Sport

‘You can’t be the player’s friend’: inside the secret world of tennis umpires

As soon as Brazilian umpire Carlos Bernardes stepped on to the court on 29 March, he knew it was going to be a difficult morning in the chair. It was the Miami Open 2022 and he’d been assigned the last-16 clash between the young Italian player Jannik Sinner and the Australian Nick Kyrgios. From the start, Kyrgios was on edge, muttering about the slow conditions on court. At 4-4 in the first set, Kyrgios made a good return on Sinner’s serve, only for noise from Bernardes’s walkie-talkie to loudly interrupt play. Bernardes called for the point to be replayed. “You should be fired on the spot,” Kyrgios yelled at him. “How is that possible? How is that possible! The fourth round of Miami, one of the biggest tournaments, and you guys just can’t do your job.”

Unfortunately for Bernardes, that was only the beginning. With each changeover, Kyrgios continued to criticise the umpire, calling his performance “outrageous” and “embarrassing”. As the first set reached its climax, Bernardes issued Kyrgios a warning for audible obscenity, then docked him a point for unsportsmanlike conduct, after the Australian loudly said to his friend in the stands that he could do a better job than Bernardes. Upon losing the set with a double-fault, Kyrgios went off at Bernardes once more, shouting repeatedly “What is unsportsmanlike?” before smashing his racket, demanding to see a higher-ranked tournament official, and receiving a game penalty. “Everything is just the worst when you’re in the chair,” Kyrgios later said to Bernardes.

The situation did not improve from there. At one point in the second set, when Kyrgios was ready to serve, Bernardes instructed a ballgirl to pick up a loose ball, to which the Australian reacted with sarcastic applause. When the crowd joined in, booing and heckling the umpire, Bernardes decided to say something. “I know you’re against me, but just some respect,” he said over the tannoy. Kyrgios went on to lose the match, calling Bernardes a “fucking retard” as he walked off the court. Afterwards, in interviews and on Twitter, he continued to inveigh against Bernardes. “I’ve never been a part of a match where an umpire was hated that much,” he said. Kyrgios is famous for his clashes with officials, but this was unusually personal. He was later fined $35,000 by the ATP, the governing body of men’s professional tennis.

The blow-up at Miami was one of a string of incidents this year in which players have openly criticised officials. At the Australian Open in January, during his quarter-final match against Rafael Nadal, Canadian Denis Shapovalov called Bernardes and other officials “corrupt” for supposedly failing to regulate the Spaniard’s time between points. A few days later, Russian Daniil Medvedev berated an umpire for allegedly allowing his opponent to receive coaching during the match, shouting: “Are you mad? Can his father talk every point? Are you stupid?” The following month, at the Mexican Open, the German player Alexander Zverev, called an umpire a “fucking idiot” and, at the end of the match, repeatedly struck his chair with his racket.

Nick Kyrgios and umpire Carlos Bernardes at the Miami Open in March.
Nick Kyrgios and umpire Carlos Bernardes at the Miami Open in March. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

How did the sport reach boiling point? In recent decades, officiating has been professionalised and electronic systems have been introduced to minimise human error. Remove the disagreements over line calls, the thinking went, and conflict would disappear. But it hasn’t worked out like that. When I spoke to Bernardes, who began officiating in 1989 and has umpired five grand slam finals, he told me that he, too, had expected that technology would eradicate confrontations with the players. It’s actually been “the opposite”, he said. “It seems like the guys are more frustrated with themselves because they now cannot blame the line umpire who made that call.”

It was the week of the Italian Open in May, and as we watched a doubles match under the afternoon sun, Bernardes, who speaks softly and has a serene air, told me it had taken him a while to learn not to let the abuse get to him. “If you take all the things that happen on court personally, you cannot survive in this sort of job,” he told me later. “You will go crazy.”

