Umpire ‘pep talk’ the latest saga in Nick Kyrgios soap opera

Australian seemingly turned his match around at US Open after umpire’s talk

Nick Kyrgios puts his hand up to his ear to encourage the cheering crowd before closing out his win in his second-round match with Pierre-Hugues Herbert during the US Open in New York. Photo: Rick Loomis/The New York Times

Nick Kyrgios puts his hand up to his ear to encourage the cheering crowd before closing out his win in his second-round match with Pierre-Hugues Herbert during the US Open in New York. Photo: Rick Loomis/The New York Times

 

The main interview room in the bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium was as packed with reporters and cameramen as you’ll find it after a second-round match on an otherwise routine Thursday afternoon during the first week of the US Open.

The occasion was an audience with Nick Kyrgios, the mercurial Australian star who an hour earlier had seen off the Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert amid sweltering heat and humidity on the fully exposed Court 17, where after what appeared to be a public unravelling was curtailed by an unusual intervention from the chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani, who descended from his chair and entered an exchange with the world No 30 that many onlookers, particularly those privy to the intimate angles and sound captured by the television cameras and on-court microphones, was interpreted as a pep talk.

Kyrgios did not appear to be giving his all in the opening stages of the match, failing to fully extend on returns of serve and appearing disinterested for extended stretches, prompting boos from the crowd over the visible lack of competitive spirit. He frittered away the first set and fell behind 0-3 in the second, which is when he received a visit from an unusual interloper.

“I want to help you. I want to help you,” Lahyani said during the changeover. “I’ve seen your matches; you’re great for tennis.” He added: “Nick, I know this is not you.”

For a 23-year-old who has been cast as one of the most unpredictable athletes in the world, there’s one thing you can count on: Kyrgios brings the drama. Thursday was no exception as he suddenly found himself at the centre of the US Open’s biggest story.

The exchange, and potential impropriety on part of the veteran official, was the central topic of conversation among the sport’s chattering class well before Kyrgios finished off the 4-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-0 victory to book a third-round blockbuster with Roger Federer on Saturday. International Tennis Federation rules state officials must “maintain complete impartiality with respect to players at all times and must avoid any real or perceived conflicts of interest”, but the Australian was quick to deflect suggestions that Lahyani’s intervention aided him in any fashion.

Kyrgios hits a return during the second round match. Photo: Rick Loomis/The New York Times
Kyrgios hits a return during the second round match. Photo: Rick Loomis/The New York Times

“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. 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.”

He continued, not incorrectly: “It happens in other sports, too. In soccer, if someone is being roughed, they get warned. If you keep doing this you get penalised. Same sort of thing. It had no effect at all.”

Herbert was non-committal over whether Lahyani’s intervention swung the match, but he didn’t seem overly convinced that it hadn’t. “I don’t know what to think,” he said after reviewing the footage. “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.”

The United States Tennis Association, which organises the US Open, was quick to produce a three-paragraph statement attributed to the tournament referee not long after Kyrgios’ press conference which appeared to fully exonerate Lahyani. But Herbert released a subsequent statement on Twitter in both French and English saying: “I am even more upset against the statement of the USTA that is clearly taking us for fools. We all hear on the video what the umpire said to Nick overpassing his function. Err is human but I still wait for explanation.”

Controversy seems to trail Kyrgios, a prodigious talent who has spent his brief professional tennis career dazzling, frustrating and bewildering followers of the men’s tour, sometimes in the course of the same match, in the uncanny, self-fulfilling way it attaches itself to provocateurs and iconoclasts in any line of work. He was 19 when he rocketed to global fame by upsetting then-world No 1 Rafael Nadal to reach the Wimbledon quarter-finals in 2014. He’s one of only two players to pick off Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic in their first meetings. This summer he became the youngest player on the circuit to earn wins over all of the Big Four.

Yet so often he’s followed up signature triumphs with the sort of desultory, self-sabotaging efforts like the start of Thursday’s match, which invite public concerns over his commitment to conditioning and professionalism. He airs his dirty laundry and spars with journalists on Twitter. For years Kyrgios has been the kid with the C-plus average, more than capable of capturing lightning in a bottle on the day but lacking the consistency to put his stamp on the sport’s four bedrock events. Few athletes in recent years have been subject to more pop-psychological analyses, but here’s one more: you can’t help but wonder if there’s a fear of putting it all on the line if only because it might not be enough.

Those concerns are valid, yet it makes for compelling theatre. And there is a strange hypocrisy in the broader flagellation of Kyrgios, one led by the ravenous Australian media corps but echoed globally. Athletes are so often criticised for anodyne remarks and broad platitudes in interactions with the media, yet find themselves doubly lashed the moment they say anything remotely interesting.

It’s not as if tennis is a sport overflowing with personalities. One look at the rapt gallery assembled in the interview room under Ashe on Thursday gives you an idea of the degree to which Kyrgios moves the needle, perhaps like no player since McEnroe.

So while the conduct that precipitated Thursday’s brouhaha is surely worthy of criticism, let’s hit the brakes on the Kyrgios slander for now. The sport might not be richer for it, but it’s sure a bit more intriguing with him around. – Guardian service

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