Ask Miriam Bley how she found her chosen profession and she’ll tell you that it began mostly by chance.
In fact, long before she blazed new trails for German tennis as an official, Bley says, “I didn’t even know this was a career.”
Ahead of the 2020 season, the 35-year-old from Würzburg, a Bavarian city on the Main river known for its baroque and rococo architecture, became the first female chair umpire from her country to be promoted to gold badge status.
Regardless of how she found her way there, it’s clear that the German’s arrival in top-level tennis makes sense, considering that the sport has held a central position in her life for over 30 years.
“I started playing when I was three years old and basically grew up on a tennis court,” she said.
“As a small child, I was always out and about. I loved drawing on the street with chalk, climbing our tree house, riding down the hill on a skateboard, inline skating or playing street hockey. My parents played tennis, so it was natural for me to start playing as well.
“I played competitive tennis as a child and teenager, played many league matches, and also played one year in the national second division. I tried other sports like athletics, basketball and gymnastics, and I studied physical education and English for a teaching degree at university, but tennis has always been there and stayed.”
Shortly after graduating high school in 2004, Bley left Germany to work as a summer au pair in Surrey, England. The sport of her formative years was never too far away, however — both in her time there and in the months she spent back home while studying at university in Würzburg.
“My English host family had just moved out of London to the countryside and was looking for someone who could teach the children tennis,” she recalled.
“I have always loved traveling, going out and meeting new people. Having just completed my German tennis coaching license, I stayed with the family for three months. I came back for another three months later that year, and kept returning during holiday periods in the following years.
“I never wanted to be a tennis coach. I did some summer camps while I was in university, or filled in a couple of times at the club where I played when someone got sick. When I did the lowest level of coaching license, they recommended me for the next one, but I said no. It was more to have something on paper that I was qualified to do these summer camps.”
Ultimately, a seemingly small decision proved integral towards Bley’s future career path: the entry-level coaching certification included a refereeing test — even if at first, the added work gave her a bit more than she bargained for.
“We have 16 states in Germany, and the referee’s district license was at one time mandatory for at least one person in each club in my state. Every coach is a member of a club, and they might’ve figured that those people had more of an idea of tennis rules than others do,” she said.
“It was a little booklet that you read through to take a multiple choice test, and if you were interested, you could take it further from there. The chair umpire test was not mandatory. It was just an extra thing that you could take as well, so I thought, while I’m at it, I might as well do that.
“The first match I ever chair umpired was the semifinal of the district championships in my city on clay. It was August of 2005, and I had zero idea what was happening. I had never checked marks before. I had to do that, I had to call the score, I had to call all the lines.
“They’d just said that for the chair umpire test, after I took the multiple choice one, that I had to come and do a practical — so I went. I passed, and I was basically in the right place at the right time.”
As it turned out, one of Germany’s most decorated career tennis officials returned home looking to scout for new talent when Bley was first trying out the profession.
“I chaired one match on clay in my city’s district championships, and nothing happened for months,” she continued, “but in January of 2006, Norbert Peick had just retired as a Grand Slam supervisor, and he introduced a junior [officiating development] group in my state.
“He approached me and asked if I wanted to take a course, or be a part of this Bavarian junior group. So I thought, ‘Why not?’ It all went pretty fast after this.
“I just kept participating in courses. I hadn’t intended on doing that because I was still in university, and I was still playing competitively myself when I was in my 20s with my club.
"In Bavaria, the third league is umpired. I played in the fourth and fifth division, and umpired in the third division. It all kept running by itself… and I obtained my state license at the German team championships in August of 2006.”
Having gone through the German officiating system, Bley worked her first international event on the ITF circuit in Munich in 2007. She later went on to earn her white badge at an ITF Level 2 school in Wetzlar, Germany, in 2008, followed by her bronze badge at a Level 3 school in New Delhi, India two years later.
Working her way up the umpiring ladder while simultaneously finishing university, Bley turned her attention full-time to tennis after graduating in 2011, and began racking up weeks on tour. She joined the WTA’s second team of umpires in 2016, and has typically traveled for about 30 weeks each year since then.
Having already been the first German woman to ever attain a silver badge in 2015, Bley joined more than a half-dozen of her male compatriots who have earned a gold badge as chair umpires over time when she earned her final promotion this past December.
“I never thought I would ever get a gold badge,” she said. “I’m quite self-critical so I was never expecting that, but now that I got it, it makes me extremely proud.
“It’s difficult to explain because it makes me special in a way, but I don’t think I’m anything very special. I’m still the same person that I was 15 years ago.
“I don’t think any part of me being a gold badge has made me different to other people — my friends still think I’m going on holidays all the time!”
Having also joined the WTA’s elite umpiring team at the start of this season, Bley’s work is not only done on the court. In addition to umpiring matches, she quickly took on the additional responsibilities of mentoring promising white badges who are just beginning their international umpiring careers.
“I keep in touch with them, keep track of their work and act as the point of contact if they have questions,” she said.
“It is important to me that they feel they can reach out whenever they have a question or are in doubt, or if they need a person to listen. For me, it is a huge honor when someone asks for help or assistance, as it shows they trust me and value what I do.
“Working for the WTA means being part of a great team – being a part of something that people love doing and have a passion for. We, as a team, are supporting each other, try to help out and have great team spirit.”
With plenty of experience already under her belt, it can be said that — as the newest addition to the tour’s top team of officials — Bley’s career is, in some ways, still just getting started.
“I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, and I’m grateful that I’ve had these opportunities… I’m hoping that with this, other people, other women, will pursue this career as well,” she said.
“This accomplishment not only makes me very proud, but also my whole family, especially my father. My dad is my biggest fan and supporter, and even watches my matches on his iPad whenever he can — and I still meet my English family during Wimbledon at the same Italian restaurant every year.
“I still love watching tennis, whether I’m on site as a spectator or at home watching. My husband, who is also a tennis umpire, thinks I’m crazy when I come home from a long day at the tennis and switch to it on the television.
“Tennis is a pure passion for me, and I’m looking forward to many more great years ahead."