Necessity proved to be the mother of invention for an Okotokian in new surroundings.
Forced to change gears as one of thousands of victims of the hard hit oil and gas industry during the recession, Okotokian KJ Read’s second act has him rocketing up the charts in his new career as a tennis official.
“I did sales there for about three or four years and then when everything cratered a few years back I was laid off,” Read said. “I was forced to find something else and that was another thing that pushed me to go into all this reffing.
“I knew I wasn’t going into oil and gas any time soon and didn’t really want to. It was actually a blessing in disguise because it forced me to take that leap of faith and go get certified and start at the bottom and see where it goes.”
In Read’s circles, few people coming out of oil and gas have had his same kind of luck.
“My best friend just got laid off last week, 17 years with a service company, now what’s he going to do? He’s got three kids,” Read said. “We don’t have any kids so I had that luxury where I could take these new ideas and go with it.”
In short order, the 45-year-oldís trajectory as an official had him working two of the biggest events tennis in Canada has to offer.
In August, Read worked as a line umpire at the Rogers Cup ñ featuring the likes of Serena Williams, defending champion Simona Halep and Canadian phenom Bianca Andreescu in Toronto followed by the historic Odlum Brown Vancouver Open, which has Canadian stars Eugenie Bouchard, Vasek Pospisil and Rebecca Marino on its roster.
Much like the athletes, officials too get nervous for the big matches.
“I still get the butterflies,” he said. “Not so much before, it’s more or less during. All of a sudden if it’s 6-6 and it’s going to go to a tiebreak, if you’re in a big match with big names and it’s 6-2 or 5-love, you really don’t feel it, just mentally you feel better.
“The status of the match defines my level of insanity.”
The Rogers Cup has always been an important event for Read, just never quite on this intimate of a level.
“Now that I’ve done a national it’s motivated me to get to Rogers,” he said. “Did I think I would be there in less than two years? Hell no.
“For the last five or six years I’ve always flied down and watched Rogers, my best buddy lives just outside Toronto and we’d go there every year and watch it. Jokingly I always said to him ‘I’m going to be here one day.’”
Read, a director on the marketing and promotion side and active participant with the Okotoks Tennis Centre, got his entry point into the world of tennis officiating at a local level while running provincial events at the courts at Tower Hill.
“They just had a clinic a year and a half ago, I went to it and that started the whole process,” Read said. “It was an introductory officials clinic then I just worked my way up the food chain from there up to a national level now.”
As he explained, he’s gradually gravitated away from playing and more towards different aspects and the next logical step was going from player to official.
“You still get some attachment to the game, get some exercise and make a little money and keep involved with it,” he said. “That was the main idea behind it.”
Helping the transition is Read’s past as a teacher as well as his considerable experience as both a basketball referee and slowpitch umpire, two roles he enjoys to this day.
“Between the three, you’re going full bore year round,” he said. “You’ve got the slowpitch season from May to say October and then basketball starts October to March and tennis is pretty well year round with the indoor and outdoor season.”
The Okotokian opted to pursue tennis officiating more seriously for a few reasons, one of them being strategic.
“The tennis is the newest of them all,” Read said. “But the one where there’s more chance (to advance) just because it’s not the most popular of the three. The competition between the three is a little bit less to try and climb the ranks.
“But I knew that and also targeted that.”
Officiating is not for everyone ñ it takes a certain ability to take criticism, handle pressure and shut off outside noise, irrespective of the sport.
He admitted it’s a work in progress to always showcase those sensibilities.
“You do have to tune out all the fans, coaches, players and focus, there’s no difference between the three,” Read said. “They all have their parts where everyone is an expert except you in their mind.
“Those are my three most comfortable sports, my most knowledgeable, my most passionate sports and therefore I thought I would do well in those three.”
A sports nut, Read jokingly said he drives his wife nuts with his 24/7 sports lifestyle, a passion for watching everything and being active in recreational basketball, slowpitch and tennis.
Now he gets to have a career being involved in the sports he loves.
“I should have done this 20 years ago,” he said. “I taught school for 17 years, I was a PE teacher. Being in the sports all that time with kids, it was a no-brainer to take that knowledge and experience into officiating.”
His experience teaching helps him deal with the colourful personalities that pop up every now and then on the tennis courts.
“Dealing with parents and kids, that’s the perfect transition,” he said. “A lot of umpires or refs that I know, they’re people off the street that might have been in sales for 20 years or worked in retail, but nothing to do with dealing with kids and parents.
“I don’t find it difficult to deal with people because I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
Tennis is famed for its legendary rows between players and officials, be it John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, a young Andre Agassi or more recently Serena Williams at Wimbledon.
For Read, setting an early precedent as a strong and commanding official is key to avoiding spats on the court.
“They know right away, if you know your stuff and make a few good calls right away, they trust you,” he said. “If you butcher one right off the bat and show (you’re timid) or don’t show confidence, they’re going to pick on you.
“The worst in terms of parents is tennis, they all think their kid is the next Roger Federer and they can do no wrong. The worst for players disputing hands down is baseball, everyone thinks they’re an expert on the field.
“Basketball is the most well behaved, yet the consequences are the least restrictive.”
Tennis features three officiating roles, the roving umpire, the line umpire and the chair umpire, all with unique challenges and pros and cons.
The rover is the entry point where officials learn the technical aspects, go to tournaments and rove from court to court, monitoring matches, settling disputes, and scoring issues. The line umpire calls the shots, in or out, on a given line with up to nine line umpires assigned to a match.
The chair umpire is the final authority on all questions of fact during the match and the zenith of officiating in the sport.
Read’s goals are to get into the chair and work national and international events.
For now, he’s making quick progression as a line umpire.
“If you do three national events, which I’ve done this year now, with Rogers and Vancouver that’s actually four, that allows me to do international,” Read said. “That’s what I’m hoping next year, that I can get a couple gigs down in the States, a couple in Mexico and if you do well it allows you to keep going and going.”
Closer to home, Read’s ascension and relationship with Tennis Alberta should only help Okotoks’ tennis scene.
“Now when we’re trying to get tournaments in, well the guy who does that is basically my boss, he’s the tournament co-ordinator,” he said. “Now that we’re trying to increase OTC in terms of getting tournaments down here and growing the game, it’s a great connection in terms of me working for Tennis Alberta and at the same time using that relationship to benefit the local tennis club.”
Less than two years into his second act, Read is both surprised at how far he’s come and aware of the advantages he’s had in forging a new career path.
“I’ve been lucky, I’ve never had to turn anything down,” he said. “A lot of these people that would be (officials) have other daytime things going on, careers or kids, I’ve been able to jump in with both feet and do every tournament I was offered, therefore you just meet the right people at the right time and it springboards you to the next tournament.
“I’ve been able to just work, work, work and if you get good ratings you just keep going and that’s what’s happened.”