It is rare to hear tennis umpires speak so openly. Few roles in professional sport are more secretive. During tournaments, they can be seen up in the chair – but once the match is over, they are not allowed to explain their decisions in press conferences or on social media. Their code of conduct prohibits them from meeting journalists. In 2019, a month after Damian Steiner officiated the Wimbledon men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, he was fired by the ATP tour, one of the sport’s main governing bodies, for giving a series of unauthorised interviews in his native Argentina, in which he suggested a few amendments to the sport’s rules and discussed specific matches and players. (At the time, the ATP called this “a direct violation of the standard protocol”.)

For this article, though, I was granted exceptional access to many of the profession’s most experienced officials. Over breakfast at his hotel in Rome during the Italian Open, Mohamed Lahyani, a Swede who is one of the longest-serving umpires on the ATP tour, told me how satisfying it was to finally speak freely, likening it to releasing a pressure valve. When I sent follow-up questions, he would reply with seven-minute voice notes over WhatsApp and introduce me to other umpires who I should speak with. It was important, he felt, to show how hard it is to officiate at the highest levels of professional tennis. “Some people say the job has gotten easier, but I’d tell you otherwise,” Lahyani said, “because of the pressure.”

Although there is no statistical evidence that player misconduct in men’s or women’s tennis is on the rise, Lahyani believes that criticism of umpires is becoming more intense and personal. Technology has turned the spotlight on chair umpires like never before. “Make a mistake,” says Damien Dumusois, a French umpire who has officiated all four grand slam finals, “and it’s on the internet before we’ve finished the match.”

With more scrutiny have come growing calls for accountability, and a sense that it’s no longer possible for officials to go about their job unnoticed. Some umpires have become celebrities in their own right. As I walked around Rome with Bernardes, past the Spanish steps and the Colosseum, he was regularly stopped by tennis fans asking for a selfie. “Arbitro! Arbitro!” (Referee! Referee!) they shouted, hurrying towards him. Bernardes assured me that it hadn’t always been like this.


Modern tennis is usually divided into two eras: before and after professionalisation. Until 1968, the game’s most prestigious tournaments were reserved for amateur players. Then came the “Open era”, when the world’s best players were allowed to earn money from competition. With higher stakes and the shift from wooden to graphite rackets, the game grew faster and even more competitive.

The officiating, however, lagged behind. “Nobody was prepared for the pressures of the professional game,” says Phyllis “Woodie” Walker, 92, who umpired her first US Open in 1968 and her last in 1982. Before the 1980s, officials were sometimes little more than well-connected tennis fans looking for an expenses-paid holiday. Elderly line judges would occasionally fall asleep on the job, and chair umpires at the French Open had a reputation for arriving late to matches after enjoying some wine at lunch. One British umpire, George Grime, a dentist who had once been a senior commander in the Royal Air Force, found it impossible to hide his disgust at sloppy errors by the players. “If you double-faulted or missed an easy forehand, he’d sigh,” says Richard Kaufman, who was a young line judge during Grime’s heyday in the 60s and early 70s. “By the tone of his voice, you could tell what was happening even if you weren’t watching.”

Misconduct was rampant, in part because the code of conduct was rarely enforced. At the US Open in 1976, the great Romanian player Ilie Năstase became so incensed over one call that he dragged the offending line judge out to look at the mark, and berated him when he wouldn’t change the decision. At various points in the same match, Năstase spat at his opponent, refused to play after the crowd booed him, and called the umpire a “son of a bitch”. When his opponent tied the match in the decisive set, Năstase smashed a ball at a photographer and swung at him with his racket. Năstase would go on to win the match, but was suspended for 21 days and fined $1,000.

“Players were getting away with murder,” says Kaufman, who was in the crowd for an even more infamous match three years later between Năstase and the equally difficult American player John McEnroe, in which the Romanian behaved so badly that the umpire awarded McEnroe the match. The umpire himself was eventually replaced and, after a 17-minute delay, Năstase was reinstated. The crowd were so riled that fights broke out in the stands. The match was completed with police on court.

