For the first time in history an Arab woman is officiating at Wimbledon. Kuwaiti line umpire Aseel Shaheen admits she is living a dream after she got selected to be part of the officiating staff at the All England Club.
Dressed in a blue pinstripe shirt and beige pants – the uniform for all officials here at Wimbledon – the hijab-wearing Shaheen quickly stands out. London may be swarming with veiled Arabs, especially in the summer, but the sight of a woman in a headscarf in tennis circles is definitely not common.
“It’s an indescribable feeling being here. It’s something big, it’s a challenge. I’m the first female from the Arab world to be an umpire at Wimbledon. I was worried that they wouldn’t accept me because I wear a hijab but on the contrary, they really accepted me,” Shaheen said at the All England Club.
“London is quite open towards hijab, but maybe it’s not too common around the tennis world. But me wearing the hijab and working on court during a tennis match at Wimbledon is a sign that the world is starting to accept us more.”
Shaheen, 41, did not grow up in the world of tennis. She always loved sports and used to be a swimmer and a swimming coach until she came across a tennis officiating course in 2002.
“I had never known anything about tennis before then but I placed third in the course,” she recalls. “So I kept going. It became a challenge for me because they would always nominate the guys and ignore me. I told them I wanted to be an international umpire, I have the qualification and I have the language skills, because I speak good English. So I went to officiating school and I became a white badge in 2011.”
Since then, Shaheen has been attending as many tournaments as possible, working as a chair or line umpire at Futures and Challengers in order to gain more experience. She has also officiated at the ATP and WTA events in Doha.
Last year, she had her first experience at Wimbledon qualifying, which takes place at Roehampton, not too far from the All England Club. This year after getting strong evaluations in her work in the qualifying rounds – where she did up to six matches a day – she was selected to officiate in the Wimbledon main draw matches for the first time.
“It was a shock, I thought I was dreaming,” says Shaheen, who is waitlisted for the US Open.
“To be a chair umpire you need to be at least a silver badge. I’m a white badge. I was nominated for the bronze badge two years after I became a white badge and I did well in the school but they only passed five out of 16 people. I didn’t make the cut. The ones who passed are tennis people through and through. They are much more experienced."
She added, “In the Gulf, we lack experience because we don’t have that many big tournaments, we don’t have facilities… it was a great experience for me going through the bronze badge school, it changed me completely. In the white badge, you only know the rules, but when you go to bronze badge school, it’s the soul of the law and the communication of the players, everything."
"I need more experience and I will try to pass the bronze badge again. That’s why I’m participating in so many tournaments, doing Futures, doing whatever I can have a chance to see and learn,” she concluded.