By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
Clad in red, white and blue, Tony Nimmons strolls gracefully in and around the hallways at USTA headquarters, all smiles – not at all unlike how others spot him at the US Open each summer when he’s taking to the umpire’s chair for a match or to the USTA Officials recruiting booth to find the next generation of line callers. He wears several different hats to complement his patriotic colors - player, official, organizer, recruiter - and his energy superseded only by his resounding message: The next great umpire could be anybody with passion and love for tennis, no matter what background.
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"Tennis, to me, challenged my notion of sports. It’s a thinking sport above all – and to improve as an official or player strengthens the mind but also the body," said Nimmons. "Right now, we’re trying to recruit officials but there’s no formula for finding them. In my case, I enjoyed playing so much and saw another avenue in which to challenge myself. I love that no two matches are the same, and that there’s the opportunity to learn something new if you open yourself up to the possibility."
A veteran official who has worked all four Grand Slam tournaments and countless professional events, Nimmons is as stern on the court as he is affable when walking the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Its really the discipline necessary to be a good umpire: To have the ability to take the verbal abuse from world-class players – to bite your tongue when you’re right – to preserve a fair match that makes Tony one of the best in the sport.
Such is the product of a strict upbringing, being inside by sundown on a Friday night or observing the Sabbath on a weekend when most organized sports are practiced and played. He knew that discipline, along with God-given athleticism in a tall frame, would lead him to great things in life – yet it wasn’t until adulthood that he determined his true pathway.
"I was a maverick - here I am a tennis official, and if you came to me and told me back in high school that I would be in this line of work, I would have to you: 'C'mon, get out of here, I'm going to be a basketball player!'" said Nimmons, who is one of two active African-American certified silver-badge chair umpires in the United States.
A gifted hoopster, swimmer and fencer in college, Nimmons took to the game as he neared graduation from SUNY Utica and a shot at the NBA seemed slim – "the writing was on the wall when my eligibility ran out – at best, I was going to be a CBA player, or what would be the D-League now." Playing the game recreationally for a few years, the Queens, N.Y. native was hitting on a New York City parks court when he met friend and mentor Cecil Hollins for the first time in 1994.
"I kept hitting my backhand - my worst shot - into the neighboring court. Cecil was the one who kept feeding the ball back to me, very nice, 'Oh, here's your ball back.' I didn't know who he was at the time," said Nimmons. "After I was done with my hitting session, he walked over to me and said that he was watching more than just my stroke – that he liked my athleticism and that I should really commit myself to the game. Later that week, I turn on the television and see him working a professional match! The next time I saw him, I said that I'd love to try that and he put me in contact with a couple of affiliated folks, and here I am."
Hollins knew tennis talent as a gold-badge umpire – one of only a few dozen in the world, and the sole African American in his time – overseeing matches between the legendary players of the 90’s: Sampras, Agassi, Graf, Seles et al. Nimmons might have started his tennis career too far into his twenties to ever think about playing in a Grand Slam, but it didn’t mean that he had to stop dreaming about being there altogether.
"I was the oldest of four in my immediate family, so he was the older brother that I wanted but never had," said Nimmons. "Not only did he help me with my tennis career, but he taught me life lessons – how to live in New York City, for instance, when I had only ever known a strict, sheltered life under the care of my parents growing up."
As Nimmons learned the ropes of officiating, Nimmons and Hollins traveled the world over – up to 250 days out of the calendar year all not only across North America but to Europe, Asia and Australia as well – yet as the years progressed, Hollins became disenchanted with the organizations which ran professional tennis.
He confided in his friend his frustrations; the perception that black men and women could never truly break into the top echelon of the officiating game in tennis. Nimmons was supportive, but did not agree with the assessment.
"I thought we would have a problem – but this speaks to our relationship and both our personalities that we got through it," said Nimmons. "Cecil thought he was being wronged, rightly or wrongly, and he chose to act upon and fix what he thought was discriminatory about the state of the profession. For him, he was being treated unfairly, and perception is reality. For me, being an independent contractor and enjoying the game and people enjoying my work, I didn’t have the same issues.
"He’s a true friend – always will be. I can’t imagine anything changing that."
In the years since Hollins broke off from the USTA, Nimmons has noticed positive steps taken in making USTA Officials a more diverse, eclectic program – in fact, he’s taken it upon himself to be the brains behind many efforts to recruit more minorities into the ranks.
"I could see why people would think that there’s a ceiling – what we’re looking to do is put the most capable people in the highest profile spots. Right now, we don’t have that elite black official or female official that fits the description… but we absolutely will within the next generation, bringing more and more diverse candidates into the fold. They’re out there – I’m proof of that."