By Bob Tompkins
Written for the LSWA
When Marie Gagnard showed up at the USTA National Tennis Center in New York City to officiate her first U.S. Open in 1984, she was feeling lucky to be there.
Yet, any self-esteem she had about being there took a quick hit.
“The chairman of officials, a grumpy sort, looked at me and my credentials and barked, ‘Where have you worked?’ I told him, ‘I haven’t.’ He said, ‘You better be damned good!’ ”
She was – and still is, 35 years later, as one of the longest running officials at the prestigious event.
Fewer than 10 officials who are still current, she guesses, have worked longer at the Open than she has. In 2010, as a line judge during the U.S. Open women’s final, Gagnard became the first Louisiana official to work a Grand Slam final.
That highlight in her officiating career was among the reasons she is receiving the Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award Saturday, June 8, in Natchitoches and being inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. For information on all of the Induction Celebration events June 6-8, including the ‘80s Bowling Bash June 7 in her hometown of Alexandria, visit LaSportsHall.com or call 318-238-4255.
“That they took me (in ’84) was amazing,” said Gagnard, who can thank Robert Cavanaugh for making her debut at the Open that year. It was the weight of a recommendation by Cavanaugh, then the district chairman of tennis officials in Louisiana, that delivered Marie to America’s tennis mecca at Flushing Meadows in Queens.
Cavanaugh, a former chancellor at LSU Alexandria where Marie played tennis for two years when it was a junior college, was familiar with Gagnard’s officiating skill. Two years earlier, she had worked an exhibition match at LSU between Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, the top two ranked men’s players in the world.
“The exhibition match at LSU between Borg and Connors was her professional debut,” said Cavanaugh, who had been serving as a ref for LSU’s home team matches at that time. “When they got ready to do the exhibition, they asked me if I could provide some (volunteer) officials.”
Cavanaugh said he could, and he called Marie and some other tennis types from the Alexandria-Pineville area, asking them to volunteer.
“Marie jumped in with both feet and did a bang-up job,” said Cavanaugh. It might have been just an exhibition but was “still the best tennis you’ll ever see,” according to Cavanaugh.
That first experience as an official for Marie was intoxicating.
“After that, I said, ‘I want more of this. Where do I sign?’”
In 1976 as the first person to receive a tennis scholarship at Louisiana College, Marie, a graduate of Alexandria’s Bolton High School, would become the first native of Louisiana to reach the professional umpiring level in tennis.
Her trail-blazing efforts and her longstanding accomplishments as a professional tennis official have led to her selection as this year’s winner of the Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award presented by the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. With a résumé that includes working the U.S. Open 29 times since 1984, including the last 26 years, she is being inducted with 10 other legends into the state’s sports shrine in Natchitoches.
Her love affair with tennis took root in summer boredom in 1971 for her and her older sister by one year, Alice. Her mother wrote to “Action Line” at the Alexandria Daily Town Talk, asking, “What is there for kids to do around here besides Little League baseball?”
The answer offered a few alternative activities, including free tennis lessons at Bringhurst Park.
“The City created eight days of free lessons for me and Alice and one of Alice’s classmates,” said Marie. “That was the start.”
She recalls she and Alice each bought a “Bluebird” racket for $1.19.
“On my sixth lesson, I went to hit the ball and the ball hit the neck of the racket and broke it in half. Then I bought one for $4.97.”
She and Alice quickly took to the game, with Alice starting to play competitively first as a freshman at Bolton. The following year, Marie joined the Bolton team as a freshman.
Bolton’s coach at the time was Alice (Kelly) Doyle.
“She was an extremely hard working young lady,” Doyle said of Marie. “She gave her all in everything she did. She was so dependable and worked so extremely hard. What she lacked in talent, she made up for it with hard work, and developed her talent.”
Led by the Gagnard sisters in 1975, with senior Alice at the No. 1 girls singles position and junior Marie at No. 2, Bolton won the Class AAA state championship, and Marie was the state singles runner-up as Bolton’s ace in 1976 – the year she received Louisiana College’s first scholarship for its new tennis program.
