Having already seen much of the world and worked at some of the biggest events in tennis, Jennifer Zhang thought that selection for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 might mark the end of her officiating career — the culmination of seven years of work in what was, at that time, not her full-time job.
“I was just really happy that I was there — the Olympics in my hometown, what more could I ask for?” she said. “Because at that time, officiating was my hobby and I thought that it would be difficult to make it my career.”
With a laugh, she added: “I was already 30, and I was saying, ‘This was good, but it might be time to settle down and find a ‘normal’ job.”
In the 12 years since, the Beijing native has more than made officiating her career: a lynchpin in the WTA’s team of chair umpires, Zhang holds an integral position both on and off the court as the sport, and by extension, its officiating, continues to grow in Asia.
Growing up in an apartment complex in close proximity to some of the first hard courts built in the Chinese capital, Zhang picked up the sport at the age of 9 after being recruited for free introductory lessons by a local coach. After competing in national junior tournaments as a player, she became certified as an official in 2001 at the suggestion of her childhood best friend, Wang Yu-jin, whom she met in the sport. The pair hoped to use the opportunity to stay in tennis and spend more time together.
With the support of both the China Tennis Association (CTA) and regional Asian Tennis Association (ATA), Zhang received her white badge from an ITF Level 2 school in Bangkok, Thailand in 2002, which afforded her to begin officiating internationally.
When Beijing was awarded the bid for the Olympic Games in 2004, Zhang’s career trajectory quickly changed. Soon, she was one of a small group of Chinese officials chosen for an ITF development program that had the goal of training them in the years leading up to the event.
“Around 10 of us were selected, and they helped us apply to work at Grand Slams so we could see the highest level of professional tennis and get experience before the Olympics,” she said.
“I was very lucky that I got into this program just two years after getting a white badge. At that time, I had a lot of free time to travel, and this also helped me practice my English.”
Ultimately, Zhang worked in an off-court role in the officiating team in Beijing as an assistant chief umpire. She was a liaison between approximately 50 Chinese officials to the broader international team, helped tend to their needs on and off the court and interpreted when necessary.
Holding a bronze badge at the time, which she’d earned by passing an ITF Level 3 school in Doha, Qatar in 2006, Zhang questioned where officiating could take her from there.
“At that time, I figured that making it to a bronze badge was pretty good, because there weren’t that many people [in Asia] pursuing officiating as a career,” she said.
“To get there, you need to travel around the world to get more experience, work ATP and WTA events and Grand Slams. [By 2008], I had already seen all four Grand Slams and some WTA events, and had the Olympics at home. It was already beyond what I’d ever expected or imagined.”
Promoted to a silver badge at the end of 2008 — which, according to her, was a welcome surprise — opened new doors. From 2010 to 2012, she was a member of a joint ITF, ATP and WTA officiating team which afforded her more opportunities to work as a chair umpire at bigger events abroad.
“This was another opportunity for me that came with other challenges,” she said. “When the WTA offered me a chance to go to Europe, I was able to see more tennis at a high level.
“Matches were completely different from my previous experiences. Not only was the level different, but the setup of the tournaments was also — from players, crowds, media, live TV, announcements of the score in local languages, to officials from different countries, ball kids, cultural differences and language barriers.
“There were so many things for me to learn and to adjust to.”
Following the 2012 season, Zhang was promoted to a gold badge — which, along with tour supervisor Chen Shu, makes her one of two Chinese officials at the top of the profession in the WTA — and she has been a member of the tour’s team of chair umpires since then.
While she travels on an average of 26 weeks a year on tour, Zhang’s role closer to home is two-fold. A fixture in the chair at all of her country’s WTA events, she also serves as a mentor for young Chinese officials as part of the tour’s development program.
"I assist them, support them, teach some clinics and workshops at tournaments during the year and do evaluations whenever possible,” she said.
“I think it’s easier and more comfortable for them to communicate with me and share officiating experiences with each other without the language barrier.
“I’m there for them if they have questions, because they might have some of the same difficulties that I had as they are starting their careers.”
While having her and her colleagues as a resource, Zhang also says that there is no substitute for on-the-job training and believes that the opportunity that now exists for her compatriots on home soil can only be a positive thing in the development of more officials from the region.
“China holds so many events now compared to when I started, from the Asian swing every year to the prestigious WTA Finals in Shenzhen since last year,” she said.
“The country has also been supporting the development of tennis as a sport thanks to the many players who have had success in their careers. With so many opportunities, and a lot of good tennis officials coming to China regularly every year, this might encourage more people to try tennis officiating as a job.
“If they love tennis and traveling, seeing these opportunities might make them think that they can do it — and seeing me working as a full-time tennis umpire for so many years maybe also makes them think that they can do the same.”
And personally, the opportunity to spend weeks at home is not lost on the 42-year-old, who got married at the end of 2018, and also enjoys spending her time away from the court with her husband and her young niece, who was born in 2013.
“Every time I come home, she’s different,” she continued. “She started elementary school last year, and recently, I enjoy picking her up from school when I can. My elder sister’s family has been a strong support for me… and I’m grateful to have that time to work in China during the year. I’m also grateful to have a husband who is so supportive and understanding of the travel of my job.”
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Having forged a path in uncharted territory when she first began her officiating career, Zhang is quick to credit the numerous mentors and colleagues who assisted her along the way and prepared her for success, and now only hopes to do the same for those coming after her.
“With God’s blessing, I’ve been extremely lucky. Not only had I never thought that I’d have so many people supporting and helping me on and off the court, but also that I’d visit so many beautiful places around the world and meet so many friends on the tour,” she said.
“I had a lot of opportunities that came to me unexpectedly. It’s been an amazing journey for me.”