He was the world’s youngest gold badge tennis umpire at just 24 and despite his relatively short tenure at the top of the chair, the charismatic Tunisian created waves as a pioneering Arab in the field.
Constantly in search of a new challenge, Adel Aref then swapped the chair for a marketing position at the Qatar Tennis Federation, where he helped run the show at the ATP and WTA events there. He was a crucial member of the team that organised Davis Cup in Dubai last week and will continue to consult for Tennis Emirates in the future.
How did you get to be an umpire at such a young age?
I was a player from seven until 18, but when I was 16 I got a back injury and I started becoming really fat. And Slah Bramly (now Technical Director at Tennis Emirates) and some other guys in tennis were pushing me to do this course in Tunisia, I was 16. I passed, I topped the class. And the referee at the time, he was a gold badge, asked my parents if he could take me to Portugal to do tournaments over there. So I went to Portugal for four weeks.
I was young and didn’t have a clue. It was those Satellite tournaments where you had no line umpires with you. They were eating me alive. I would literally go back to my room at night, call my grandfather and start crying. At 18 I had already decided that I wanted to become a gold badge. Everyone was telling me ‘no, this is for Grand Slam countries, you’re from Tunisia, you’re Arab, African, it’s very tough’ but I always knew that one day or another I will get there.
Two years later I passed my bronze badge in Cairo. After bronze I got the silver badge at 22 then at 24 I got the gold badge and that’s when everything went really quick.
You quit when you were 28. Why is that?
In 2008, that was a year I travelled like 300 days. I literally went around the world twice. My body was shutting down. I hated the fact that I was doing all this and I knew that I cannot become platinum because there’s nothing higher than gold badge. And you can be doing this for ages (without reaching something higher).
Do you remember your first Slam?
Wimbledon, qualifying, was my first Slam, in 1998. I was 18 years old. It’s so funny because you get there and you don’t know what you’re doing. I was so scared because I knew that was a chance and if I missed it I would never come back.
Is there a specific match that felt like a big turning point for you as an umpire?
I was doing a lot of Davis Cup, and the Davis Cup is a huge challenge because you’re not only dealing with the players, you’re dealing with the crowd as well. And my first one was Zimbabwe. I travelled for 15 hours from Paris to Zimbabwe and that was my first big match. It went five sets. I was sitting in the chair for six hours and I was sweating. It was the Black brothers, Wayne and Byron Black. They are experienced players. And after that things kind of clicked. I started getting more and bigger assignments.
Was it difficult getting respect when you were clearly a very young umpire?
It was a nightmare. I had to work more than the others because of my age. I really want to give credit to my previous boss, Mike Morrissey, he was the head of officiating and people were jealous because he was pushing me. He gave me a chance but I also had to prove myself on the chair.
Part of officiating is handling players when they lose their temper on court. How did you deal with that?
Officiating is all about experience. You learn how to deal with the players. You get to know them all. So you know you’re not going to deal with a Roger Federer like you deal with a Arnaud Clement or a Rainer Schuettler. And when I started officiating you had Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Goran Ivanisevic, Marat Safin and those guys and their temper was like… I remember Ivanisevic going crazy at me in Doha because I missed a call on the baseline. I was shivering. He was screaming, going mad at me, mentally I was burnt.
One of the most famous incidents was when Andy Murray swore at you in a Davis Cup match in 2006…
The funny part is people still think that I quit officiating because of that incident. And that’s not the case. It’s part of our job. Andy was very young. Great Britain against Serbia and Montenegro at the time – it was a huge tie. It was during the doubles, Murray completely lost it on a line call, on the far sideline.
I couldn’t really do anything because it’s on the far sideline and it’s very tough to overrule a line umpire who is there. So he was going on and on for a while. The microphones were under my chair and Andy didn’t have the experience at that time and the BBC picked up everything and it became huge.
The next day I literally couldn’t get out of my hotel. I had to go out from the back door. It was drama. We’re not allowed to talk to the media in these kind of things and I had to basically bite the bullet. Andrew Castle said on BBC at the time that I was right, so that was a small consolation.
Sometimes it’s so unfair that you can’t explain what happened. But the fact that Murray was fined was a huge thing. The next Wimbledon, everyone was still talking about it. Funny enough, when I was living in Monte Carlo, Murray was there for a couple of weeks, we would literally not talk to each other. We would walk in the same street and pass each other and never say anything.
He never apologised?
He apologised two years later in Paris. We then got closer when he came to Doha when I was working with the QTF. We spoke about it and now we laugh. He’s such a nice guy. I give him a lot of credit. He was young and the press were using everything against him.
Are there any certain players you dreaded officiating their matches?
Definitely. We have a blacklist. Before a tournament you’d send your blacklist and you would put the names of the players that you don’t want to umpire.
Who was on your blacklist?
Murray was on my blacklist. You don’t want to create problems with the same player all the time. I had Arnaud Clement for a while.
The French guys when you speak French with them they take it as an advantage then they nag about everything. Why is the temperature so high, why is the ball kid there, why is the towel not white? They would find excuses all the time.
What was your craziest experience?
That tour in West Africa. I was there for six weeks doing Futures tournaments to get some experience. I arrived in Lagos from Sweden and there were armed men all over the airport. I got to the hotel, a lizard was the first thing I saw. Got to the tennis club, the courts are cracked and I had to stop a match because there was a snake on the court. Another match, a Nigerian was playing a French guy and I see two guys on top of the stadium waving at me, showing me their gun, trying to get me to side with their guy. And it was like that for six weeks.
Considering you were really young, and you can’t really be friends with the players, did you get lonely on tour?
