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All through the 1990’s and up until the end of 2012, he established himself among the elite as a chair umpire with unparalleled gravitas. Thereafter he became a top-of-the-line supervisor on the ATP Tour, exhibiting the same level of professionalism in that capacity, making a seamless transition to a different branch of officiating. Enlarging his stature with every passing year, Lars Erik Magnus Graff was named Vice President of the ATP in January 2020.

It seemed entirely possible that Graff would remain in the hierarchy at the ATP for the rest of his career. But he was offered the prestigious post of Co-Tournament Director at the China Open in Beijing, an ATP 500 and WTA 1000 event. He had not anticipated such a move, but this particular challenge was irresistible. Graff officially accepted in August 2020.

“They gave me a nice offer and I saw it as a great opportunity because the WTA 1000 is one of their four biggest tournaments [outside the Grand Slams],” Graff explains. “The ATP 500 has the most prize money [at that level] and they pay a lot of guarantees to the big guys. It is a tournament I n the biggest country in the world with the second largest economy. It couldn’t go wrong.

“And then it went completely wrong.”

He was referring to Covid-19, of course, and the cancellations of the 2020 and even more so the 2021 Beijing events. But Graff has still found himself immersed over this span in the shaping of a loftier future for Beijing. In turn, the ATP asked him to continue as a supervisor during the pandemic. He worked the 2020 Cincinnati tournament [held in New York], the US Open, more tournaments in the fall and the ATP Finals. This year the ATP requested that he work some more.

Its relationship with Graff has always been remarkable, based entirely on mutual respect.

“Miami was my officially my last tournament working for ATP,” says Graff. “They had told me it was no problem for me to work for them because it is difficult when you are in America during a pandemic. It was awkward at first because when Beijing was interviewing me for the job I had just been appointed Vice President at the ATP. I told the Chinese, ‘For me to leave the ATP it must be something extraordinary. It is not like I can easily say goodbye after 26 years. I have my heart and soul at ATP. I love the organization.’ Beijing told me this would be a better job for me because I would still be involved in the sport and I could travel to all of the big tournaments and every Grand Slam tournament as a representative of the tournament.”

During his time as an ATP supervisor, Graff traveled to China plenty—on this occasion, for the Shanghai Masters, with countryman Bjorn Borg.

During his time as an ATP supervisor, Graff traveled to China plenty—on this occasion, for the Shanghai Masters, with countryman Bjorn Borg.

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Beijing has been fittingly flexible with Graff during the pandemic. They don’t want him worrying about quarantining for three weeks if he travels to China, so he is working from home in Florida and traveling elsewhere. Graff expects to spend about eight weeks a year in Beijing in the future. He went to Indian Wells to represent his tournament, he will be attending the WTA Finals in Guadalajara and the ATP Finals in Turin.

The 2021 China Open (originally scheduled for October 4-10) was canceled in June. Graff was saddened by that development, but understood the reasons and did not allow himself to get too dismayed.

“It was a big, big disappointment and difficult for the players cancelling for the second year in a row when other tournaments are staying,” says Graff. “They did this for the health of the players of course. They did not want to take any risks of somebody coming there and getting infected. The rate of infection in Beijing is nothing compared to any other city n the world and they have just about zero cases, but they cancelled because of the Winter Olympics which is in February of 2022. A few weeks ago they decided the Winter Olympics will have no international spectators. Only Chinese spectators will be allowed.”

Be that as it may, Graff is delighted that the tournament is moving full speed ahead with their plans to make the China Open better than ever. The decision was made at the beginning of this year to enlarge the facility and make it more appealing to the players and more prominent in the public eye .

“This is a major upgrade of all the facilities in Beijing, costing $75 million,” says Graff. “It was supposed to take three years but because of the pandemic we are ahead of schedule. They are doubling the number of courts from 18 to 36, and building 6 indoor courts in case it starts raining or there is bad weather. They are calling this upgrade the ‘Brand New China Open’. So next year when the players come to Beijing they will see a completely new site which will be expanded 50 percent. And they have built a new VIP building with a players lounge as well as a state-of-the-art press center.”

All of these alterations are designed to add prestige to a tournament that already has achieved considerable popularity. Graff is convinced that size will translate into wider prominence.

“Now the ‘Brand New China Open’ is going to be No. 6 in the world for biggest space at the site behind only the four Grand Slams and Indian Wells,” he says.

The last time the China Open was held, in 2019, Beijing's champion was Dominic Thiem.

The last time the China Open was held, in 2019, Beijing's champion was Dominic Thiem.

