The people who run tennis matches are supposed to be in a quiet corner of the sports world, away from the spotlight. In most cases, if regular fans knew the name of a tournament referee, supervisor, chairperson, or direct referee, something had gone terribly wrong, causing rare noises inside a secluded club whose members value rules and decency over everything else.
And so it was for Soeren Friemel, the longtime US Open chief, who resigned last year amid an investigation into accusations of harassment and inappropriate relations with his followers but returned as the tournament’s superintendent.
Earlier this year, Frimel, who is from Germany, resigned from the presidency of the International Tennis Federation, the sport’s world governing body, after a disciplinary panel found he abused his power.
The US Tennis Association initially sided with Frimmel and planned to allow him to serve last year as a US Open referee – the event’s top official – with an investigation open, but Frimmel stepped away just before the competition. The tournament said he had to leave for “personal reasons”. The ITF subsequently suspended Friemel for a year, starting in June 2021.
The WTA’s decision this year to reinstate him as one of the tournament’s supervisors has alarmed the small community of current and former tennis officials, despite it being a job less than the prestigious and more publicly-facing position of tournament referee. Some question whether a supervisor who violated the code of conduct can effectively enforce it on others, even if they believe, at least in theory, in second chances and forgiving for bad behavior.
The ITF has not released details of the complaints made about Friemel, when and where they occurred, and by whom. The accused remained unidentified. Details of Frimmel’s comment were first published by Britain’s Telegraph in February. His ITF suspension, which has been honored in other tournaments, expired in mid-June.
Heather Powers, the ITF’s senior director of communications, said the inquiry “found that Mr Frimmel had made inappropriate comments and invited an individual into a power imbalance, causing uneasiness and discomfort.” The commission ruled that Frimmel violated sections of its laws that require officials to act professionally and ethically; prevent them from abusing a position of authority or control; and prevent them from compromising the psychological, physical and emotional health of other officials.
Norm Crest, who ruled the men’s tournaments and major tournament events for 19 years before retiring in 2010, said the referee should have barred Frimmel from serving as the U.S. tennis superstar’s boss.
“The man who has been suspended by the ITF for misconduct should not be hired by the USTA to work at the US Open,” said Krist, who previously worked with Frimmel at a tournament in Germany.
Another senior referee resigned this spring from a USTA senior management committee over the decision to bring Friemel back. The referee, Greg Allensworth, a member of the Tours and Grand Slams, left his role as Vice Chair of the USTA Committee of Officials. Allensworth sent a blistering letter to the committee chair, which was reviewed by The New York Times, stating that Friemmel verbally abused him in 2018. He also wrote that the ITF ruling had caused Frimmel to lose credibility with his colleagues.
“The USTA’s decision on this matter is wrong, both practical and ethical,” wrote Allensworth, who declined to comment for this story.
The USTA has not made Friemel available for comment for this article. Chris Weidmeier, the organization’s chief spokesperson, released a statement on behalf of the USTA saying that Frimmel had served his suspension and cited his experience as a senior official, meaning his experience is worthy of being commissioned into the tournament.
“In this case, we have determined that it was appropriate to reinstate Frimmel to a lower position, with less responsibility and authority, than he previously held,” the statement said. “We believe this decision is in line with our firm commitment to tennis integrity and our policy that requires a workplace that is free from abuse, harassment or other misconduct.”
Fremmel’s tenure at the top of the USTA hierarchy has been rocky from the start. The USTA had planned to give the US Open referee position to Mark Darby, a longtime ATP official, when Brian Early stepped down in 2018 after 26 years in the position. But Darby withdrew five months before the 2019 tournament after being diagnosed with a serious illness. Widmaier said the organization needed to make a quick decision and turn to Friemel, who served as the lead referee for the US Open from 2016 to 2018.
US tennis officials were not happy. Nearly a dozen of them wrote a letter to the USTA complaining that the organization had overlooked many Americans qualified for the job. While the USTA has a long history of hiring foreign talent throughout the organization, officials argued that without a proper search and interview process, the USTA simply gave up a senior job at its signature event. The letter, reviewed by the New York Times, is signed “USTA Umpires.”
Friemel impressed USTA executives with his performance at the 2019 US Open, and then again at the 2020 Pandemic Open. There, he made the decision to dump Novak Djokovic – then world number one, favorite to win the tournament and the biggest star in the men’s lottery – after Djokovic accidentally hit a judge’s throat during the fourth round. match.
Then, Frimel calmly explained the ruling, saying that while Djokovic had not intended to hit the line judge, because he had sustained an injury, the regulations required an automatic default.
Widmaier said the USTA has begun pursuing a plan to prepare Jake Garner, an American, to succeed Friemel as the tournament referee. But that process has slowed amid canceled tournaments and travel restrictions caused by the pandemic. Widmaier said Garner, who is one of two assistant referees this year, is expected to take over from Australia’s Wayne McEwen over the next two years.
For now, though, the USTA remains committed to hiring Friemel, even if he no longer has the anonymous presence officials would prefer to maintain.
“It was my job to be invisible,” said Crest, the former head of the government. “Because if you don’t know my name, you’ve done a good job.”