The Balkan nation of Croatia has built for itself a decorated history in tennis over the past three decades — and alongside its three Grand Slam singles champions, the country has most often been represented on the biggest stages by chair umpire Marija Cicak.
A WTA gold badge umpire for the past eight years, Cicak is well-known to players and fans alike, having earned the opportunity to officiate some of the biggest matches in the sport. Among them, she has overseen two Grand Slam women’s singles finals — at Wimbledon and the US Open — and the gold medal match between Angelique Kerber and Monica Puig at the Rio Olympics.
Long before she was a familiar face in the umpire’s chair, however, Cicak was a well-rounded athlete in her youth, excelling in almost all of her athletic pursuits, and took up tennis as a player at an early age.
“I was probably just born for sports, I guess. Whatever was there, it was just like, ‘Let’s go, let’s do this, let’s try this, let’s try that,’” she said.
“I went through karate, table tennis, handball, swimming… and that’s pretty much how I started playing tennis. I was six years old when my uncle suggested to my mom that I try it. I started first through those mini-classes that you take when you’re a kid, and then I was 12 when I started playing tournaments.”
Born and raised in the capital city of Zagreb, her natural aptitude for sporting exploits soon extended into tennis officiating. With a need growing for umpires for satellite tournaments in her home country, Cicak, based at the same tennis club for the entirety of her development, earned her first officiating certification to work at national events at age 15.
“I was just working events on lines or in the chair, and would play low-level tournaments for myself, just for fun, and I really enjoyed it,” she said.
“When I was 18, I decided to quit playing tennis to go to university. I decided to stop because here, it’s not so easy to pursue a sports career and university at the same time. It’s a different system than what it is in, say, the United States, and to be honest, I just wanted to focus on other things rather than play tennis. I wanted to just go to school and enjoy officiating.”
As she pursued a degree in kinesiology, Cicak continued to officiate as a hobby, stayed active by playing different sports — “After university, I even tried doing a triathlon,” she added — and did not necessarily expect to make officiating her life’s work.
“I really thought at the time that I would be doing something closer to my degree. Everything really led me to tennis, but with a little twist I ended up in officiating,” she said.
“For a good two or three years, I was a tennis coach for kids who were under-10, under-12. At the same time, I was doing Futures in the chair and I was a line umpire at tour-level events and ATP Challengers. At one point, I really had to decide what I wanted to do.
“My attention was split, so I had to choose and just go one way to stay with tennis. I decided to go with officiating. I put all my energy into it, and it paid off.”
So in the 1990s, while players such as Iva Majoli, Mirjana Lucic and Goran Ivanesevic were putting the newly-independent Croatia on the tennis map by contending for the biggest tournaments and winning Grand Slams, Cicak was simultaneously embarking on her own international career.
By the decade’s end, she earned her white badge at an ITF Level 2 school in Umag, Croatia, and later earned her bronze badge by passing a Level 3 school in Vienna, Austria in 2002. After earning promotion to a silver badge in 2007, Cicak gained more elite event experience as a member of a joint officiating team between the ATP Tour, ITF and WTA beginning in 2009.
“We went everywhere. That was a really cool program — quite a few of us that you see now came through that and we now work for either the ATP, WTA or ITF,” she said.
“It gave us broad knowledge from different areas, different players were getting used to us, and we got a lot of different experiences as well. The more experience you have, the easier it gets for you. We had to go through that, so it was a very, very valuable time in my life.”
From there, Cicak earned promotion to a gold badge at the end of the 2011 season, and joined the WTA’s team of umpires full-time the next year.
“Through all these years, it’s been great working for the organization that has always promoted women’s sport in an excellent way,” she continued.
“To me, it’s very important to work with people with whom I share the same values and the same principles. It’s no coincidence that tennis is the leading women’s sport in the world — and I consider myself very fortunate, because in our small way, we try to make the world a better place.”
Alongside the decorated on-court resumé that she has built in nearly 10 years on the tour’s staff, the Croatian has also assumed a key position in the mentorship of the next generation of international officials. Through the WTA’s development program, she coordinates the tour’s silver badge umpires, and often represents the tour as an instructor at ITF Level 3 schools across the globe.
In this capacity, she presents on the sport’s rules and regulations and helps determine which candidates will earn their bronze badge from that assigned school, in conjunction with other representatives from the ATP, ITF and Grand Slams.
“The only crossover between this and officiating a match is the rules and procedures that I have to know,” she said.
“Officiating a match, it’s a completely different thing. If you’re in Arthur Ashe Stadium with 23,000 people there and it’s a big match with a great atmosphere, that’s one type of adrenaline. Teaching a school has a different type of adrenaline because there’s a different pressure, but the knowledge and experience that you have to have is what ultimately puts you in both situations.
“Here, there’s a lot of questioning, discussions, cases, videos, slideshows — you name it — and it’s three pretty intense days, but it’s a lot of fun as well.”
In having this opportunity to shape the future of the profession, the 42-year-old also takes seriously the role that she and her female colleagues have played in advancing the position of women in the chair.
In 2015, for example, she and Eva Asderaki-Moore made history during the final weekend of the US Open, where two women took charge of the women’s and men’s singles finals at the tournament for the first time.
“In the past, it used to be a much smaller percentage of female officials, but by the time I was coming up, there were a few more coming up with me,” she said.
“Until Paula [Vieira Souza], Eva and Louise [Azemar Engzell] showed up being mothers, not many people thought that was possible, even though we have quite a few colleagues among the supervisors with kids. Chair umpires, we didn’t… but these women, they’re showing to the younger generation that this is possible as well — that you can have kids, you can have a family, and you can still travel and do this job. I would like to think, I hope at least, that in the next few years, you’re going to see more women being able to do this.
“Like everything else changes, we’re going to change as well — ultimately, we’re going to leave, we’re going to leave all of this to upcoming officials, to new ones, to younger ones. I just hope that in the future that we’re going have to quite a few more highly-ranked female officials. It will have to happen, I think, because that’s how we got here.”
As one of the longest-tenured chair umpires at the top level of tennis, Cicak also says that one of the benefits of spending an average of 30 weeks of the typical tour year at tournaments has shaped her overall worldview.
“A big part of my job is traveling, jumping from one plane to another and ‘sleeping in suitcases,’ but I am very lucky because it’s something I love doing,” she said.
“When you travel the world, you may end up going to the same places, but those same places have people that make them special and people that you had a chance to get to know through time. Cities change, venues change, even the people that you work with change, but they all enrich your life experience.
“It’s priceless. It opens up your horizons and gives you a lot more than you even think you’re getting when you’re there in that moment. I’ve been lucky that I’ve managed to get this through tennis and officiating, two things that I love.”
And ultimately, those broader opportunities have in turn molded how she personally views her vocation.
“For me, a typical job is something where you might wake up early, you might say you don’t like it or that you don’t want to go. I’ve never had those feelings,” she said.
“Maybe three years ago, I actually realized that this is my job. All this time, it was just my hobby that I loved. I’ve never considered this as work. It’s something that I love doing and I love being out there.
“I wake up in the morning and go to work, but it’s never a hustle — it’s never me wishing that I could do something else or be somewhere else. I’m just lucky that I love what I do, I would say.”