As Graff navigates this new territory as a tournament director and wraps his arms around another position of authority that requires different skills, he realizes that this mission will test his ability to handle the politics of tennis. Having spent most of his career predominantly stationed in the men’s game, he now must equally prioritize the ATP and WTA.

“What I have done is to become a politician,” Graff says.

Elaborating on that theme and what it means for 2022 and beyond in Beijing, he speaks of Andrea Gaudenzi’s Strategic Plan for the ATP and laments that the first version for this year was not favorable for Beijing. Beijing is currently held in week 40 on the calendar, which is called a golden week with the biggest national holiday in China taking place in that timeframe. The initial version of the plan moved Beijing to either week 38 or 41.

That did not sit well with Graff.

“Beijing has been played for 15 years in that week [40] so you can not just take that away. Beijing is the biggest combined event in Asia and probably the only combined event in the world where a 500 for the men and a 1000 for the women play together. So I have spoken with Steve Simon from the WTA. I have made an application to upgrade our 1000 tournament to two weeks from nine or ten days as it is now. I have told the WTA we are ready to increase the prize money from just over $7 million to the same level as Indian Wells which is about $8.3 million. That is now in the works. Steve and I have talked a lot but he doesn’t really know what is going to happen with the ATP plan, so he is not sure he can make a change in the schedule for 2022 or 2023. As you can see there is politics between the ATP and WTA.”

Graff also sent in an application to the ATP in June to upgrade the men’s event to a 1000 level, reinforcing that week 40 is an imperative for the tournament come what may.

“The two big things for us with the ATP and WTA,” he asserts, “are not leaving week 40 under any circumstances, and making it a two-week tournament. We have ambitions to be on the same level as Indian Wells and Miami.”

Acutely aware that his vast experience as an umpire and supervisor serves him exceedingly well, Graff realizes that he has room for growth in other areas.

“I have to learn how to deal with sponsors and television,” he says. “On the competition side I have a lot of knowledge and experience that I can use. On the commercial side I need to learn a lot for sure about how the tournament is dealing with sponsors, or partners as they are called now. I also will look at television and spectators and how to make the place fan friendly. Maybe they are looking for a different kind of experience in Beijing than they are looking for in Washington.”

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For me this has been a lifetime journey, starting when I was a ball kid for Bjorn Borg in Sweden. My love for the sport is undisputed. Lars Graff

James Blake believes Graff will deal ably with the commercial part of the equation. The former world No. 4 is currently tournament director in Miami. He has no doubt that Graff will adapt to his new surroundings.

As Blake attests, “Lars can handle that. He went from umpire to supervisor, and now from supervisor to tournament director. He is good at everything he does around the sport. He is going to be a very successful tournament director in Beijing.”

Todd Martin—CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame— concurs. The two-time major tournament finalist shifted onto another terrain as tournament director at the Hall of Fame Championships in Newport starting in 2015.

“I look at Lars and think they were not just hiring a tournament director in Beijing,” he says. “They were hiring somebody who has been successful in multiple endeavors within professional tennis. So not only from a political standpoint does he understand how the tour functions—or dysfunctions if you will—but he has also ridden in the side cars with tournament directors all over the world, learning from them and knowing what the pressure points are. Lars knows success and has been exposed to the realm of tournament director.”

There is no question about that. But Graff realizes that the women competitors have not experienced the same history with him as the men. When Graff steps on site at the 2022 China Open, he will look into a sea of familiar faces among the men. But many of the women are just beginning to get acquainted with the essential Graff. He inherently understands that.

“I have to learn a lot,” he says of the WTA side of the coin. “I am trying to talk with different members of the WTA Player Council and members of the tournament council. People are introducing me to some of the women players that I had not met. Thomas Hogstedt have helped introduce me to players like Simona Halep. Last year in Cincinnati I was introduced to Naomi Osaka because I know her physio. I am using my connections on the tour, taking it step by step. I do think the men and women players are similar. Both are very competitive but friendly. The women might be even more friendly.”

"If you want to talk about a peak for me as an umpire," says Graff, "maybe it was that Wimbledon final in 2009."

"If you want to talk about a peak for me as an umpire," says Graff, "maybe it was that Wimbledon final in 2009."

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All through his storied career, Graff has assiduously taken care of his chief priorities in the business of tennis. He became a sectional umpire in Sweden back in 1974, graduated to regional umpire three years later, established himself as a national umpire in 1985, and then achieved International umpires status in 1987 under the official banner of the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council. He was accorded a Gold Badge in 1990, four years before becoming a full time ATP Tour official.

