The people who officiate tennis matches are supposed to exist in a quiet corner of the sports world, far from the spotlight. In most cases, if average fans know the name of a tournament referee, supervisor, chair umpire or line judge, something has gone terribly wrong, creating rare noise within an insular club whose members value rules and decorum over all else.
And so it has been for Soeren Friemel, a longtime top official for the U.S. Open, who stepped away last year amid an investigation into accusations of harassment and inappropriate relationships with underlings but has returned as a tournament supervisor.
Earlier this year, Friemel, who is from Germany, resigned as the head of officiating for the International Tennis Federation, the sport’s world governing body, after a disciplinary panel found that he had abused his power.
The United States Tennis Association initially stood by Friemel and planned to allow him to serve last year as the U.S. Open tournament referee — the top official at the event — as an investigation unfolded, but Friemel stepped away just before the competition. The tournament said he had to leave for “personal reasons.” The I.T.F. later suspended Friemel for a year, starting from June 2021.
The U.S.T.A.’s decision this year to bring him back to serve as one of the tournament supervisors has rankled the small community of current and former tennis officials, even though it is a lesser job than the prestigious and more public-facing post of tournament referee. Some wonder whether a supervisor who has violated codes of conduct can effectively enforce them on others, even if they believe, at least theoretically, in second chances and forgiveness for poor behavior.
The I.T.F. has not released details of complaints filed about Friemel, when and where they occurred, and who made them. The accuser has remained anonymous. Details of Friemel’s suspension was first reported by The Telegraph in Britain in February; his suspension from the I.T.F., which other tournaments honored, ended in mid-June.
Heather Bowers, senior director of communications for the I.T.F., said an investigative panel “found Mr. Friemel to have made inappropriate comments and invitation to an individual in a situation of power imbalance, causing unease and discomfort.” The panel ruled that Friemel had violated sections of its codes that require officials to conduct themselves professionally and ethically; prohibit them from abusing a position of authority or control; and forbid them from compromising the psychological, physical or emotional health of other officials.
Norm Chryst, who umpired men’s tournaments and Grand Slam events for 19 years before retiring in 2010, said the ruling should have disqualified Friemel from serving as an official for America’s signature tennis tournament.
“A guy that has been suspended by the I.T.F. for misconduct should not be hired by the U.S.T.A. to work at the U.S. Open,” said Chryst, who had previously worked with Friemel at a tournament in Germany.
Another top umpire resigned this spring from a top U.S.T.A. officiating committeeover the decision to bring Friemel back. The umpire, Greg Allensworth, a fixture of the tours and Grand Slams, left his role as vice-chair of the U.S.T.A. Officials Committee. Allensworth sent a blistering letter to the chair of the committee, which The New York Times has reviewed, stating that Friemel had verbally abused him in 2018. He also wrote that the ruling from the I.T.F. had caused Friemel to lose credibility with his colleagues.
“The U.S.T.A.’s decision on this matter is wrong, both practically and ethically,” wrote Allensworth, who declined to comment for this story.
The U.S.T.A. did not make Friemel available for comment for this article. Chris Widmaier, the chief spokesman for the organization, issued a statement on behalf of the U.S.T.A. saying that Friemel had served his suspension and noting his experience as a top official, implying that his experience merited his assignment at the tournament.
“In this instance, we determined that it was appropriate to bring Friemel back at a lower position, with less responsibility and authority, than he previously occupied,” the statement said. “We believe this decision is consistent with our unwavering commitment to the integrity of tennis and our policy requiring a workplace that is free of abuse, harassment, or other misconduct.”
Friemel’s tenure at the top of the U.S.T.A.’s hierarchy of officials was rocky from the start. The U.S.T.A. had planned to give the U.S. Open tournament referee position to Mark Darby, a longtime official with the ATP, when Brian Earley stepped down in 2018 after 26 years in the role. But Darby pulled out five months before the 2019 tournament after being diagnosed with a serious illness. Widmaier said the organization needed to make a quick decision and turned to Friemel, who had served as the chief umpire for the U.S. Open from 2016 to 2018.
American tennis officials were not pleased. Roughly a dozen of them wrote a letter to the U.S.T.A. complaining that the organization had overlooked several qualified Americans for the job. While the U.S.T.A. has a long history of hiring foreign talent throughout the organization, the officials argued that without a proper search and interview process, the U.S.T.A. had simply given away a top job at its signature event. The letter, which The New York Times has reviewed, was signed “USTA Umpires.”
Friemel impressed U.S.T.A. executives with his performance at the 2019 U.S. Open, and then again at the pandemic-restricted 2020 Open. There, he made the decision to default Novak Djokovic — then the world No. 1, the heavy favorite to win the tournament and the men’s draw’s biggest star — after Djokovic accidentally swatted a ball into the throat of a line judge during his fourth-round match.
Afterward, Friemel calmly explained the ruling, saying that while Djokovic had not intended to hit the line judge, because he had and she had suffered an injury, regulations required an automatic default.
Widmaier said the U.S.T.A. had begun pursuing a plan to prepare Jake Garner, an American, to succeed Friemel as the tournament referee. But that process slowed amid the canceled tournaments and travel restrictions caused by the pandemic. Garner, who is one of two assistant referees this year, is expected to take over the top job from Wayne McKewen of Australia during the next two years, Widmaier said.
For the time being, though, the U.S.T.A. remains committed to employing Friemel, even if he no longer has the anonymous existence that officials prefer to maintain.
“My job was to be invisible,” said Chryst, the former chair umpire. “Because if you don’t know my name then I have done a good job.”