February 19, 2024

Open Court


Racism accusations rock French ITF event

An ITF tournament in France last week is under the microscope after Omani player Fatma Al-Nabhani went on Instagram with a list of instances of unfair treatment she attributed to racism.

The situation came to a head last Thursday, in the second round of the Engie Open against French player Myrtille Georges.

It’s a tournament in the French central city of Clermont-Ferrand, an indoor event with a $25,000 total purse.

Al-Nabhani, 27, is ranked No. 438. Other than wild cards into the Doha and Dubai events, she mostly plays ITF events at the $15,000 and $25,000 levels.

So she’s no stranger to poor line calls, spartan conditions and challenging circumstances.

But what Al-Nabhani said she experienced last week – on court as well as off – put together, was quite the package.


Email to the ITF

Al-Nabhani sent an email to the International Tennis Federation.

She forwarded that to the Dubai-based website Sports 360, providing additional details.

Al-Nabhani said she’s been playing the Pro Circuit since 2007. And she had never had an issue with the leggings she always wears, to “respect her religion” and still feel comfortable playing tennis.

Until last week.

“Day 1, first round match against Elsa Jacquemot from France, the French chair umpire before doing the toss looked at me and said you need to remove your leggings. I told him that I won’t remove it and I have been playing like this since 12 years. He said then you can’t play. I told him please check with the tournament director before saying anything,” she wrote in the letter.

“The tournament director told him rules can allow her to play with leggings under the knee. So the chair umpire asked me to pull my leggings higher two inches so I can play. Because those two inches for him was a big deal. I pulled my leggings and didn’t say anything and played my match.”  

Embed from Getty Images

Other issues Al-Nabhani refers to are some of the things that occur regularly in competitive tennis matches with no electronic review system – and no ballkids.

Her reaction to them no doubt was heightened by the treatment she said she received in the first round match (also against a French player). As well, the match featured tiebreaks in the first two sets. And it was clocking in at three hours by the time things began to come to a head.

But a lot of little things added up to quite a bit.

A local newspaper report referenced Al-Nabhani’s protestations to the umpire, and the fact that Al-Nabhani called the trainer for a “diplomatic pain” before retiring. It quoted Georges as saying her opponent felt she had been robbed.

Al-Nabhani’s allegations

*Al-Nabhani said Georges would leave the ball inside the court (we’re assuming when she missed first serves). Al-Nabhani asked for the balls to be removed. But she said the umpire replied that “it’s her side and her right”. She also said the chair umpire wouldn’t even ask Georges to respect Al-Nabhani’s wishes, as a courtesy.

*Georges served to stay in the match at 5-7, 5-6 – clearly having realized the stray balls were distracting her opponent, Al-Nabhani alleges Georges would take the three balls in play. She would then keep two, and hit the third to land near the net – deliberately. After the second time it occurred, Al-Nabhani asked the chair umpire to speak to Georges again. Or, alternatively, to have the supervisor come out. He wouldn’t do either.

*There were linespeople on the match. But Al-Nabhani claims she had seven match points in the second set, and the chair umpire kept overruling balls – all against her. She said at on at least five of those match points, he overruled incorrectly. And when she went to him to tell him he needed to be fair, and focus, and that it wasn’t acceptable … he issued her a code violation. That, even though her opponent had been using bad language in French throughout the match, without consequence.

*There were additional issues both on and off the court. Those included a charge that the chair umpire conversed with her opponent in French during the changeovers, and laughed. She clearly felt they were laughing at her.

Discouraged, feeling everything was against her Al-Nabhani retired down 0-3 (just one break of serve) in the deciding set.

The ITF said, in a message to Sports 360, that it would investigate.

“The ITF takes any allegation of racism very seriously. In accordance with our regulations we will conduct an investigation into the matter, gathering information from all relevant parties. We will respond to the player and proceed with the matter promptly,” was the statement.

Views from the other side

The Sports360 story hasn’t been updated. But the French sports newspaper l’Équipe spoke to the tournament officials and opponent Georges..