All of that fine work opened up the floodgates for Graff to move into more glamorous settings as an official. He would eventually call six title-round contests at the ATP Finals, 64 Masters 1000 finals, over 300 combined finals at Grand Slam tournaments, the Olympic Games, ATP Tour events, and WTA events. Moreover, he worked five Olympic Games, officiated as an umpire at more than 600 tournaments, and altogether sat in the chair for an astounding 7000 matches.

Graff umpired the epic Roger Federer-Andy Roddick Wimbledon final of 2009 and three years later called the Serena Williams-Agnieszka Radwanska title round contest on the same Centre Court. Fittingly, the last match he ever presided over in the chair was Novak Djokovic’s hard-fought victory over Roger Federer in the ATP Tour Finals at London in 2012.

After that riveting skirmish, Djokovic lauded Graff by saying, “Thank you for everything. It has been a pleasure having you as a chair umpire and I appreciate the work that you have done. You have always been fair and firm and that is what we players like.” Federer added, “Lars, congratulations on an amazing career.”

It was indeed astonishing. Graff believes he was at his very best when he went out on his own terms. But his most exacting test in the chair was undoubtedly that Federer-Roddick Wimbledon final twelve years ago. Federer prevailed that scintillating afternoon on the Centre Court 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14, serving a personal record 50 aces in a stirring contest.

Graff told me at the end of 2012, “If you want to talk about a peak for me as an umpire, maybe it was that Wimbledon final in 2009. Chair umpires probably peak between the ages of 45 and 55. But then there can come a day when your eyesight, hearing and reflexes are going down. So if I had still been umpiring at 60, I don’t think I would have been as good as I was when I was almost 49 in the Wimbledon final. When you get older you cannot keep up as well with the speed of the game anymore. The ball is traveling faster and faster. It is impossible to say you have the same eyesight at 60 as you do at 45.”

Graff got out of the chair when he was still at the top of his game. Both Blake and Martin clearly recollect the command Graff had as an umpire. Blake feels that what made Graff outstanding at his craft was not refusing to step over the thin line between confidence and arrogance.

“To be clear, there is a big difference between self-assurance and cockiness,” says Blake. “Some umpires in my day were full on cocky, but not Lars. He was just self-assured that he was doing his job well, and he was right about that.

“Lars was always calm in the chair and one of the few guys who would admit that he wasn’t100 percent sure about something. He was one of the best in terms of demeanor and one of those great umpires who was not combative. He used his common sense and judgement really well.”

Martin adds, “Sometimes with officiating in all sports we look at individuals and say they should all be robotic. Don’t be part of the game. To a certain degree that is appropriate, but Lars’ style to me was the utmost seriousness. He was not necessarily somebody you could yuk it up with, but he was absolutely fair, professional and human. Lars was always above board.”

The same was true for Graff as supervisor. As Blake recalls, “I worked with him in Miami. We were never having meetings just to have meetings. When we had them they were direct and to the point. At tournaments you have so many different sides with players, media, fans, sponsors. He was always thinking about balance and what is fair for the competitors.”

Graff's leadership, both as an umpire and supervisor, is what enabled him to secure such a coveted post as a tournament director.

Graff's leadership, both as an umpire and supervisor, is what enabled him to secure such a coveted post as a tournament director.

Graff vividly remembers an incident he had once with Nick Kyrgios. Kyrgios retired from a match and defaulted, then left the site abruptly without getting a medical exam as was required. Graff tracked the obstreperous Australian down. Kyrgios was 45 minutes away in the vehicle, and told Graff he would not return until the next day.

As Graff recollects, “I told Nick he could not do that. The rule is clear that you can not leave the site without seeing a doctor when you retire from a match. I told him if he was not coming back that would mean a very big fine. So he waited to come back until the next day. I told him again the fine was going to be very big. That was a very tough decision. I am not happy to fine anybody but I was showing the other players that the rules are the rules and we need to follow them.”

Leadership like that, both as an umpire and supervisor, is what enabled Graff to secure such a coveted post as a tournament director. His reputation for ethical equilibrium is unimpeachable. Graff has celebrated a career based on the consistency of his character, the supreme depth of his professionalism and the comfort he has found in his own skin.

Now he is eagerly anticipating the 2022 “Brand New China Open.”

“It was a natural step for me to go from a line umpire to a chair umpire to a supervisor,” he says. “Now with this opportunity in Beijing I am utilizing my knowledge of the game and the rules. I don’t want the China Open to be a copycat. When the players come, they should feel they are in China, so we will help them know the history of the country and the culture of dance, music and food.

“For me this has been a lifetime journey, starting when I was a ball kid for Bjorn Borg in Sweden. My love for the sport is undisputed. I believe I can bring something extra to the tournament with my energy and enthusiasm.”