NEW YORK – We will never know if the outcome of the second-round match between Nick Kyrgios and Pierre-Hugues Herbert would have been different, had high-profile umpire Mohamed Lahyani not intervened.
But he did. And not for the first time with a player struggling on court.
The 23-year-old Aussie was down a set and 0-3 in the second.
And after a fairly … pedestrian effort in that third game, he sat down.
And Lahyani came down from his chair to dispense what could best be described as a pep talk.
At worst, you could describe it as some on-court coaching – from a most unlikely and inappropriate source.
UPDATE: The USTA came out with another statement just before the start of play on Friday, confirming what everyone except them had already figured out. That’s really all they needed to do in this case.
“He said he liked me”
“We all know I had that moment in Shanghai where the referee said the same thing, It’s not good for the integrity of the sport, doesn’t have a good look. It happens in other sports, too. In soccer, if someone is being roughed, they get warned. If you keep doing this you get penalized. Same sort of thing,” Kyrgios said.
“I’m not sure it was encouragement. He said he liked me. I’m not sure if that was encouragement. He just said that it’s not a good look,” he added. “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. Like, I was down 5-2. If it was 3-0, and maybe if I would have come back and won six games in a row, fair enough. Didn’t help me at all.”
Kyrgios is splitting hairs because although the turnaround wasn’t immediate, it was comprehensive. From being a set and 2-5, the Aussie lost just four more games in the next 2 1/2 sets to advance 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-0 and set up a meeting with No. 2 seed Roger Federer.
Had he played for the next half hour the way he had played in the first set and a half, it might well have been over in straight sets against a solid opponent. Or maybe not.
“I felt I played probably some of the best tennis I played in the third and fourth sets. My intent was a lot better. I was just more involved in the match,” Kyrgios said, pointing to the difficult weather conditions that got a little better after the first set and a half.
His next opponent, Federer, said Lahyani needed to stay put in his perch.
“It’s not the umpire’s role to go down from the chair. But I get what he was trying to do. He 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,” Federer said.
“I don’t know what he said. I don’t care what he said. It was not just about, ‘How are you feeling? Oh, I’m not feeling so well.’ Go back up to the chair. He was there for too long. It’s a conversation. Conversations can change your mindset. It can be a physio, a doctor, an umpire for that matter.”
The USTA responds
The initial statement from the USTA, though, let Lahyani off the hook. There may be more to come as the various powers-that-be look at it more closely.
That doesn’t appear to jibe with that everyone watched.
Try to remember the last time you saw an umpire get down from his chair and go check the “condition” of a player.
Even if there’s an acute injury, they nearly always stay up in their chairs while the doctor or physio tend to the player and dispense appropriate treatment. And this was not an acute injury; it wasn’t an injury of any kind.
And there is music playing on changeovers at pretty much every tournament these days. So if Lahyani were to give Kyrgios a heads’ up that he might have to sanction him if he didn’t start giving his “best effort” – not a long conversation – he probably doesn’t need to get down from the chair and get in his grill.
It also, as far as we know, is not the umpire’s job to determine whether a player needs medical attention, or to encourage him or her to seek it.
As for the “treatment” from the physio on the next changeover, Kyrgios said in his press conference that there was no treatment.
“I didn’t call the trainer on. I just wanted some salt packets,” he said.
Lahyani has priors
Bernard Tomic in Sydney in 2016
Gaël Monfils in Valencia in 2011.
Something like what Ali Nilli did here, in Shanghai, when it was pretty blatant, would be more appropriate.
There was no getting down from the chair, no concern for his well-being. Just a pretty straight-up statement of fact.
Bad optics – especially in a wagering world
The point of all this is that while Lahyani – who is one of the better umpires out there, despite (and partly because of) his love for being part of the show – meant well, there are two players on the court.
If one player is seemingly intent on finishing his work day early – especially when he’s by far the higher ranked of the two – that’s all to the benefit of the opponent that day. For Herbert to make the third round of singles at the US Open is a big deal.
There is no on-court coaching on the ATP Tour, and no on-court coaching at all at Grand Slams. So if a player is flailing, it’s up to him or her to figure out a way to climb out of the abyss. That’s one of the beauties of an individual sport.
And in Kyrgios’s case, he’s been known to just throw in the towel before.
It is not up to the umpire to get involved in a way that could help one opponent – and thus by definition be a potential detriment to the other.
Here’s a relevant section in the list of a chair umpire’s duties (per the ITF):
In today’s climate, with betting on tennis the subject of a multi-million dollar investigation and at least a cursory effort ongoing to try to curb it, actions like this could make a chair umpire open to accusations that he was trying to help turn the match in Kyrgios’s favour.
That’s highly unlikely to be the case; few would doubt that Lahyani loves the sport and was coming from a good place. He just got carried away – again.
But it doesn’t matter what the intention was. Even the appearance of impropriety is not what the sport needs right now.
Herbert furious – but not at Kyrgios
The first person Herbert was mad at was himself – for not closing out the second set when he had the chance.
“I don’t know where he was for the first two sets. I know he was on court after when he started playing, when he kicked my ass and was much better than me,” Herbert said of Kyrgios.
But he felt Lahyani had overstepped.
“I think Mohamed, he’s actually a really good umpire. And I think he knows everybody. I think he cares for Nick. He cares for the show also because people were going after the first set. Everybody was there for the start. When they saw Nick in a bad mood, I would say, for the first two sets, they started going away,” he said. “I don’t know if something happened, if Mohamed would have said something or not, it wouldn’t have changed anything. That 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.”
Herbert allowed that the pep talk may have had no effect at all – that Kyrgios is good enough that if he just decided to start playing, the result might have been the same. But we’ll never know.
Later, upon getting wind of the USTA’s statement, Herbert issued one of his own.
(We’ll translate the original French version here, because the English version is a little rough).
“Following my second-round defeat at the US Open against Nick Kyrgios, and all the controversy surrounding the actions of Mohamed Lahyani, allow me to give my version of events.
First thing, I didn’t hear the discussion between Lahyani and Nick during the match, and that event did not affect me personally.
For his part, Nick isn’t to blame because he didn’t ask for anything. What’s certain is that from that precise moment on, his behaviour changed. And after that, he pretty much dominated me.
However, after seeing the video, I’m angry at the umpire, who shouldn’t get down from his chair to talk to Nick to try to get him to listen to reason. Did that action have an impact? We’ll never know …
I’m even angrier about the USTA’s press release, and with the tournament management that is playing us for fools – trying to convince us that the umpire absolutely did not overstep his job description, while his words are audible on nearly every video.
To err is human but I await explanations – if not sanctions. When we players cross the line, we also face sanctions.
Social media and cheerleading to end the day
Next up, Kyrgios will have Roger Federer to prepare for.
But after going on social media and giving some people some stick (including some he should probably leave alone) and receiving some in return from Andy Murray, he went out to play the supportive boyfriend.
Kyrgios’s girlfriend Ajla Tomljanovic was playing her second-round match later in the day against Katerina Siniakova.
He wasn’t able to go out on court and give her a pep talk. But she almost pulled it off before going down 6-3, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4).