‘The charm of being a referee is manifold’

Sheetal Iyer... passion for-MURALI KUMAR

“After one’s playing days, if one still wants to be closely associated with the sport, the best thing to do is take on the responsibility of an official/referee,” says Sheetal Iyer, India’s only woman ITF referee. By Avinash Nair.

She hails from a family of tennis buffs — the Kannamwars of Shivaji Park in Mumbai. Her transition from a player to a referee was also typical of her family. Meet Sheetal Iyer, the only Indian woman ITF (International Tennis Federation) referee who, at 43, is still as passionate about the sport as she was when she walked to the courts with her father and brother Nitin, over three decades ago.

“After one’s playing days, if one still wants to be closely associated with the sport, the best thing to do is take on the responsibility of an official/referee,” says the petite Sheetal, who was in Bangalore recently.

“I travel about 25 to 30 weeks a year, but then this place (Bangalore), with its calming weather and wonderful people, has a magnetic effect on me and hence I don’t miss a chance of coming down here,” says Sheetal, who has lost count of the number of matches she has refereed.

“The charm of being a tennis referee is manifold,” she says. “One gets to travel a lot, interact with players one would otherwise only read and hear about, and for women, the purse for officiating is indeed lucrative enough.”

Sheetal followed her brother Nitin into officiating. Unable to make much headway as a player in the late 1980s and 90s, Nitin chose the next best thing to playing tennis, and climbed the ladder quite rapidly. He was soon officiating at the Grand Slams and other major events.

“I followed him, and I have been doing domestic and National events since 1997. I began getting international exposure since 1999 and have done about five Davis Cup and seven Federation Cup events since 2006. Many WTA and ATP events too came my way since and I’m happy that tennis is still a very integral part of my day-to-day routine,” adds the mother of a 17- year-old son.

Being married to someone like Sundar Iyer (laughs when reminded of her dating days), she says, makes a big difference. “With him being in the same field and now into event management, he perfectly understands the rigours of my career and supports me. My in-laws too are happy with what I’m doing and barring son Atharva, who played tennis to some extent but is now totally out of the game — or for that matter any sport — probably because I neglected him during his early days, everyone is encouraging and appreciative of the status I have reached,” says Sheetal.

She sees a couple of bright referees emerging from India soon, but they need support and encouragement. “For men/boys, it surely is not a full-time career option. Unless one is an invited referee/official, the organisers will not take care of your TA/DA, and if one travels for about 20 weeks, both within the country and abroad, then it involves a lot of expenditure.

“It is for this reason that the 25-odd referees together formed the Tennis Officials of India (TOI). The association funds the expenses of these aspiring referees. We are just about a year and more old and hopefully will sustain ourselves for some more time. The Federation (AITA) and other corporates will then have to come and bail us out if we are not able to do it by ourselves,” Sheetal adds.

“There are quite a few young referees from Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur, but almost none from other pockets of the country and this needs to be corrected. TOI are looking for ways and means to encourage and bring many more into officiating in a big way. Unlike in Europe, where there is about 34-40 weeks of activity, in India there is very little in comparison and unless these boys and girls do officiate more frequently and in important events, the growth will not be on expected lines,” Sheetal signs off.