“She was my No. 1 player when she first started,” said Frank Ashley, LC’s first tennis coach, now a longtime senior associate dean in the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M. “We didn’t win a lot of matches, but she was a fighter, and never gave up. Her tenacity, just how hard she played really was an inspiration to other players on the team. She got to a point where, physically, she couldn’t compete, but because of her love for the sport, she wanted to stay attached to it, and she got into officiating.”
A former teacher for more than two decades at the elementary, high school and college levels in Acadiana and Central Louisiana, Gagnard, now a resident of Lafayette, rose to the top level of tennis officiating, but it did not come easy.
She is a two-time thyroid cancer survivor; the second discovery came shortly before her induction into the Louisiana College Wildcat Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000. That same year, she went through a divorce after 8½ years of marriage that triggered depression, and that depression and the stress of trying to raise two handicapped stepchildren weighed heavily in her decision to take a two-year hiatus from officiating.
Before she went to the U.S. Open in 1993, she received her first diagnosis of cancer and underwent surgery but incurred a paralyzed vocal chord. She went to the Open, thinking her voice would come back, but it didn’t and she had to return home.
“I went through speech therapy and, ultimately, implant surgery on my vocal chord,” she said.
She recovered enough to make a triumphant return in ’94 to the Open.
“On the first day, when I got my first call, I belted it,” said Marie. “The national evaluator gave me a thumbs up, and I was beaming inside.”
Perhaps Marie’s best experience in tennis was at the 2012 U.S. Open, when she celebrated an officiating trifecta:
* She called the men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, won by Murray, in a duel that tied the longest U.S. Open men’s final in history (4 hours, 54 minutes), as Murray became the first Brit since Fred Perry in 1936 to win a Grand Slam singles title.
* She called the women’s final when Serena Williams won her fourth U.S. Open singles title, defeating Victoria Azarenka, despite Azarenka serving for the match and leading 5–3 in the third set. With the victory, Williams became only the third woman in history to win Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open in the same season.
* She also called the men’s doubles final, with America’s Bryan brothers (Bob and Mike) breaking the all-time record for Grand Slam victories by a doubles team.
“For all three of them,” Marie said, “not only was I on court for match point, but all three winners were in front of me when they won – when Murray fell on his knees, when Serena fell on her back and when the Bryan brothers did a chest bump. In the picture of Serena, my knees are in the background.”
Marie was in the background early in her tennis career to her sister, Alice, who says they were “two peas in a pod” in those days. Alice, a professor of advertising at SMU for 33 years, who coached tennis for three years at Marquette (1983-85), says she tries to see her sister at the U.S. Open as often as possible.
“I’ve come to appreciate how well trained those officials are, how professional they are, how responsible they have to be in a day with electronic checks and balances,” Alice says. “I’m a big fan of linespeople now.
“Think of having to concentrate to find where the ball lands on the court, and those balls are coming at 140 miles-per-hour,” Alice continues. “When you make mistakes, it’s very public.”
It’s very public, too — and satisfying — being correct on a call, as Marie was in March during an ATP Masters 1000 match in California between Giles Simon and eventual tournament champion Dominic Thiem of Austria, ranked No. 4 in the world. Giles challenged a “fault” call by Gagnard on a serve, and the slow-motion, stop-action replay showed the call was accurate by perhaps the width of a weevil’s snout.
“She couldn’t have done better with the aid of the Hubble Telescope,” cracked Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame sportscaster Lyn Rollins after seeing that.
A National Guard veteran of both Desert Shield and Desert Storm as a support battalion’s computer programmer analyst, Marie worked the fiery Naomi Osaka-Serena Williams championship match at last year’s Open. Osaka became the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam title, but the match generated controversy as a result of a series of rants Williams had with chair umpire Carlos Ramos.
“I was standing right by Serena,” Marie said. “It was deafening, it was so loud. I was just standing there, thinking, how’s this going to play out? All I can say is, the chair umpire is one of the most seasoned and did everything by the book.”
Gagnard, 60, has seen and been a part of major professional tennis for decades, and she’s not ready to give it up.
“Every day that the bus drops us off at the front gate and we walk to where we’re going to go,” Marie said, “it feels like I’m doing a happy dance. When that feeling leaves me, I won’t go anymore.”