2014/10/26

Approach Shots: Getting to Know Tennis Umpire Ali Nili

By Wendy M. Grossman

(June 14, 2014) LONDON – “To be close to professional tennis,” says Ali Nili, in explaining his motivation for working as a tennis umpire. Nili is an Iran-born US citizen and one of the ATP’s cadre of ten full-time umpires. This makes him as much of an elite member of his profession as the players whose matches he oversees: only 25 umpires in the world have, like him, earned the profession’s highest qualification, a gold badge. Ten of them work full-time for the ATP, traveling the tour alongside the players.

Umpiring wasn’t what he set out to do. “I wanted to play. I wasn’t good enough.” He sounds comfortable with that.

“It’s just a fun job in general, especially if you’re a tennis fan.” Nili is speaking shortly after umpiring the semifinal between Stanislas Wawrinka and Grigor Dimitrov. It was a match not without incident: down a set and 3-5, Wawrinka crashed his racquet repeatedly on the court and then, apparently dissatisfied with the demolition job, deliberately folded it in half. Nili seems unbothered by that or any suggestion that angry players might be at all scary. “Just because of the fact that I know them, I work with them every week.”

On the other hand… “I would rather deal with any professional player than any junior’s parents. They want their kid to win at any cost, and anybody in their way is an enemy. I realized that early in my career and tried to stay away from it.”

From the sounds of it, umpiring is a more social job than playing: umpires at the top level hardly ever work with anyone they don’t know, and accordingly they have each other as company.

But players do have one advantage. In a long match they can leave the court for bathroom breaks or request medical treatment. Umpires, on the other hand, stay in place throughout, climbing down only when the match ends or, on clay, if someone wants a mark inspected. It’s not surprising, therefore, when Nili says that ,”My only pre-match routine is go to the bathroom.” When he’s working at Wimbledon or one of the other Grand Slams, where the men play five-set matches, he doesn’t drink anything until the end of his last five-set match.

“It’s easier to stay sharp thirsty than when you have to go to the bathroom out there.”

Nili earned his first international certificate in 1998. Like players, umpires start out in the weeds of the game – small, local events or junior matches. As they learn, gain experience, and improve, they move up the ranks through a series of certificates: white, bronze, silver, and, finally, gold. A tournament like Queen’s, with a singles main draw of 56 and a doubles draw of 16, uses six umpires, four from the ATP’s group, the rest contractors.

Nili jokes about preferring women’s matches at the major because they’re only best-of-three sets, but you have to suspect that every umpire would have liked to have been in the chair for the historic 2010 Wimbledon first-round match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, which went to 70-68 in the fifth and took more than 11 hours over three days to complete.

“Even he” – meaning the umpire in that match, Mohamed Lahyani – “would tell you that it goes a lot faster than the action time.” In general, he says, “The better the match is, the easier it is to keep your level of concentration. You do a tough five-set match which lasts four hours and when you sit up there it feels like a half an hour.” By contrast, “The opposite is also possible. You might do a match, that might never really pick up, you know, and it’s not the most exciting match in the world and it’s one hour and it feels like three hours. The closer the match is, the tougher the match is, the better the tennis is, the easier it is to concentrate. You get into the flow and the match just drives you along.”

Mistakes still do happen, of course. Umpires are taught not to dwell on them. “We just really always think forward. We always just think about the next call. The more you think about what happened the more chance there is that you’ll miss something else because you’re losing concentration.”

Few mistakes have lasting effects like the one in Venus Williams’ second round match at Wimbledon 2004, when the umpire incorrectly awarded an extra point to her opponent, Karolina Sprem, in the second-set tiebreak. No one corrected the error, and Sprem went on to win the match, though Williams did earn – and lose – three set points along the way.

“Usually, at least in men’s tennis, if you call the score wrong for two points in succession one of the players is going to tell you.” Or, if not the players, a line judge. “It’s not something that happens really often.” Modern technology helps: umpires have tablets that connect directly to the scoreboard so when he punches in the score everyone sees it and it feeds through to TV. A wrong score popping up in those circumstances generally gets a reaction in the stadium.

The hardest thing to learn, Nili says, is “to see the ball well”. Most, though not all, of the top rank of umpires play tennis themselves. “And then communication and not taking things personally.”

One surprising thing to learn is that just as the players must change their games in shifting from clay to grass, so must umpires change their procedures.

“It’s kind of like an art to umpire on clay,” Nili says. “It’s very different. You have to have a better feeling for the match. You have to have done a lot of clay-court matches in order to be a good clay-court umpire.” Years of experience on other surfaces doesn’t automatically translate.

“It’s a lot different.” On other surfaces – hard, indoor, grass – whether or not Hawkeye is available, as soon as a point ends the umpire looks at the loser in case he has questions, comments, or breaks a racquet. “On clay you keep staring at the mark so you don’t lose it.” Obviously. Because: if there’s a disagreement you will have to get down and go check it.

Asked to name the stand-out matches he’s umpired, Nili picks first the 2008 match between Rafael Nadal and Carlos Moya, which stretched to three tiebreaker sets and took two hours, 35 minutes to finish. “The longest three-set match ever played on hard court,” Nili says, and also, “Every point was really amazing. That’s probably the best tennis I would say, I’ve umpired.” Then he names a match from a few months ago: Federer versus Djokovic at this year’s Indian Wells final – “That was a good match.” He umpires comparatively few women’s matches, but obliges with Serena Williams versus Jelena Jankovic in Rome.

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