Maria Nili spent years as a tennis official with the ATP and has been an umpire at each of the four grand slam tournaments. However, she has traded in years of traveling around the world for a job as the director of pickleball at The Yards, which is now about two minutes away from where she lives.
Tell us a little about your background?
I was born and raised in Poland, and my dad was an athlete himself, so from an early age I was always watching him train. I think I was always inspired by him and the hard work he would put in.
When I was younger, I was doing rhythmic gymnastics, which I loved and was probably about 6 years old when I started. I’m short and was always very flexible, so I was great material to do very good.
In the meantime, I started tennis after one day seeing my friend going out with a racket to go hit against the wall. I remembered my dad had an old wooden racket at home, so I went and got it and I remember going back to hit every single day for weeks.
I played throughout all my junior years, and it became my biggest passion.
However, I knew at 18 that even though my dreams were to be a Wimbledon champion, at that point it was not going to happen unfortunately.
How did you get involved as a tennis official?
I saw that one of my friends from the same tennis club did this certification to become a tennis umpire and suddenly she was in Qatar at this ATP event with all of the best players in the world. I thought to myself, “why wouldn’t I do that, just so I could stay connected to the tennis world?”
The first two years I was only working in Poland at small tournaments, but then I was super lucky to be selected in 2010 for the tournament in Qatar with the likes of Federer and Nadal.
It was an amazing tournament, and I was the first person to go and do the final in their first time.
What are some of the challenges that you have faced?
There were a lot of people in Poland that were jealous and not happy that I was going somewhere for the first time, and they had been at it for 10 years.
Going to the grand slams was the hardest for me because you needed support from your federation and my federation believed that I was given everything. They just wouldn’t understand that it was just me doing a good job, so for many years I was punished for doing great.
Eventually the grand slams decided that I was not being treated fairly by my federation and they decided to go without their support.
How different was the experience of officiating the grand slam tournaments compared to others you had done?
It helped me in a financial way because the grand slams pay great money, and I was still a (college) student at the time.
I was getting the chance to travel the world working in tennis and make money doing it. That was just amazing!
I loved the tournament life and being behind the scenes seeing all the best players not only on court, but also off court when the cameras were off.
How difficult was it to be traveling around the world for your job and still studying in college?
I always picked pretty interesting and difficult studies, because I am a chemical engineer, and I did a masters in nano technology.
I knew when I started traveling for tennis that there was no way for me to do it without missing labs and other stuff, so I asked my dean to see if there was anything that I could do.
He was a huge tennis fan, and when he heard it, he said not to worry about anything and that I could have this lab there and take this exam here in order to make sure that its fair for everyone else but could still be done. I couldn’t believe it!
How did you get involved in your current role as director of pickleball at The Yards?
I worked as an umpire for 12 years but worked for ATP for probably eight years all together.
I was perfectly happy and loved it, but then I was also traveling 14-plus weeks all around the world.
We were playing tennis here and saw that they converted two of the tennis courts into pickleball courts.
From the first moment being on the pickleball courts with the funny paddles and the funny ball, I couldn’t believe how much I like it.
I basically stopped playing tennis because I was so into pickleball, and I started here in December.
I went from traveling around the world to working two minutes from where I live, it’s amazing how everything in your life happens for a reason.
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