Chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani is being criticized after appearing to give Nick Kyrgios a pep talk when the 23-year-old Australian was struggling in his second-round U.S. Open match on Thursday.
The U.S. Open released a statement downplaying the exchange between Lahyani and Kyrgios, but not everyone is buying it, including the man most affected by the umpire’s unusual interaction.
What did Mohamed Lahyani do?
Facing Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Kyrgios lost the first set 6-4 and was down 0-3 in the second set when Lahyani hopped down from his chair during the end change and approached Kyrgios in his courtside seat.
In audio recordings of the exchange, Lahyani reportedly tells Kyrgios things like, “I want to help you, I want to help you” and “I’ve seen your matches; you’re great for tennis.”
Kyrgios has been disciplined before by the ATP for tanking matches – in 2016 he was fined roughly $19,000 for deliberately throwing away a match in Shanghai, and last year he admitted that he’d tanked eight tournaments because on certain days he’d “rather be doing something else than play tennis.”
His effort in this particular match could have drawn a “best effort” warning under the federations’s code of conduct as well.
Instead, Lahyani took a different tack.
And it worked for Kyrgios, who looked quite different after Lahyani’s intervention: currently ranked 30th in the world, he rebounded to win the second set 7-6, then finished off Herbert, 6-3 and 6-0.
Kyrgios downplayed the interaction, saying, “I’m not sure if that was encouragement … Look. I wasn’t feeling good. I know what I was doing out there wasn’t good. I wasn’t really listening to him, but I knew it wasn’t a good look. It didn’t help me at all.”
How are players reacting?
Not well, as you’d imagine.
Herbert, who was most impacted by the pep talk, believes Lahyani should be punished.
“After this, for sure,” the 27-year-old Frenchman said in his post-match news conference. “When I saw how it went, you never know what would have happened if Mohamed didn’t go down off the chair and started talking to him.
“I don’t know what to think. I don’t know if something happened, if Mohamed would have said something or not, it wouldn’t have changed anything. I cannot tell you. I just can tell you from that point Nick was playing much better.
“Actually, the umpire doesn’t have to talk to him at all. The only thing he can tell him is, yeah, pay attention, because if you continue like this, I’m going to give you a warning, something like this. They can tell him from the chair. He doesn’t need to go down. He doesn’t need to say the words he said on the video. I think this was not his job. I don’t think he’s a coach, he’s an umpire, and he should stay on his chair for that. ‘I don’t think he has to go down and take the position of a coach, like you see on the WTA Tour. I don’t know yet if it would have changed something. I just know he doesn’t have to do that.
“I know there’s something that should be done, I think. Like when I get a warning or when I get a point penalty, I get a fine. I think it’s both ways. It’s not like the umpires can give warnings and point penalty, then we have fines to pay. ‘If he makes a mistake, I think he should be also punished. But I think he doesn’t make that many mistakes, Mohamed. I think he’s a really good umpire. But just today I think he went over what he should have done.”
Roger Federer, who Kyrgios will face in the third round, was also critical of Lahyani.
“It’s not the umpire’s role to go down from the chair,” said Federer, a five-time U.S. Open champ. “But I get what he was trying to do. [Kyrgios[ behaves the way he behaves. You as an umpire take a decision on the chair: do you like it or don’t you like it. But you don’t go and speak like that, in my opinion.”
Is the USTA protecting Lahyani?
Lahyani has been an ATP umpire for over 20 years and is well-respected by players. But officials are explicitly instructed to “maintain complete impartiality with respect to all players at all times, and must avoid any real or perceived conflicts of interest.”
Kyrgios has a well-known history of being mercurial, and has publicly stated that he doesn’t love tennis as much as he loves basketball. He can show great personality on the court and could be a draw for the sport. But it’s not Lahyani’s job to help that along.
The statement released by the U.S. Tennis Association on Lahyani’s actions contradicts what microphones picked up, and won’t do much to tamp anger.
“The umpire came out of the chair because of the noise level in the stadium during the changeover to make sure he could communicate effectively with Kyrgios,” it read. “Lahyani was concerned that Kyrgios might need medical attention. Lahyani told Kyrgios that if he was feeling ill, that the tournament could provide medical help.
“He also informed Kyrgios that if his seeming lack of interest in the match continued, that as the chair umpire, he would need to take action. He again suggested to Kyrgios that he could receive medical attention. At the next changeover, Kyrgios down 1-4, received treatment from the physio.”
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