Facing diminishing ticket sales and fading sponsorship opportunities, tournament directors called for a solution to the sport’s discipline problem. In 1978, the governing body for men’s professional tennis turned to Dick Roberson, a 41-year-year-old sports fanatic from California to tame the likes of Năstase and McEnroe. For nearly 14 years, Roberson had been national promotions director for Penn, a company that made tennis balls, but spent his summers managing the officiating for World Team Tennis, a mixed professional tennis league founded by the American player Billie Jean King.

John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1981.
John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1981. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Now, as chief of supervisors on the men’s tour, one of Roberson’s first moves was to give the chair umpire the power to penalise players without passing the decision up to the referee, the highest level of official, who monitored the match from the stands. He also stiffened the code of conduct, adding offences like “ball abuse” (when a player hits a ball out of court), “racket abuse” and “official abuse”. To deter serial offenders, he added the “game penalty” (awarding the game to their opponent) and for the most serious offences, “default” (awarding the match to the opponent). In 1980, the women’s circuit introduced a similar system.

Roberson believed the best chair umpires were authoritative but anonymous. To keep things professional, he insisted that players and chair umpires eat in different cafeterias. “You can’t officiate to be a player’s friend,” Roberson told me. “You have to uphold the rules, and to heck with the player!” To educate new officials, Roberson’s team set up officiating schools in Texas, Paris, Sydney and Hong Kong, where students would study the handbook that Roberson drew up, which emphasised “preventive officiating”: putting out fires before they started.

Then, as now, communication was key. Each umpire was told to look directly at the player who loses the point, because they’re more likely to cause trouble. Roberson encouraged umpires to be strong and clear in their tone, and never to interrupt the player. One of the unique things about tennis umpires is that they sit six feet above the players, making them appear more like a courtroom judge handing down the verdicts. To offset this imbalance, when players asked questions, Roberson told umpires that they should respond, rather than maintaining a haughty silence. (One of Roberson’s ideas was to get rid of the chair altogether. Instead, he thought umpires should stand on a box, and step down when they need to speak with a player. The sport’s governing bodies rejected this suggestion.)

Above all, officials needed to be able to “sell” the call – that is, convince the players that it was correct. The closer the ball was to the line, the more emphatic the call needed to be. (Before technology changed the game, nobody knew for sure if the call really was accurate or not. Ali Nili, the current senior director of officiating at the ATP, likens the task of officials in the early days of the Open era to that of second-hand car salesmen: both had to “sell crap”.)

By the early 80s, there were hundreds of certified officials around the world. “Almost every incident we had began with a poor officiating decision,” Marshall Happer, administrator of the men’s tennis governing body from 1981 to 1989, told me. “The more certified chair umpires we had, the more it began to dissipate.” It was during this time that gold, silver and bronze badge certification was introduced. (Today, there are only 32 gold-badge officials worldwide, including Bernardes, Lahyani and Dumusois. Umpires like to joke that it’s easier to become an astronaut than a top-level official.)

In 1985, the first full-time professional chair umpires were appointed. For a salary of $25,000, the Americans Richard Kaufman and Jeremy Shales were sent to as many as 42 different tournaments in a year, where they’d be assigned to every match involving a difficult player. At one tournament in Stockholm, Kaufman umpired every match of McEnroe’s.

By the end of the decade, the number of full-time professional chair umpires had grown to six. To preserve their image of neutrality, they were prohibited from speaking to the media. In private, the six called themselves The Untouchables, a reference to the 1987 film about an elite team of incorruptible federal agents fighting the mob. As Gerry Armstrong, the first full-time professional umpire from Britain, told me: “You simply couldn’t be a shrinking violet.”


The challenge of umpiring is mental, not physical. A football referee might have to cover eight miles during a match, but they only have to stay alert for 90 minutes. The tennis chair umpire might be required to focus for more than four hours. While the line judges and ball kids work in one-hour shifts, the chair umpire remains.

