Norm Chryst, former ATP Tour Umpire, USTA SC Player of the Year

March 23, 2015 10:00 AM

Jonathon Braden
USTA South Carolina

BLUFFTON, S.C. – “Three all,” booms the man’s voice, still as loud and clear as years earlier when he presided over the biggest tennis matches of the day.

Norm Chryst is not chairing this contest, however; he is serving in the match tiebreaker.

Wearing his hat backwards, a black polo and Rogers Cup shorts, Chryst tosses the ball, rocks back and leaps forward to strike a flat, first serve.

Chryst, 68, is playing this 40 and Over 4.5 USTA League match on green clay, a tricky surface for serve and volley players. But for the next few seconds, he makes the surface seem ideal for the tactic.

Chryst, at age 68, still plays 4.5 tennis and plays at least four times a week. (USTA SC photo)

He rushes forward and, standing just behind the service line, taps a backhand half volley cross court. It lands inside a service box and out of reach of his opponent, who is Chryst’s junior by 24 years.

“Good Lord,” says a man watching the match. “Nice shot. That’s ridiculous.”

“Who’s this guy?” he asks a nearby friend.

“Norm Chryst,” his friend says. “You know him?”

The other man shakes his head.

“He was an ATP umpire… He did like Wimbledon, US Open… He was on TV all the time,” the friend informs. “When he questions your call, you think, oh, I guess it was out.”

On court, Chryst’s opponent does not question the call, but he does go onto victory, 3-6, 6-1, 1-0 (10-5).

After the match, when Todd Stone learns that his opponent is 68 and still playing 4.5 tennis, he offers a hopeful but also realistic statement. “I want to say I look forward to the day I’m doing what you’re doing,” Stone says and pauses. “I hope.”

Few people are doing what Chryst is doing.

He is ranked No. 17 in the country in the men’s 65 and over singles rankings. In doubles, for the same age group, only three teams are ranked higher than Chryst and his partner.

Last year, Chryst also beat out the thousands of adults who play tennis in South Carolina and was named the 2014 USTA South Carolina Adult Male Player of the Year.

When asked how he’s been so successful, Chryst said, “Well, I’m retired, and I basically play a lot of tennis.”

At least four times a week he plays on the green clay courts in Bluffton’s Berkeley Hall community, where he and his wife, Palma, – together the No. 1 mixed doubles team in the state and in the southeast – moved seven years ago to be closer to family.

The couple had been living in Scottsdale, Arizona, closer to California, where Chryst experienced his first ATP tournament as a chair umpire.

It was 1978, and during the day he was working as a programmer at Bank of America in San Francisco. But on weeknights and weekends, Chryst, a former walk-on turned No. 6 singles player at the University of California, Santa Barbara, played tennis. And he sometimes played with a friend who umped tennis matches in his free time.

That year, Chryst’s friend asked him if he wanted to help umpire the San Francisco ATP tournament in October. Chryst did and everything went well. And for the next 10 years, he used vacation time and free weekends to umpire ATP and WTA professional events in the region, including tournaments at Indian Wells and Los Angeles. Chryst even worked a couple US Opens.

But in March 1991, he was ready to quit. Bank of America had transferred him to Arizona, and Chryst wanted to simplify his life.

So when Tom Barnes, a friend and then US Open referee, called and asked Chryst to work in New York that fall, he said no. But Barnes prodded him and called in every favor Chryst owed him, and later that year, Chryst was in Flushing Meadows, chairing two matches a day for the tournament’s first week.

His flight was purchased for Sunday, though, and he had told his Bank of America boss he’d be back at work Monday.

But two days before Chryst was scheduled to leave New York, Barnes asked for another favor and told him he needed him to stay a little longer. Again, Chryst said no but eventually relented and worked through the weekend. And on Tuesday, when the remaining tournament umpire schedule was posted, Chryst learned he was staying through the final matches.

He had done such a good job the first week that Barnes scheduled him to chair the 1991 US Open Men’s Final.

Norm Chryst discusses a line call with Nicolas Kiefer during the 2005 RCA Championship in Indianapolis. Chryst's career as umpire took him all over the U.S. and the world. (Getty Images photo)

In two weeks, Chryst had gone from umpiring professional matches around Northern California to overseeing one of the biggest matches of the year, a Grand Slam final between Stefan Edberg and Jim Courier.

For Chryst, one moment in particular stands out during his first final as chair umpire. It was in the first set, and Courier disagreed with a linesman’s call and wanted Chryst to intervene.

“What are you doing out there?” Chryst remembers Courier saying. “That ball was out. Why didn’t you overrule it?”

“From here, I couldn’t tell if the ball was in or out,” Chryst remembers telling him. “I have to go with my linesman.”

Courier continued to question, and Chryst told him, “I know that linesman. He’s very good. I trust him.”

Then Courier eyed the men’s officiating supervisor courtside and shouted about Chryst. “Who is this guy? I’ve never seen him before in my life. Who is this guy?”

Chryst and the pro players didn’t know it at the time, but they would be seeing a lot more of each other during the next 20 years, including at six more US Open finals.

Two months later, Chryst was laid off from his programming job. About five months after that, in March 1992, he was in Mexico chairing challenger matches. And in July, the ATP Tour decided to hire him to as its fifth full-time umpire.

For the next 20 years, Chryst worked about 25 weeks a year, which turns into 40 weeks when including travel time. He didn’t get rich from officiating tennis matches – he made between $800 and $1,000 a week plus expenses paid – but he loved the perks.

“I like going to work in shorts and a polo shirt and sitting around in the sun all day,” Chryst said.His job took him to 34 countries and 88 cities. He umpired 4,368 matches, including 190 finals. He also worked eight Australian Opens, 15 US Opens and six Wimbledons.

He never worked a French Open. “The ATP never assigned me and it was never somewhere I wanted to go,” Chryst said. French wasn’t his strongest language, he said.

He preferred Australia. “The people are very nice. I like the weather,” he said. “You’d leave winter here and go to summer in Australia.”

Chryst’s worldly travels and busy schedule might help explain how he’s still playing so well at USTA League matches in Bluffton and at tournaments across the country.

As a chair umpire, he watched a lot of tennis but played only about an hour a month. Umpires worked all day and had only a small window of time to play before players needed the courts at 8 a.m. “I took 20 years off so my body seems to be doing OK,” Chryst said.

His playing schedule has changed, but on court, he’s kept the same mantra he had as an umpire: be consistent.

“(Players) always knew what they were going to get. I was consistent,” he said. “I would enforce the rules and I expected everybody to play by those rules.”

Although Chryst has retired from umpiring, he still makes it to the court often. (USTA SC photo)