Is there any more thankless job on the planet than being an umpire, especially a table tennis umpire? There are not too many jobs in table tennis that I won’t do, but umpiring is one of them. I’m more than willing to coach, set up tables, pick up balls, run a tournament, hand out t-shirts, or take out the trash. Just don’t ask me to umpire the finals in even a zero-star tournament. Actually, I’m even worse at keeping score. It would seem like flipping over a flap of cardboard after each point would be a fairly simple duty. But I tend to get distracted or bored and find that the players and spectators soon are double checking and reminding me that somebody just scored a point.
It takes a special kind of person to want to be an umpire. Most umpires are pretty much ignored until there’s a problem. What makes being an umpire or a table tennis referee so difficult is that everyone has a different opinion about how a match should be officiated. An umpire who actually called every illegal serve would quickly become very unpopular with about half of the tournament participants. There is no way of reliably detecting boosted rubber or pips that have been altered to make them frictionless. If the only real job is to rule on edge balls and hold up the correct hand for indicating the score, we really don’t need certified umpires and referees. Instead, the real qualifications come down to having good eyesight and knowing your left from your right.
I do respect those who are willing to officiate matches, but I think we are creating an impossible situation for them by having rules that are so difficult to enforce. If someone has umpired enough to qualify to be a referee, it means that they will be called upon in the most contentious situations. In these cases, somebody will be unhappy with how the issue is resolved. Oddly enough, I think I would rather be a referee than an umpire, since I’d rather diffuse a volatile disagreement than make an instantaneous judgment call.
Rather than just gripe about the state of table tennis and throw some sympathy to the umpires, it would be more productive to make one simple suggestion that might help, just a little. I have made a suggestion for a rule change in The Hidden Serve Solution for Table Tennis, but it generally has been viewed as too radical a change or not as good an idea as some others. So the problem continues, both in tournaments and in club play.
An idea that could be practical, fun, and help with the issue of hidden serves could also greatly affect how we look at umpires. This idea came out of a story I had heard where a baseball umpire simultaneously went into a slide with a runner stealing second in order to get a better view and hopefully make the correct ruling. Out of this, it occurred to me that umpires in table tennis may not be getting the best view from chairs at the side of the playing area. Perhaps it would be better if they officiated standing up. From basically the same location where they normally sit, they could move to the right, move to the left, lean, crouch, and generally get a much better view of serves and edges and not have to sit like statues.
The obvious criticism is that these mobile umpires could be a distraction to players, but this would not have to be the case. They would not have to be constantly moving, but could position themselves to get the best view of serves and keep a low profile throughout the point. This would seem to get umpires more actively involved in actually calling a match and might require them to be more physically fit. Ideally, I think they should lose the suits and dress in nearly all black, somewhat like umpiring ninjas. It certainly would send a message to players that their serves are being checked for legality and would make umpiring vastly more interesting.
This may seem like a crazy idea and perhaps it is. At least it is a move toward making matches more fair and addressing one of the major problems in table tennis. Nobody wants to see a match where the umpire is the focus of attention, but they should not be completely invisible either. It’s not such a bad thing to try out a few new ideas for the sake of our sport. Maybe a couple of real shouting matches between players and umpires would bring some positive attention and change the perception of table tennis as we know it. It seems that the ITTF is reluctant to make any bold moves to help our sport. Changing the size of the ball and what it is made of does nothing to attract more players and spectators. Ignoring and refusing to enforce the rules only frustrates current players.
I’m sure there are other ideas that might be worth considering, but we need to start with assuring that every match is played fairly. This means we need to give umpires the authority to call all illegal serves and be in a position that they can be sure they see them. Otherwise, we probably don’t need umpires at all.