Several umpires told me that they suffered from headaches early in their career. It can take young umpires years to learn how to “manage their focus,” says Richard Haigh, a British umpire who was awarded a gold badge last year. Lose concentration and the result can be humiliating. In 2015, during a first round match at the Cincinnati Open, Haigh overruled a line judge to call a serve “out” when it was inches inside the line. It was a blatant error – in tennis, inches are as good as miles. One commentator described it as the “worst overrule I’ve ever seen”.

Any umpire can mess up, but the best ones don’t dwell on it. “If you think about a mistake, another one will come. And another one,” Bernardes told me.

At the top, though, bad line calls are rare, and that’s not only down to the officials. Since 1980, when Cyclops was introduced, technology has been a crucial part of the professional game. An electronic line-calling system that projected infrared beams across the court, Cyclops would beep when a serve was out. But the system wasn’t always reliable, and human error remained a problem. In 2004, in an instantly notorious US Open quarter-final between Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati, four incorrect calls were made against Williams. The match sparked intense debate about the need for technology that could objectively scrutinise all the lines. In 2006 Hawk-Eye was introduced, and it has been in use ever since, except on clay courts, where old-school ball mark inspections still apply.

Serena Williams and referee Brian Earley at the 2018 US Open.
Serena Williams and referee Brian Earley at the 2018 US Open. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Using a network of six or more high-speed video cameras positioned around the court, the system generates an image of the ball’s path and the spot where it lands. To keep matches fast-flowing, human line judges usually continue to call when a ball is out. However, up to three times per set (plus one more if it goes to a tie-break), players can request a review if they don’t agree with the human call. In 2020, more tournaments began using Hawk-Eye Live, a newer version of the technology that makes automated line calls in real time. Not only does it remove the need for players to make a challenge, it has removed the need for line judges altogether. With Hawk-Eye Live, the only official on court is the chair umpire. However, the technology is expensive, and at present it is only used at the top-tier events, and only on hard courts.

Where does this leave the umpire? Earlier this year, in one of his scathing post-match appraisals of Bernardes in Miami, Kyrgios expressed a view that is gaining ground: “By the way, it’s all electronically done now. So you’re actually doing nothing apart from calling the score, which any tennis fan could do. Sit in the chair and just say ‘15-love’, ‘Game Kyrgios’, ‘Game Sinner’. That’s all he has to do.”

But that, it turns out, isn’t quite right.


One balmy afternoon in Rome, I met the Croatian umpire Marija Čičak, a leading official for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and a gold badge holder, who has short grey hair and a mischievous smile. In 2021 she became the first woman to umpire the men’s singles final at Wimbledon. Like most officials, she’d be happy if you didn’t recognise her. In the chair, she calls herself the invisible woman; off-court, she is calm and eloquent.

Čičak had invited me along as she observed a young bronze-badge umpire. Umpires are normally evaluated by others one rank above them, and earning a gold badge takes years of near-perfect officiating. “She has great potential,” Čičak told me of the candidate. “But to go to the next level, it’s about the head.” At the highest levels, chair umpiring is an “exercise in psychology”, Čičak explained. The better the umpire is, the harder it is to spot what they’re actually doing.

To Mohamed Lahyani, elite officiating is all about learning to “feel the tension”. Knowing the rules is easy, he explained. Knowing how to apply them is not. Take the shot clock, for instance. In theory, the server is allowed up to 25 seconds between points. In practice, it’s more complicated. If the player takes longer, the umpire must ask: was there a good reason for the delay? Did a shout from the crowd break the player’s focus? Did they need a bit longer to recover after an especially exhausting point? It’s not an exact science. Or, when the player swears: was it loud enough for people to hear? Was it offensive? “We can’t be cops,” Lahyani said, “because if you apply the rules too strictly you’ll never finish a match.”

