Nick Kyrgios received what turned out to be a valuable pep talk from the umpire on the way to defeating Pierre-Hugues Herbert at the US Open on Thursday.
The Australian was down 6-4, 3-0 against his French opponent and seemingly well on his way to quitting or tanking his second-round match when umpire Mohamed Lahyani climbed down from his chair, saying he wanted to ‘help’ Kyrgios.
Lahyani’s intervention did the trick, as Kyrgios went on to win 19 of the next 25 games to seal a 4-6 7-6 (8-6) 6-3 6-0 victory and set up a third-round clash with Roger Federer.
The only problem? Umpires aren’t allowed to give struggling players any form of on-court coaching or pep talks.
The incident unleashed a torrent of comment and criticism on social media.
I am racking my brain to think of a situation requiring a chair umpire to speak like that to one player.
I umpired thousands of matches
I was ATP head of officiating
I can’t think of one. https://t.co/mq4bbfkVUz
— Richard Ings (@ringsau) August 30, 2018
Didn’t know umpires were allowed to give pep talks .. 🤔 https://t.co/82k0cQvwZM
— Donna Vekic (@DonnaVekic) August 30, 2018
After initially releasing a statement defending Lahyani, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) later said tournament officials were still reviewing the incident.
Kyrgios’ opponent Herbert clearly felt the umpire had stepped over the line.
“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,” he said.
“If he makes a mistake, I think he should be also punished. He doesn’t make that many mistakes, and I think he’s a really good umpire.”
So first off Layhani is a good man who genuinely cares about people. I really like him as a human….. he did something he shouldn’t have. This is behavior we should see more of these days. Unfortunately it was the wrong time/place for it. Selfishly I hope they go easy on him https://t.co/lwU63jVS3I
— andyroddick (@andyroddick) August 30, 2018
Earlier, the USTA released a statement saying that Lahyani only left his chair to check on Kyrgios’ physical condition, after the Australian said he was not feeling well because of the heat in New York and asked for some salts.
“He also informed Kyrgios that if his seeming lack of interest in the match continued, that as chair umpire, he would need to take action,” the statement read.
TV microphones did not capture the entire conversation, although Lahyani could at one point be heard saying: “I want to help you. This isn’t you. I know that.”
Here's some dialed-up audio of the Lahyani-Kyrgios conversation, for those who asked. Still not well mic'd, this heart-to-heart. pic.twitter.com/vRqDjAq6xT
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) August 30, 2018
After the match, Kyrgios said Lahyani’s actions had no effect on how he played.
“If I was up a set and 3-0, and my opponent was getting that talk from Mohamed Lahyani, obviously an unbelievable tennis player, I wouldn’t care less,” he said.
“Obviously you know he’s achieved a lot in his tennis career. Mohamed, he had a big one.”
But Herbert said it was obvious something changed after Lahyani’s talk.
“I had the feeling he was not giving 100%, not focused. For sure from that point something changed. He got better and better until the end,” he said.
“The umpire doesn’t have to talk to him at all. The only thing he can tell him is pay attention, because if you continue like this, I’m going to give you a warning.
“He doesn’t need to say the words he said on the video.”
I shouldn’t have tweeted so quickly after the match. Everyone is entitled to an opinion but I can assure you it wasn’t coaching. https://t.co/hvlwPyzC0E
— Nicholas Kyrgios (@NickKyrgios) August 30, 2018
Herbert later released a statement saying he was angry with the umpire, but even more upset about the USTA’s statement “which is clearly taking us for fools”.
Federer, who plays Kyrgios in round three, was also asked about the incident during an interview, and said Lahyani’s actions stepped over the line.
“It is not the umpire’s role. But I understand what he was trying to do,” he said.
“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.”