Nick Kyrgios did not seem to be trying very hard Thursday afternoon in his second-round match at the United States Open. He was barely lunging for serves from his opponent, Pierre-Hugues Herbert. He moped around the court between games with a towel clenched between his teeth. He looked as if he would have preferred being anywhere other than Court 17.
Then, during a changeover early in the second set, something curious happened.
The chair umpire, Mohamed Lahyani, hopped down from his perch and offered Kyrgios what appeared to be a pep talk, imploring him to give more of an honest effort. Coaching is prohibited during matches at the Open — except, apparently, when chair umpires are doing it.
“I want to help you,” Lahyani told Kyrgios at one point, adding, “I’ve seen your matches; you’re great for the sport.”
Coincidence or not — and Kyrgios definitely thought it was a coincidence — he was a completely different player after that conversation, coming from behind to defeat Herbert, 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-0 and set up a third-round meeting with second-seeded Roger Federer of Switzerland.
At his news conference, Kyrgios, the No. 30 seed, quickly tired of questions about Lahyani and the suggestion that Lahyani had “coached” him through his struggles.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Kyrgios, a 23-year-old Australian. “He wasn’t coaching me at all. I don’t have a coach. I haven’t had a coach for, like, years. Of course he wasn’t coaching me. What are you talking about?”
Herbert, though, said he believed Lahyani had crossed a line. Chair umpires are expected to be impartial. It is one thing, Herbert said, if an umpire wants to warn a player about his lack of effort. It is another thing entirely to offer emotional support.
“He doesn’t need to say the words he said on the video,” said Herbert, a 27-year-old Frenchmen. “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 Open later released a statement that said that Lahyani had left his chair because he had wanted to be able to effectively communicate with Kyrgios in a noisy stadium. According to the statement, Lahyani was concerned that Kyrgios might need medical attention and went on to inform him that he would need to take action if Kyrgios’s “seeming lack of interest” in the match continued.
A spokesman for the United States Tennis Association said the episode was being reviewed by the tournament director, tournament referee and chief umpire.
“I think Mohamed Lahyani did a mistake,” Herbert said, adding, “I don’t think this is appropriate for an umpire to go down and say, ‘I want to help you.’ ”
Lahyani, a longtime referee from Sweden — and known among fans for his showmanship — politely declined an interview request when he was approached after the match. Tour guidelines generally bar chair umpires from speaking with members of the news media. Lahyani referred questions about the episode to Kyrgios.
“I’m not allowed to talk,” Lahyani said. “Is it about what happened? Ask him. Ask him. I’m just here to do my job.”
For his part, Kyrgios said similar conversations with chair umpires happened all the time. And if Herbert had been on the receiving end of such a talk from Lahyani, Kyrgios said he would not have had a problem with it.
“He said he liked me,” Kyrgios said. “I’m not sure if that was encouragement. He just said that it’s not a good look.”
Kyrgios was referring to the way he was playing (poorly) and conducting himself (lethargically), neither of which was entirely out of character.
“Look, I wasn’t feeling good,” Kyrgios said. “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.”
Kyrgios is many things: talented and temperamental, capable of dominating high-level opponents one match and then getting destroyed by inferior players the next. His commitment to the game has been questioned. He is one of the most polarizing figures on tour. On Tuesday, in his first-round victory over Radu Albot, Kyrgios was booed by fans — and said he loved it.
On Thursday, Kyrgios assembled a lackluster opening set — he put just 39 percent of his first serves in play — and then dropped the first three games of the second set. He was playing with minimal effort. Fans were heading toward the exits. Lahyani, apparently, had seen enough.
Herbert said he could not hear what they were saying. Besides, he said, in a match against a player as wildly unpredictable as Kyrgios, he needed to focus on himself.
“I just saw that he went down off the chair,” Herbert said, referring to Lahyani, “and I was a little bit surprised.”
Portions of the conversation were picked up by an on-court microphone and later broadcast on ESPN.
“I know this is not you,” Lahyani could be heard telling Kyrgios.
Kyrgios proceeded to win 19 of the next 25 games to close out the match.
“From that point, he was a different player,” Herbert said.
Such a talk is not entirely unprecedented. In fact, Lahyani has had similar conversations with other players, including one with Bernard Tomic in 2016 (“Do your best,” Lahyani told him) and another with Gaël Monfils at a tournament in Spain several years ago when Monfils was upset with a call.
“I’ve never seen you like this,” Lahyani told Monfils during a changeover. “You always keep your head.”
On those occasions, Lahyani remained in his chair.
Herbert, who was gracious after Thursday’s match, said that Lahyani was an “amazing” umpire who had overstepped his responsibilities.
“He cares for Nick,” Herbert said. “He cares for the show.”
A couple of hours after his news conference, though, Herbert reacted angrily to the statement that had been put out by the tournament — a statement he said was “taking us for fools.”
“Err is human,” Herbert wrote in a post on his Twitter account, “but I still wait for explanations.”
Federer, who defeated Benoît Paire of France, 7-5, 6-4, 6-4, on Thursday, said that he did not expect such a situation to happen again, but that was not an umpire’s role to speak as Lahyani did.
“He was there for too long,” Federer said. “It’s a conversation. Conversations can change your mind-set. It can be a physio, a doctor, an umpire, for that matter.”
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