In the late 1990s, Julie Kjendlie, then a young tennis player in the Norwegian capital of Oslo, first officiated a match when she was recruited to work as a line umpire for an international satellite event at her home club.
The experience as a 13-year-old was, according to Kjendlie, “ironically, quite disastrous.”
“My coach told my friends from practice and me to show up 15 minutes before the match started, and gave us a quick introduction on line umpire hand signals for when the ball was in or out,” she recalled.
“Totally intimidated by the speed that these guys were hitting the balls at, on carpet, in a hall that was just meeting the international size requirements, I tapped out after a few games. I swore to never do that again.”
As it turned out, Kjendlie, now 37, not only went on to do it again, but has repeated it enough times to make officiating tennis matches her vocation.
The oldest of three children born to a Norwegian father and a Japanese mother, Kjendlie first picked up a tennis racquet at the age of 9 despite limited exposure to the sport in her east-side neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.
“Although my mother had briefly held a racquet back in her university days,” she said, “my parents found tennis a bit by chance.
“There were no courts or clubs in my district, so tennis was not a natural alternative — but the neighboring district did, and a mini-tennis course was advertised in the local paper. It was an instant match and a sport I have loved ever since.”
Although neighboring Sweden has a storied history in professional tennis, Norway’s roots in the sport are much more transient. Oslo hosted a men’s professional event in 1974, on the Grand Prix circuit that preceded the modern-day ATP Tour, while the first — and final — edition of the WTA’s Oslo Open was won by Sweden’s Catarina Lindqvist in 1991.
As a result, the young Kjendlie’s opportunities to watch international tennis on home soil were limited. Coupled with some urging from her father Teddy, whom she describes as very engaged and supportive in her youth tennis development, she utilized opportunities presented to her later in her teenage years at both Davis Cup and Norway’s national championships to try her hand at more structured officiating.
“Being from a small tennis nation, our Davis Cup ties were held on the main court at a local club, never with too much of a crowd, and the line officials were younger players asked to volunteer by the Norwegian Tennis Association,” she said.
“I saw it as a good way to see the better players. How my dad convinced me to volunteer for them [after her first officiating experience] is a mystery… but I always said yes, so they always asked me.
“My club hosted the Norwegian Championships in 1999, and we were given a crash course in chair umpiring. I didn’t mind doing it — though to be fair, I probably didn’t do much more than just calling the score at that point. By chance, due to some rain delays and relocation, I ended up officiating my first Norwegian Championship final in ladies’ singles the following year at age 17.”
Soon invited to attend a national officiating course by the Norwegian federation, Kjendlie first crossed paths with veteran Swedish official Anders Wennberg, a gold badge referee, who helped recruit her as a line umpire for the longtime tour stop in Båstad, Sweden for the first time.
That event — at which her career came full circle when she was the chair umpire for the women’s singles final in 2015 — and others in the neighboring Scandinavian country proved integral to her development.
“That became the first of many summers in Båstad, which grew to be what I consider my home event, being the closest tour event to Oslo,” she said.
“The first years consisted of mainly working as a chair umpire at national or ITF Futures events in Sweden, to gain experience and some pocket money, as I did not have any events to work in Norway.”
As her trips to tournaments became more frequent, it became harder to balance officiating with a day job at a local Japanese mercantile — where she was able to utilize the language she was taught at home and through junior high school, a skill that has since served her well on the tennis circuit.
“In the early 2000s, the amount of events slowly increased year by year,” Kjendlie continued, “and though my boss at the work I had at that time was very understanding of the passion for sports and gave me a lot of freedom, I felt a hobby taking up 10 weeks was getting to be a bit much, and I decided to give officiating a go full-time.
“Not having an officiating structure in Norway, only having a few contacts abroad, and fueled on passion for the sport, it was a very uncertain career path… I was often questioned if it would be financially sustainable. It really wasn’t, for a long time, but I had become passionate about officiating.”
Advancing internationally, Kjendlie earned a white badge from an ITF Level 2 school in Poreč, Croatia in 2004, and was selected for her first Grand Slam tournament at the US Open that same year.
Four years later, in 2008, she earned her bronze badge by passing a Level 3 school in Amsterdam, and was afforded her first opportunity to officiate at an Olympic Games in Beijing.
After her promotion to a silver badge in 2010, Kjendlie was among the officials appointed to a collaborative team between the ITF, ATP and WTA, which offered her “more opportunities on the tours, and chances to officiate deeper into events and on bigger stadiums,” which were “all valuable and necessary experiences to grow as an official.”
In 2016, 12 years after she was first certified to work internationally, Kjendlie was elevated to gold badge status and joined the WTA’s staff of chair umpires. This role puts her on the road at tournaments between 25 and 30 weeks annually in an average tour year.
“Being a part of this team comes with some additional responsibilities, as WTA officiating has been an important part of helping developing younger officials for a long time,” she said.
“The WTA also tries to make sure that women have a place in officiating, because it is a male-dominated field and it has been for many years. If you look at the top now, there are 30 gold badges and one-third are women… lately, I think [the job] does show that it does allow for women to do well, and that there is a space for you, if you want it.
“Just like I received guidance and mentorship, I am now a part of mentoring younger officials. So, when you see us courtside after just having finished a two-hour match, it is not just because we can’t get enough of tennis, but because we are attending to our additional responsibilities, observing and taking notes.”
This role also affords her the opportunity to present at seminars hosted by the WTA officiating department throughout the year, which familiarize young officials with the tour’s rules and procedures.
“It’s all done with the hope that it’s good for them and their development. It’s a way to allow them to get to know us on a different level… so they see us as more than just that face in the chair,” she said.
“I’ve never seen myself as a natural teacher, even though my father was a teacher. To be in this position, I find that it’s challenging, which is why I do it.
"I’m quite introverted, and I’m not the person who wants to be in front of a class talking — so it’s out of my comfort zone, but that’s what’s fun about learning.”
Ultimately, Kjendlie says, the education that she’s received in the two decades since her childhood coach first volunteered her to be an umpire has not just come from the rules of tennis.
“If you told my parents, or even me, 20 years ago, that I’d be sitting in a stadium with 25,000 spectators, that was unrealistic,” she said.
“Because it comes in small stages — first, it’s small tournaments, where maybe there’s nobody there until the final, or you have 50 people. Suddenly, you need to learn how to use the microphone, or how to deal with spectators who are getting a little too involved — you broaden your comfort zone more and more.
"But the attention is never on me. It’s about the tennis, and the players having the best match and the best experience that they can have. The rest comes with it.
“As long as my health and passion for tennis remain, I hope to be a part of this team for the years to come. In the end, we are each other’s support away from home, like a family.
“Everybody takes a different road, so one of the things I say [to young umpires] is, ‘Don’t compare yourself to others. Your road might be longer, but if you get there in the end, then that’s what was needed.’ If you don’t see the road between, it’s definitely not a job that I thought would be the speed for me — but it’s a fun road."