Novak Djokovic as the Hawk-Eye system rules a shot out at Wimbledon 2013.
Novak Djokovic as the Hawk-Eye system rules a shot out at Wimbledon 2013. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

As line-calling technology becomes more central, chair umpires are becoming more like conductors, Čičak told me. Their task is to manage the match, ensuring that the drama unfolds but without losing control. If the umpire is the conductor, the orchestra are the players, the ball kids, the line judges and the crowd. Čičak noted the way the umpire called the score: once in the local language and again in English. The first one starts the clock between points, and the second one can be used to calm the crowd. “The more you try to control them [the crowd] the less they will listen to you,” Čičak told me. “So we can use the score.”

On a close line call, Čičak also observed when the umpire called the score: by calling it early, umpires can shut down the doubt in the player’s minds and support their line judges.

Even the best umpires will sometimes hesitate as they “sell” a line call. One of the few negatives Čičak noted in her evaluation was that, during a routine ball mark inspection, the umpire returned to her chair too quickly, which doesn’t send a “strong, confident” message to the players.

Čičak awarded the umpire a score of five out of seven. To have scored higher, she’d have needed to have responded to a difficult situation, but nothing came up. Rising umpires who are being evaluated actively want something to go wrong in their matches, so they can prove their skills under pressure.


Some umpires, even great ones, can seem robotic or humourless in the chair. Lahyani is more of a showman. On big points, he’ll add ominous emphasis to the score: “fifteen-FORTY”. He has umpired every men’s world No 1 since the 90s, and describes his officiating skills as a gift from God (“because I do it naturally”).

One evening in Rome, I stood courtside as Lahyani umpired a match between Dominic Thiem and Fabio Fognini. By the second set, he was enjoying himself: whether it was a raised palm to calm the swelling crowd or a pointed finger to indicate the ball was long, he seemed to have every element under his control. After one contentious service line call, I spotted Lahyani giving an affirming look to one of his line judges, who smiled and nodded in response.

A few days later, I joined Lahyani for breakfast on the rooftop terrace of Anantara Palazzo Naiadi in central Rome, a luxury hotel where the tennis elite stay during the Italian Open. Over the course of our conversation, four of the Top 20 men’s players in the world greeted Lahyani as they made their way to the buffet. “All the players know me,” he said, turning to me. “This job is all about credibility.”

It was around 10.30am and Lahyani was just beginning his game-day preparations. He’d begun, as always, with a warm glass of lemon water and a workout. He’d also had a chat on the phone with his wife, who was in Morocco, and brushed up on his Italian phrases. “I giocatori sono pronti,” he recited. “The players are ready.” Breakfast was a bowl of fresh fruit and two double espressos. He avoids heavy foods on match days, for fear of needing a bathroom break when he’s in the chair. In 2010, Lahyani officiated the longest match in tennis history, the Wimbledon first-round between John Isner at Nicolas Mahut, which lasted 11 hours across three days. He didn’t go to the bathroom during play once.

Mohamed Lahyani at the Rolex Paris Masters in 2020.
Mohamed Lahyani at the Rolex Paris Masters in 2020. Photograph: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Along with his on-court duties, Lahyani is responsible for training and development at the ATP, and he is constantly being sent incidents to review. There had been seven new incidents in the last 48 hours alone. “Please can you see if there’s anything interesting in the below,” said one email from his boss at the ATP, with a video from a tournament in South America. “Please have a look at this video attached and let me know what I could have done differently, if any?” said another from a Danish silver-badge umpire who Lahyani is mentoring. Lahyani shares the most interesting videos on a WhatsApp group for all the top ATP chair umpires. “If I show you all the incidents you will go crazy,” Lahyani said. “You must never underestimate what can go wrong on a tennis court.”

