chair umpire team, Vieira Souza works at WTA Premier and International events, as well as select WTA 125 Series events and two Grand Slams per year, for what typically amounts to 25 weeks on the road annually.
From the rigors of international travel, to being on-court for multiple matches on any given day at a tournament and completing administrative duties off-court, elite umpiring is a balancing act on its own for most officials.
Adding in the needs of a baby makes that all the more delicate, and Vieira Souza and her husband have added her own mother to their travel party to help out during their weeks on tour.
“To be on the court for two, three, four hours maybe, I need to be focused there. I need to be there,” Vieira Souza said.
“I can’t be there and be thinking about how my baby is outside of the court, or who she’s with… Sometimes, I spend the whole day on site, but she’s around. It depends on the day, it depends on the schedule that I have, the tournament that I’m at. I have to adjust this week after week.
“You have many things that you’re going to think about all the time, but I think that all moms have this happen at some point. So with my mom, with my husband, I consider myself very lucky to have a family and colleagues who understand my work, and also to have the possibility to continue a job that I love.”
And ultimately, much like she was already doing for her peers, she hopes that other women coming after her can look to her as an example.
“On the tour, we are a kind of family to each other, and we often spend more time together than with our ‘real family,’” she said.
“Many of my colleagues look for Bethania in their time off to play with her and there are many ‘aunties’ around us. She seems to enjoy to play and stay with them all. I'm lucky.
“There are [women officials] who don’t want to have children, and that is completely their choice, but there are others who do, who I know would like to have a child one day. It’s not flowers all the time, and it’s tiring… but it’s nice to be on tour with Bethania week after week to show that it is possible.
“I think it’s completely possible, but being a mother, only you know what you can do. There are moms out there who are doing way more than me… but for me, I just want to show that you can have a child and continue this amazing career of being a tennis official.”