SOUTH PORTLAND — At a professional tennis tournament in Miami a few years back, Joanie Mavor spotted a fellow Mainer, Lynn Welch.

That’s not so surprising, considering Welch had become one of a handful of gold badge chair umpires in the world, the best of the best. No, what brought a delighted smile to Mavor’s face was that from a distance, Welch reached beneath her collar, gave Mavor a knowing look and pulled out a tiny racket pendant hanging from a gold chain around her neck.

“I was touched that she still wore it,” Mavor said of the gift her son Brian had given Welch, his coach and mentor, after he won the 1982 Maine schoolboy singles tournament. “That was special.”

Welch, 57, has traveled the world as a tennis official, working all four Grand Slam events, three Olympic Games and hundreds of pro tournaments. For the past 24 years she has lived in Hilton Head, S.C., but a quiet dead-end street in South Portland will always be home.

The French Open is under way in Paris this week without Welch, who stepped down from her umpire’s chair after working her 20th U.S. Open last September.

“Family is a big part of it,” said Welch, whose mother, Louise, died two years ago at 91 and whose father, John, will turn 92 this summer. “And like in every business, there’s some politics. But I’ve done everything I aspired to do. I just wanted to slow down.”

On a recent sunny morning, she sat in a green lawn chair in front of her childhood home, as birds chirped and flowers bloomed and her Lhaso Apso puppy named Mia sniffed around the house where her father still lives.

Pointing to a path in adjacent woods, Welch reminisced about following her older brother, Greg, to play in a sand pit where a house now stands, about riding flying saucers down icy hills, and about how their father would build a mound of snow like a bobsled turn in front of a tree trunk as a safety barrier.

The other end of the street connects to Highland Avenue near Frank I. Brown Elementary. Welch could walk to grade school, as well as nearby Mahoney Middle School. In between stood three tennis courts and a backboard where a 13-year-old Welch honed the strokes that led to a career in the sport.

“That’s actually where I started,” Welch said. “As I got older, each year I came home I saw the backboard rotting and tilting, and the courts weren’t being maintained, and it kind of crushed me because I have fond memories of playing there.”

Eventually the courts were torn up and the space remade into a parking lot. Welch isn’t angry, just a tad wistful. Heck, her career was built on a keen ability to deflect and diffuse anger rather than to feed it.

“Lynn not only had technical skills such as seeing the ball extremely well, and being alert and fully concentrated all the time,” said Melanie Tabb, a supervisor for the Women’s Tennis Association, “she is also an excellent communicator who always had a very good feel for the situation and how to handle it.”

The angriest a player ever got at Welch was probably the time Gigi Fernandez, a doubles specialist from Puerto Rico, responded to being called for a code violation because of racket abuse.

“Right after I gave that code she said, ‘You want to see racket abuse, I’ll show you racket abuse!’ and she went whump and the thing caved in,” Welch said. “So I paused. Inside sometimes, things are spinning, but you hopefully stay calm on the outside, which we are taught to do.”

“Then I said, ‘Code violation.’ And I was being evaluated at the time by someone who was a gold badge, and he gave me one of my best evaluations ever because I kept my composure, I dealt with a fiery player, so now she’s got a point penalty. She’s lost a point. I think she was testing me a bit as they do when you start out.”

After starting her tennis career on those long-ago courts, Welch won three schoolgirl singles and doubles (with Betty Tupper) state titles at South Portland High, and continued her career at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., where she also played basketball.

After college she considered putting her degree in communications, journalism and behavioral science to work as a sports writer – sports for women and girls were given short shrift at the time of her graduation in 1978 – but when a teaching pro position in Falmouth became available, she took it and stayed in Maine for nine years before moving to Hilton Head.

Two years later, in 1991, she attended a line umpire clinic and worked the Family Circle Cup tournament. That led to more opportunities, chair umpiring school, and up through the badge ranks from white to bronze to silver to, in 2003, gold. At the time there were only 22 men and six women in the world with that status, and Welch was the only American woman.

From scratching on scorecards with a pencil to using personal digital assistants to dealing with the Hawk-Eye instant replay system, a chair umpire’s tools have changed over the years, but honesty and integrity continue to be foundations of the trade.

“The thing I wanted to do as I worked my way up was gain the players’ trust and credibility,” Welch said. “And I think I did that in the end, which I’m proud about. That was important.”

She wound up umpiring 15 Australian Opens, eight French Opens, 19 Wimbledons and 20 U.S. Opens. She was in the chair for 12 U.S. Open finals, including the 2002 match between sisters Serena and Venus Williams.

“Her dedication and love for the sport brought her to the highest level of officiating,” said Guilia Orlandi, director of officiating for the Women’s Tennis Association. “We really feel an empty spot at our ‘family dinner table’ all around the globe. Tennis is missing her as one of the best chair umpires.”

Traveling 28 to 30 weeks per year can be fun and exciting, and lead to friendships all over the world, but it can also be draining. Welch has had eight knee surgeries, but they never stopped her from rehabilitative walks with her mom at Fort Williams before Louise died.

Now her dad is approaching 92 and is thrilled when “his girls come home,” meaning Mia and Lynn. Her brother, Greg, works at the Portland Museum of Art and lives a few streets from their dad, so he checks on him regularly. Even so, Welch wants to do her part, too, and picks up on his needs when she’s living in the house with him.

If the TV set turns to tennis, she’ll instinctively check the chair and lines to see the umpires before noticing who’s playing. That’s just who she is.

The WTA planned a tribute to Welch at this year’s Family Cup event, now held in early April in Charleston, S.C., but Welch fell ill that weekend and couldn’t make it, so her fete will come at a later date.

As for the gold chain around her neck, it now holds a new pendant, a replica of the Portland Head Light, a reminder of the beacon that draws her back home, that watched over those last walks with her mother, that kept her on course no matter where she traveled.

Does she miss the tennis high life?

“Part of me does,” she admitted. “More of me now – doesn’t. I’m enjoying the puppy. I’m enjoying having free time, time to be with the family, which is important to me.”


No need to challenge that decision. Once again, Maine’s most admired umpire made the right call.