Thirty minutes later, as Lahyani exited the hotel, a posse of fans screamed his name. He paused to sign a big tennis ball. One top coach stopped him to seek his advice on an incident. Then he took a shuttle to the tournament grounds. On site, after a quick chat with Tim Henman, another cluster of fans had gathered around him. “Best referee,” screamed an Italian woman, overwhelmed with excitement. “No 1,” screamed another. Selfie with one, a fist-bump for another – 500 metres took us 15 minutes. “Head down,” he told me. “It’s the only way!”


Assigning umpires to a match is a delicate art – “different umpire, different outcome” is a phrase I heard a lot. For major tournaments, the umpires are assigned the night before the match, by the head of officiating and other senior figures. Chair umpires are not allowed to officiate anybody of the same nationality. That means if you’re an ambitious young umpire and a brilliant p layer emerges from your country, you’ve got a problem. One of the reasons great Spanish umpires have been overlooked for the French Open’s men’s singles final is because Nadal has dominated the tournament for almost two decades.

Then there’s the issue of the “no list”. The sport’s governing bodies share a list of which chair umpires cannot officiate which players. Most of these requests come from the umpires. Lahyani hasn’t officiated Kyrgios since a bizarre incident at the US Open in 2018, when Kyrgios was losing a second-round match and seemed to be mentally unravelling, and Lahyani got down off his chair and gave the Australian a pep talk. Sometimes the requests come from the players. In February 2015, Nadal asked that Bernardes no longer be assigned to his matches. During a match in Rio de Janeiro, Nadal became frustrated because Bernardes wouldn’t let him off court to switch his shorts around, which were back-to-front. (After chatting to him in private, Nadal dropped the request the following year, and Bernardes has since umpired many of his matches.)

In other cases, the governing bodies will make the decision. During the 2018 US Open final, Portuguese chair umpire Carlos Ramos issued Serena Williams with a series of contentious code violations. She was later issued with a game penalty after calling Ramos “a thief” and “a liar”. The incident was hugely controversial – many felt Ramos had unfairly targeted Williams – and Ramos was temporarily relieved of umpiring any matches involving Serena or her sister, Venus.

Stefanos Tsitsipas remonstrates with the umpire during the French Open in May.
Stefanos Tsitsipas takes issue with the umpire during the French Open in May. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

Knowing how to handle the pressure distinguishes great umpires from good ones. “This is a part of the job that nobody ever teaches you,” Bernardes told me. “We can tell the guys not to look at the internet, but we can’t tell them to not be nervous.” In other words, you need a supreme level of confidence. One chair umpire told me how he’d once been sitting in the stands in Atlanta, watching a match with the retired Năstase. During one discussion about a dubious line call, Năstase turned to him and told him how nervous the umpire seemed, because she was always twirling her hair. “Show any hesitation and the good players will use it,” Čičak told me. “It’s their game and we’re in it.”

Sometimes things get heated anyway. To Bernardes, the challenge is how to be both strong and passive at moments like this. “If the player comes to you and says, ‘What the fuck are you doing,’ we can’t say, ‘I am just doing my fucking job.’ Our job is to be the fireman and to put the water on the fire. When you have a situation that is very heated you need to try to calm it down. But you also can’t let the players think you’re fragile.” Early in his career, Haigh took a year away from tennis because he was struggling with the way players consistently complained to him. He needed to learn how to bite his tongue.

At the Italian Open, after Čičak had evaluated the bronze-badge umpire, she ushered me to one of the main show courts, where Haigh was officiating a match between Lorenzo Sonego, a local favourite, and Denis Shapovalov, one of the tour’s more volatile characters. Čičak suspected it might put Haigh to the test.

As the first set was reaching its climax, the match was starting to simmer. Shapovalov screamed at his coach and muttered to the crowd. Haigh remained composed, issuing Shapovalov with a warning for swearing, but letting the match flow naturally.

