Robert Hank’s tennis career might have started late by some standards, but he’s quickly making up for lost court time.
Hank, an Oak Grove resident who grew up in Coon Rapids and Andover, picked up the game only seven years ago but was recently honored with his second distinguished United States Tennis Association (USTA) Northern Section award in as many years.
Hank, who has officiated matches at nearly every level possible in only two years of work, was named the 2012 Rocky Rockwell Grassroots Official Award recipient during the section’s annual awards banquet at the Fred Wells Tennis and Education Center in St. Paul Nov. 17.
The award is given to a tennis official who has done outstanding work at the grassroots level.
Hank not only has played in several USTA-sanctioned leagues and tournaments, but officiated from juniors to Division I college-level and other adult-level competitions.
He also is a co-owner of the North Metro Tennis Association, which organizes several tournaments throughout the Twin Cities area including the Sandy Dyer Open, Twin Cities Tennis Challenge and Minnesota Open.
He was named the Jack Dow Adult Development Award recipient in 2011 for his work to grow competitive adult tennis leagues and tournaments.
Hank, who is currently working on his doctoral degree in mathematics at the University of Minnesota and is 6 feet, 5 inches tall, grew up playing basketball and continued that through high school at Fourth Baptist Christian School in Plymouth.
“I always wanted to play tennis, but I didn’t have a team at school so I would play once in a while with family and watched [it] on TV a little bit,” he said. “But it’s the perfect sport me. You run a lot around the court, which is good exercise for me without a lot of contact which can lead to injuries.”
He decided to become an official two years ago after talking with another tournament organizer who suggested it as a way to know the rules of the game better, according to Hank.
“I took an open-book test online from home and if you pass you’re in,” Hank said. “I passed and then there was more on-court training.”
Given the high demand for sanctioned tennis referees, Hank has quickly moved through the local ranks. “It’s easy to get into and move up right now,” he said.
Last spring he worked the Class AA boys’ singles third-place game and several MIAC and Division 1 matches in Minneapolis plus a few professional matches in southern Illinois this summer. Another highlight from the summer was the chance to be the chair umpire during a women’s pro tournament at Hilton Head, S.C.
Last spring he attended the USTA Chair Umpire Academy where attendees refine their skills to make proper calls.
Instead of working just one court, Hank said he’s responsible for watching over 10 courts at a time. “Ninety-nine percent of the time players are appreciative and great sportsmen,” he said. “It’s amazing how you don’t have to deal with [many] issues in tennis.”
Although players generally respect each other and the game, he has had to issue a few code violations or John McEnroe moments. “And they knew they were coming,” Hank said.
“Most of the time you’re not getting involved in the match at all.”
Players make their own calls, but Hank has had to overrule a poor call. “Oftentimes you’re standing there for long periods of time and then you suddenly have to make a split-second decision which, for the most part, doesn’t have a bearing on the outcome,” Hank said.
When asked if he had to chose between playing tennis, officiating matches or running a tournament, Hank responded, “I’d love to play tennis all the time in a perfect life. It would’ve been fun to get to the [college] D1 level or pro level, but I always like organizing things and it’s fun to organize a huge tournament.”
That big tournament is what Hank is trying to turn the Minnesota Open into, using the 1,000-player Colorado State Open as a model. “They draw players close to the top 100 in the world and the men’s open division winner gets $4,000 plus they show the semis and finals on local TV,” Hank said.
Jason Olson is at firstname.lastname@example.org