I’m a sociable guy so I like to be around people, joking, laughing. But in that field, there’s so much competition that I tend to befriend someone then suddenly they’re stabbing you in the back. In French we say ‘panier de crabes’ which means a bucket of crabs. If they can do anything to keep you down, they’ll do it. That’s when I started to feel like this isn’t the life I wanted to lead.
Would you ever go back?
What do you do now?
I opened my own company in sports management. I do some stuff for Victoria Azarenka, a lot of tennis players, a lot of tournaments. I do media stuff for them, I do marketing, I get them sponsors, these kind of things. Last Wimbledon I dressed Azarenka for the Wimbledon party. I’m based in Beirut now. I do events. For example I help Sony get talent for The Voice, the Arabic version.
I spent the last week at the Aviation Club watching 19 teams from across Asia and the South Pacific battle for survival or promotion in their respective Davis Cup groups and I must admit it was an eye-opening experience.
We’re used to watching superstars like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic under the floodlights at the Dubai Tennis Stadium, but this was the first time for me to sit courtside at the Aviation Club and follow almost 25 matches a day for a week where the highest-ranked player is probably in the 1000s.
And believe me when I tell you it was quite captivating. While Rafael Nadal was helping Spain retain their World Group status, countries like the UAE and Oman were fighting to stay in Group III.
The top groups in Davis Cup may be about blockbuster names but in Groups III and IV, many players are investment bankers, lawyers, or students. They all had to be excused from their day jobs for a week to try and help their countries stay relevant in Davis Cup – a competition that allows them to feel like pros even if it was just for a week.
There were many interesting characters I met throughout the week.
Tahitian Gilles de Gouy, who represents Pacific Oceania, is a 42-year-old who was reveling in the fact that he got his first-ever Davis Cup nomination at this age.
Phillip King, the brother of American two-time doubles Grand Slam champion Vania King, is an investment banker in Hong Kong. Had the tournament been held in its original date last April, he wouldn’t have been able to represent Hong Kong since he only became eligible in June.
Oman’s Al Nabhani family are the counterparts of the UAE’s Janahis. The brothers Mohammed and Khalid Al Nabhani featured in most of Oman’s matches – their sister Fatma (ranked 454 in the WTA rankings) was in the stands daily – and provided an intense GCC derby against the UAE. Khalid is a marketing PHD student in Scotland.
The UAE team suffered from fitness issues but they showed they had heart and ultimately managed to stay in Group III.
While the stands were not full, the few people who did show up got to witness something rare in Dubai. They got to see players wearing their hearts on their sleeves, fighting age, poor fitness, humidity, or lack of regular play to represent their country in the best way possible. They got to realise that tennis is not just about the stars and that you can enjoy any match as long as the people on the court were giving their best and had something to fight for.
Top players may be critical of the Davis Cup set up, but after seeing all walks of life come together under one roof in Dubai, where they were given a chance to compete in the sport they are very passionate about but can’t commit to all year round, I must say I am seeing this competition in a new light.
Sport360°'s tennis expert Reem Abulleil offers her insightful opinion on the biggest talking points from the Tour. With the tennis year into the hard-court season and the US Open imminent, Reem looks at the role Juan Martin del Potro plays during this time of year.
The US Open Series means different things to different people. To the casual tennis fan, it’s simply a bunch of tournaments that culminate in the one that matters the most – the US Open.
The slightly more serious fans don’t pay attention to the 250 or 500 events but are hungry for some Masters action.
They’ve had a break from the sport since Wimbledon and fast forwarded to the Rogers Cup and Cincinnati, where the draws are big, the ranking points are plenty and the prize money is juicy.
These fans actually care if Novak Djokovic becomes the first-ever player to win all nine of the Masters 1000 events.
Taking it up a notch, this is the time of the year where hardcore fans in America cross state lines to catch some live tennis while other fanatics living on this side of the Atlantic stay up to the wee hours of the morning to follow the entire series.
To me personally, this part of the season has developed into what I like to call the Juan Martin del Potro Show, where the action is intense, the drama is enthralling and the cliff hangers are pure torture.
This show started in 2008 when the tall, shy and lovable Argentine, with a forehand so big it sounded differently even through our TV screens, won LA and DC before falling in the US Open quarters in a four-set thriller to Andy Murray and ended the series with a 14-1 record.
Season two of the show, taking place in 2009, saw a stronger del Potro win DC, make the final in Toronto before finishing with a bang, defeating Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer back-to-back to win the US Open.
No show on television could top that season finale. Del Potro left North America with a 15-1 record.
If season two was a feel-good action sequence, season three was tragic drama. An injury followed by surgery followed by a lengthy recovery meant del Potro was off the court and would not return to defend his US Open title.
Some fans stopped following the show, others got even more hooked as they waited for the moment their hero came back.
The next season was a testing one. Del Potro was back on court in 2011 but his results were not the same. There were glimpses of his former self but the confidence was not there and his US Open Series ended with a third round four-set defeat to Gilles Simon and a 5-4 win-loss record.
Last season was a big tease. Heading to the US after defeating Djokovic for Olympic bronze at Wimbledon, once again the expectations were high. But del Potro lost to Djokovic in the Cincinnati semis and US Open quarters and fans were once again left longing for a US Open repeat, albeit knowing that their main man was capable of coming up with the goods.
This season the anticipation is back and del Potro sent out some scary signals with his form in DC. The forehand was as flat and monstrous as ever en route to his third straight title in the capital.
Now we’re left with the familiar feeling of will he or won’t he? The Open is less than four weeks away and once again the Argentine has every chance of repeating history. Will he upset the current Djokovic-Murray party? Stay tuned for the next episode!
No Roger Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Maria Sharapova but almost everyone else is in action in Canada. Martina Hingis continues to un-retire as she plays her second consecutive doubles event with Daniela Hantuchova.