Getting to Know Mo
By Megan Fernandez
(August 21, 2011) MASON, Ohio – Veteran ATP umpire Mohamed Lahyani has become so well-known to fans that he was signing autographs in Cincinnati this week. He became a household name (well, in tennis fans’ households) as the guy who sat tight for eight hours while working the John Isner -Nicolas Mahut marathon at Wimbledon in 2010 and remarkably kept it free of controversy. But even before then, the Swedish official had become a quasi-celebrity to ardent tennis fans as the most stylized score-caller in the game, lacing his 40s and 15s with intrigue on big points. “The voice, it should not be a monotone. You have to vary your voice for the stage of the match. You can go up with the tone, down with it,” he says.
Lahyani’s assignment in the doubles final in Cincinnati on Sunday ends his stretch of working five consecutive US Open Series tournaments, and he’ll skip the US Open to take a break. Before the Gold Badge ump headed home to Malaga, Spain, where he lives with his wife and two children, we kept the mic on to find out everything fans don’t know about Mo.
TPN: How did you get started in this business?
ML: I was in a lot of sport when I was a kid: tennis, football, volleyball, ice hockey. I was lucky in our city, Uppsala, the Davis Cup captain was always there. He brought a lot of big names like Edberg and Wilander, lots of competition in my city. Davis Cup, Kings Cup, lot of tournaments like satellite, junior. I as working for the club, and suddenly they ask me, you want to be an official? I did matches like the Swedish Championships with Wilander, [Peter] Lundgren, [Joakim] Nystrom. They said,” You have very good relations, communication.’
TPN: So you were a natural?
ML: From the beginning, it was a gift from God. (Laughing) I was lucky that we had so many good players in the ’80s. I could get a lot of good matches.
[Maria Sharapova and her coach, former Swedish player Thomas Hogstedt, sit down nearby.]
ML: I met him when I was a kid. Hogstedt, and Lundgren. He knows me very well.
TPN: What was the next step?
ML: Go to the national level with the Swedish Federation. Then, the next step is to line umpire in Davis Cup, maybe in other Nordic countries if you are lucky. I kept doing tournaments every summer. It helped me with my studies. It was an extra job.
TPN: What were you studying?
ML: I was studying to be a chef and a sports teacher. My family owned a restaurant.
TPN: And you worked there?
ML: Yes. Otherwise, I would never have a chance to go away. Otherwise, only six weeks of vacation. With the job I had, you know. We owned a sports center, as well. In 1990, we opened Hennis Gym, like €œher gym, only for girls. We sold it, but it’s still there.
TPN: You ended up with a totally different career.
ML: The ITF has these schools [to train umpires], but the Swedish Federation is very strict. You can’t do anything until you become 25. Then I passed [the ITF’s] school in Warsaw, Poland. I became a White Badge. Two more years, in 1993, I went to school in Barcelona for Bronze Badge. That means you can apply for US Opens, etc. There are videos, exams, lots of pressure, testing. How you should answer. They come up and argue and everything, try to make you to change your mind. As an ump, you have to stick with your decision right or wrong. You should be humble, but you should stay with your decision.
When you are bronze, you get evaluated by full-time chair umpires in tournaments for two years. I became a Silver Badge in 1995, then Gold Badge in 1997, and started working full-time with ATP.
TPN: What is your average day?
ML: Two matches a day, and we are on site one hour before. There’s lots of waiting. You have to pay attention to the match before you. Stay cool, don’t stay outside too much.
TPN: Do you have duties off the court?
ML: Yes, a lot. We rate line umpires. Give evaluation. Help out and educate upcoming umpires, watch them and give them advice. Meetings almost every day, where we watch videos for different situations. We discuss situations, watch some incidents, ask, â€˜â€Why are you giving a challenge?â€ We go up in the Hawkeye booth so they send out the right image, left baseline, etc. To give the review officials a rest. We don’t have time to do a lot of sightingseeing. It’s tennis the whole day.
TPN: Talk about the voice you use to call the score.
ML: How you present the match is very important, for everyone, on TV. You don’t want to go in when the crowd is clapping. You have to settle them down, then give them the right tone of the score. Everyone has their different style. The most important is to be clear and astute when you are in the chair. You should not mumble. You should not say the score when the crowd is loud, unless it’s a big point or a point you want to control. You don’t want to step when there’s a lot of excitement. It’s not a big stress. You take a deep breath, then say the score.
TPN: Your style makes it seem like you are really into the match.
ML: You need to love what you do. When you give so much energy, everybody can see that – fans, everything.
TPN: What are the difficulties of the job?
ML: If you lose your split-second concentration, something will happen. Concentration is the number one. Your mind cannot wander. It’s like the player. The next point is the most important. Forget what happened, if you made a mistake, a bad overrule whatever. The hard work is the outside courts, where this is no Hawkeye.
TPN: Whatâ€™s the most obscure rule that a fan wouldn’t know?
ML: When a second serve hits the net, is called out, then challenged and called good, it’s a second serve, not first serve. The net hit first.
TPN: Does your family ever join you on the road?
ML: My daughter will sometimes follow me. She’s very recognized by lots of the players. They like her.
TPN: Will you watch the US Open during your break.
ML: I donâ€™t watch tennis. Maybe finals sometimes. I’ll read sometimes the news. It’s better to relax when you are away.
TPN: So, Chef Lahyani. What is your signature dish?
ML: Moroccan couscous. We make it every Friday. It takes time. But I let my wife do it.