The French player Myrtille Georges, ranked No. 266 and the same age as Al-Nabhani at 27, says racism had nothing to do with that occurred during their match last week.

Tournament supervisor Nicolas Peigné told L’Équipe that Al-Nabhani’s criticisms were improper and didn’t make much sense.

“She felt dismissed because she’s Muslim. But there are three other Muslims in the draw, and we have a Turkish umpire officiating here who is Muslim,” he told L’Équipe.

Peigné said the chair umpire asked him for a confirmation “to be certain”.

And that after he confirmed the leggings were regulation, she played on.

But he didn’t address Al-Nabhani’s contention that before it got to that point, the chair umpire had insisted she remove them and refused to allow her to play.

No ballkids on the court

The Clermont-Ferrand ITF last week took place in rather modest surroundings. (Google Maps)

Peigné also said that without ballkids, each player is responsible for the balls on her side of the court. But he didn’t address whether or not that player should clear the stray balls if asked by the opponent.

(We reached out to an experienced official to clarify this. And that official said a ball that is stationary cannot be considered as a hindrance. They would only instruct a player to clear a ball if they thought it was in a position potentially dangerous to one of the players. But they would have nipped that “hitting the third ball at the net” initiative in the bud.)

Peigné said that the white badge umpire, Maxime Frèche-Thibaud, is an experienced official. He added that because the tournament was played on an (indoor) hard court, there unfortunately were no marks to check.

“The match was close; she had match points that didn’t go her way,” Peigné told L’Équipe. “It was nothing against her. She felt persecuted for no reason.”

Peigné also added that Al-Nabhani’s mother Hadia argued the line calls from the stands. At that point Peigné escorted her out of the area for a discussion about the fact that she wasn’t do that.

Witness said racism not a factor

French player Julie Gervais said the story was nonsense. “All the players got umpiring errors and we didn’t cry racism,” she Tweeted. “They also (ticked us off) about the long leggings. And we didn’t have any water for practice, either. But we didn’t create a scandal.”


She did confirm (in between some rather offensive replies to her Tweet), that Georges did, indeed leave stray balls on the court.

Big deal over nothing

L’Équipe also published an interview with Georges, who defeated another Muslim player, Ayla Aksu of Turkey, before losing in the semifinals. 

“The story is starting to take on huge proportions for no reason. For two days, I’ve been receiving insulting messages because of a girl who just wasn’t able to finish her match. It’s a shame,” Georges said. “I’m a bit surprised about her message on social media. In no way was it racism.”

Georges said to err is human, and all the players had to deal with erroneous line calls. But she said that the chair umpire did not overrule five match points against Al-Nabhani, as the opponent claimed. Georges said Al-Nabhani only protested one call on match point, which Georges said wasn’t close (Gervais concurred).

“She knows it, deep down. Her coach was on that line. He knew it, but he chose to push her,” said Georges. She added that no one had water for practice and that the generally challenging conditions are something you expect and accept at the $25,000 level. So you adapt. “Her mother and her coach would have done better to try to calm things. Instead, they added fuel to the fire.”

Georges also made a very good point: had Nabhani converted ANY of those multiple match points, this would never have been a story at all.

What’s next

We’ll see what the ITF’s investigation turns up.

(We already know they rarely work weekends, so it might take a bit of time).

But you’d expect they’ll speak to the same parties L’Équipe spoke to – the supervisor, the opponent. And you’d expect the chair umpire will no doubt defend himself vigorously.

So it’s unlikely they will come to a different conclusion. It’s a situation that even when it occurs, it highly difficult to prove and comes down to a “she said, they said’ situation.

But one thing is certain: the French need to get off the women’s case for wearing leggings.

The most notorious example, of course, was French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli’s sortie against Serena Williams’s French Open outfit, long after the fact. His “argument” was based on these imaginary legging-limit rules.

We present, as evidence, (male) doubles specialist James Cerretani, during the French Open this year.


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