NEW YORK -- A bizarre event involving controversial Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios and well-known chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani sparked a furor Thursday at the US Open.
The incident occurred on Court No. 17, shortly after the mercurial 23-year-old player lost the first set of his second-round match with Pierre-Hugues Herbert of France. Soon Kyrios, who has been disciplined for tanking matches by the ATP and has freely admitted to sometimes giving less than his best effort, appeared to be throwing in the towel as he fell behind 3-0.
At that point, Lahyani might have issued a code-of-conduct warning under the Grand Slam Committee rules governing "best effort." Instead, Lahyani climbed down from his chair and leaned over to hold a conversation with Kyrgios.
Various sources that captured the audio reported snippets of the conversation, including Lahyani saying: "I want to help you, I want to help you;" "I've seen your matches: you're great for tennis;" and "I can see that; I know this is not you."
The talk appeared to inspire Kyrgios, for he snapped out of his stupor and went on to ruin Hebert, 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-0. But the focus -- and what outrage the episode generated -- fell on Lahyani for possibly violating the rules governing interactions between players and officials.
"Officials must maintain complete impartiality with respect to all players at all times, and must avoid any real or perceived conflicts of interest," the International Tennis Federation Duties and Procedures for Officials rulebook states.
The United States Tennis Association said in a statement that Lahyani left his chair due to the noise level in the stadium and that he was concerned about Kyrgios' health.
"Lahyani was concerned that Kyrgios might need medical attention. Lahyani told Kyrgios that if he was feeling ill, that the tournament could provide medical help. He also informed Kyrgios that if his seeming lack of interest in the match continued, that as the chair umpire, he would need to take action," the statement said.
The statement noted that Kyrgios did receive treatment from a trainer at the next changeover, but Kyrgios said it was just to receive "salt packets."
Kyrgios told the media that this wasn't the first time the chair umpire spoke to him in that manner during a match. It was unclear whether he was referring to Lahyani or another official.
"The same thing happened to me in Shanghai, before," Kyrgios said. "The chair umpire said the same thing. 'This does not look good for the integrity of the sport. Doesn't have a good look.' It had no effect at all."
Kyrgios denied that Lahyani gave him a pep talk that carried the official over the forbidden line separating umpire from coach.
"It wasn't words of encouragement," Kyrgios said. "He said he liked me. Again, he said it didn't look good. I wasn't feeling well."
Kyrgios said the Lahyani intervention didn't really account for the outcome, noting he later fell behind 5-2 in the second set before rallying to win it.
"If I had come back to win six games in a row, then [the accusation is] fair. But it didn't help me at all, to be honest," he said.
Herbert said immediately after the match that he was trying to focus on his own play and was less concerned about the conversation between Kyrgios and Lahyani.
"On court, I tried to focus on myself," Herbert said. "I just saw that Mohamed went down at the chair. I was a little bit surprised. He went to talk to him. I didn't listen to what they said because I tried to be focused on me, because it's not easy to play someone who's playing, not playing, you don't know."
He did say he thought the visit was unnecessary.
"I don't think he has to go down and take the position of a coach, like you see on the WTA Tour," he said. "I don't know yet if it would have changed something. I just know he doesn't have to do that."
However, in a statement later Thursday, Herbert took a stronger tone and said he was "angry" with Lahyani after seeing the video and that he was even more upset with the statement from the US Open "that is clearly taking us for fools."
Roger Federer also said it wasn't the umpire's place to leave the chair.
"I get what [Lahyani] was trying to do. [Kyrgios] behaves the way he behaves. You as an umpire take a decision on the chair, do you like it or don't you like it. But you don't go and speak like that, in my opinion," Federer said.
"I don't know what he said. I don't care what he said. It was not just about, 'How are you feeling?' 'Oh, I'm not feeling so well.' Go back up to the chair. He was there for too long. It's a conversation. Conversations can change your mindset. It can be a physio, a doctor, an umpire for that matter."
Moments after the match, Kyrgios engaged in a spat with Donna Vekic, a Croatian professional player and the girlfriend of Stan Wawrinka. Kyrgios made an insulting remark about Vekic to Wawrinka during the 2015 Rogers Cup and was subsequently fined.
Vekic tweeted, "Didn't know umpires were allowed to give pep talks."
Kyrgios shot back, "Haha IRONIC coming from someone who gets on court coaching every week of the year and also out of the US Open."
Lahyani is one of only 22 tennis umpires who hold the ITF "gold-badge." He's most famous for having been the umpire of the longest match in tennis history, the three-day, 11-hour battle between Nicolas Mahut and John Isner at Wimbledon in 2010. He also has officiated numerous finals between Big Four rivals.
But among insiders, Lahyani also has a reputation for violating the golden rule that the best referee is the one whom nobody notices.
On Thursday, Lahyani was noticed.