By the middle of the second set, pandemonium was brewing. At a pivotal moment, Shapovalov hit a second serve. Neither Haigh nor the line judge called it a fault, but Sonego stopped playing, ushering Haigh down to check the mark. When Haigh confirmed the serve had been out, Shapovalov claimed he’d looked at the wrong mark. He was so adamant that he stepped over the net to find the right mark, earning himself an immediate point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. At this point, Shapovalov demanded that Haigh call the supervisor, who was sitting beside the court. “This is stupid,” Shapalov said. “This is so dumb.” As he took up his case with the supervisor, Shapovalov’s voice was drowned out by a booing crowd, whom he promptly told to “shut the fuck up”.

When I approached Haigh after the match, he seemed rattled and asked for time alone. The morning after, sitting in the players’ restaurant, he was relaxed again. He told me he had texted Lahyani asking for his thoughts on how he’d handled the incident, and was relieved to have been given the thumbs up. We rewatched the incident together and Haigh walked me through his thought process. Rather than returning to his chair, he had remained on court, so he could look Shapovalov in the eye. He had reminded himself to keep his shoulders down, to let Shapovalov know that he was receptive to conversation, and his responses short, so the player could vent. Without emotion, he told Shapovalov that he understood his frustration but he was just applying the rules. Shapovalov went on to win the match, and later apologised to Haigh. When I spoke to Lahyani about the incident, he suggested that with a less experienced official, the match might not have even restarted.


As on-court controversies continue to intensify, something similar is happening behind the scenes. Tennis officiating is a small, secretive world, where a handful of people make the big decisions. This year, a series of articles by the Telegraph journalist Simon Briggs has thrown a light on how networks of patronage can form, creating the potential for top-tier officials to abuse their power.

In February, Briggs revealed that Soeren Friemel, head of officiating at the International Tennis Federation (ITF), was serving a 12-month suspension after an internal investigation found that he had made “inappropriate comments and invitations” to a younger male umpire on four occasions. Friemel was one of the most powerful figures in tennis, with a major role in determining which umpires were allocated and promoted. In April, another investigation revealed instances of similar behaviour by other top officials, going back decades, many of which have been known to authorities for 15 years. According to the report, the sport’s governing bodies have kept these cases under wraps using non-disclosure agreements and by preventing umpires from speaking to the media.

In June, Czech chair umpire Tamara Vrhovec alleged that, on several occasions, supervisors at the WTA had amended the scores of evaluations she had carried out on junior umpires, without having seen the relevant matches. The subject of one evaluation was dating a senior male official. Vrhovec, who retired in 2019 after 20 years, described a culture in which sexism and sexual harassment were common. (When I spoke to Giulia Orlandi, vice-president of officiating at the WTA, she denied Vrhovec’s allegations, and said that the evaluations had been altered solely for on-court reasons and that proper procedure had been followed.)

Vrhovec is not the only former official making these kinds of complaints. Magdi Somat, a former silver-badge umpire from Egypt, who served on the ATP tour and worked multiple US Opens and Wimbledons from 2007 onwards, has raised similar concerns. In 2014, he encouraged an IT contractor to lodge a complaint about the bullying and sexual harassment she had allegedly faced from senior ATP figures, including a gold-badge umpire. In response, the contractor was assigned to an office job away from her alleged abusers, but there was never any formal investigation into the ATP officials. (The ATP confirmed to me that the contractor was moved, but stated there was an investigation.) Somat claims that after he helped the IT contractor, he was targeted and unfairly criticised by senior officials, before he was eventually dismissed from the tour altogether. (In 2016, after these allegations were first made public, the ATP dismissed the claims about its personnel as “untrue” and described Somat as “a disgruntled former chair umpire contractor”.)

To some observers, punishment for inappropriate behaviour by officials has been remarkably light. Italian umpire Gianluca Moscarella was reinstated as a gold-badge official after a temporary suspension for calling a 16-year-old ballgirl “very sexy” in 2019. “In what other sport would he be allowed to continue?” Somat said. Moscarella has since worked for the ITF at a Davis Cup event and for the WTA in Rabat, Morocco. He has not worked for the ATP since his suspension, but he is scheduled to work at another WTA event in Romania in August. (Orlandi told me that “not everything was accurate” in the reporting around Moscarella’s suspension, and that chair umpires who have served their punishment should be given a second chance.)

