URBANA — Richard Rogers started his interest in tennis by watching it.
It has grown exponentially in the last two decades.
“I was a tennis parent,” he said. “My children were young, and they were playing in local junior tournaments and having some success. Then a buddy of mine that was an official spotted me at a tournament one day.”
This was more than two decades ago for the 58-year-old native of Chattanooga, Tenn.
“He said, ‘Richard, we’re going to have a training class next month,’ ” Rogers recalled Sunday during the NCAA Tennis Championships at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex. “ ‘You might want to come. I know you don’t play tennis, but you can get rule books and learn right from wrong.’ ”
He has spent the past 20 years doing more than that. Rogers has officiated every NCAA Championships since 2004 as a chair umpire. He’s here on the Illinois campus as the deputy referee for the men’s tournament.
It’s his first year holding that role. And one that is bittersweet.
Jim Russell was the head referee for the past 20 years at the NCAA Championships. Russell died suddenly last June of a heart attack.
Anthony Montero, the deputy referee in the past, was elevated to head referee, creating the need for a deputy referee.
Enter Rogers, who was close with Russell.
In fact, Russell was the one who got Rogers a start officiating at the NCAA Championships nine years ago.
“He came to Chattanooga to work an event, and I helped him,” Rogers said. “We just clicked like peas and carrots. He was a huge influence on me. In 2004 there was an opening on the NCAA crew, and he asked me to come help and officiate.”
The chair umpires at the NCAA Championships sit above the court, with their spot right at the net. They are there to oversee the match, keep score and make decisions if any disagreements might materialize. The players determine whether a ball is in or out.
An umpire has two scorecards, one electronically and one they keep by hand.
They are the ones responsible for updating the scores on the various scoreboards that line the north and south courts at Khan.
Rogers roams the facility at Illinois, making sure his radio is nearby. During the team portion of the NCAA Championships, he is not slated to work as a chair umpire but will get back in the seat once the singles and doubles championships start.
Rogers remembers his first experience as a chair umpire fondly. He oversaw an 18-and-under boys’ juniors championship match in Tennessee in the early 1990s and was instantly hooked.
“We finished the match up and I said, ‘That was the best match I’ve ever seen, and I had the best seat in the house,’” Rogers said. “It was exciting. One of the players went on to Clemson to play, and the other went on to play at Tennessee. It was one of those things you never forget.”
Rogers — who owns an electrical supply company in Chattanooga as his full-time job — said he officiates between 80 to 100 college tennis matches a season. He has worked four U.S. Opens but said his passion lies within the college game.
“To be on the professional side, you make great relationships with a lot of people, but if I had to really pick one over the other, just for me, I really enjoy the college experience,” he said. “It’s a way that I give back to what the game gave me. That’s my thinking.”
Rogers said he is impressed with the facility at Illinois and the way the tournament has run so far under the direction of Holly Stalcup, Illinois’ director of event management at Khan. He said during Saturday’s matches he noticed clouds coming in about 5:30 p.m. and asked if the lights could be turned on.
“Three seconds later, the lights were coming on,” Rogers said. “It’s been like that with everything. I know this was probably the vision of Craig Tiley from years ago to build a facility to host a national event like this. This facility backs up his vision.”