One of the first steps to reform, many people told me, would be changing the way officials are evaluated. “There’s a small group of people who have the ability to make or break an umpire’s career,” Richard Ings, who was the ATP’s executive vice-president of rules and competition between 2000 and 2005, told me. “It’s meant to be very objective, but it ends up being very subjective.” When I spoke to Nili, the ATP officiating director, he echoed this view. “To me, the No 1 issue we’re working to resolve is not having an objective evaluation system,” he said. “The way we do it is one official writes an opinion on another official, but in other sports they look at statistics, technology and videos. There’s a lot of factual data to back up that opinion.”

There is no single organisation responsible for tennis officiating, which means that any reforms are likely piecemeal and depend on the will of the different governing bodies and tournament organisers. Over coffee in Paris, during the French Open, I spoke to Kris Dent, the senior executive director at the ITF, about the criticisms the governing bodies had received. He accepted that there are problems with the way officiating is run, but claimed they are now being addressed. Following Friemel’s suspension, the ITF is planning to reduce the power that any one official has, by splitting the responsibilities across more roles. The ITF is also looking at how to better separate those carrying out the evaluations from all the other parts of officiating, but this is trickier because you “don’t want to lose the expertise”, Dent said.

Whether these reforms are more than cosmetic remains to be seen. By August, Friemel’s suspension will be over. Although the ITF is no longer dealing with him, he is already booked to serve as one of six or seven supervisors – responsible for the draw, scheduling the matches and assigning umpires – at the US Open.


On Tuesday evening, with the second week of Wimbledon under way, I caught up with Lahyani on the phone. He was sitting in his living room, having finished his day of umpiring. He has rented the same house in Wimbledon village for 25 years. After a long day on court, he likes to take a cold shower, and sit down to FaceTime his wife in Morocco. When I asked him how the week had gone, he told me how straightforward it had been for him, compared with the week in Rome we spent together. “I thank God every time that I finish the match without any incidents,” he said.

Some of Lahyani’s colleagues had had a trickier tournament. Two days earlier, a third-round match between Kyrgios and Greek player Stefanos Tsitsipas, umpired by Dumusois, had made headlines. In the second set, Tsitsipas swatted a ball into the crowd in frustration, missing a spectator by a couple of inches, prompting Kyrgios to demand his opponent’s dismissal. When the supervisor did not default Tsitsipas because the ball had not hit anyone, Kyrgios refused to play on. “Bro, bring out more supervisors,” Kyrgios said. “I’m not done. I’m not playing until we get to the bottom of this.” In the third set, Tsitsipas responded to an underarm serve by lashing the ball back at Kyrgios, but it missed and flew into the crowd. He was later fined $10,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct. Kyrgios, who won the match with the fourth set, was fined $4,000.

Lahyani was umpiring on another court as the match unfolded, but watching the highlights the following day, he felt for Dumusois. In many ways, Lahyani told me, the match encapsulated everything that makes high-level chair umpiring in the modern day so difficult. “None of it was about bad [line] calls,” he pointed out. “It doesn’t matter if you have Hawk-Eye. Or if you have Hawk-Eye Live. You have to be ready. Anything can happen.”

It’s almost exactly 30 years since Lahyani first umpired a match at Wimbledon. When I asked him about the match that stood out in his mind, he recalled the 2001 fourth-round between Federer and Pete Sampras, the first and only time these two greats of the game had ever played each other. Lahyani was still young at the time, and he had felt nervous, conscious this would be a seminal match. “I could really feel the pressure, and my heart was racing,” he told me. “But nowadays it’s a different sort of pressure. You have to be much sharper in your mind, because if you’re not, the whole world will know.”

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, listen to our podcasts here and sign up to the long read weekly email here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button