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Trailing 5-4 in the second set of her first-round match in this year’s U.S. Open, Venus Williams hit a forehand winner down the line to bring the game to 40-40. The chair umpire, Kader Nouni, let out a booming “deuce” that reverberated throughout Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Some spectators snickered; others tried to imitate his deep, baritone voice.
Nouni, who has been a part of the WTA for more than a decade, is used to the comments.
When he was 16, Nouni called a girlfriend at her home and her father picked up the phone, he recalled during a recent interview at Bryant Park in Manhattan. The girl’s father handed the phone to his daughter, but the next day, Nouni’s girlfriend told him that her father didn’t believe they were the same age.
“Because of your voice,” Nouni remembered her saying. “That’s how it all started.”
These days, Nouni, a 46-year-old Frenchman, has become well known among those who follow tennis closely, and even casual fans are drawn to his resonant and melodic voice.
Fabrice Chouquet, a senior vice president of competition and on-site operations for the WTA, said Nouni’s “unique style and booming voice have endeared him to players and fans alike.”
Amanda Gaston, a tennis fan from Xenia, Ohio, attended a few matches under Nouni’s call in August at the nearby Western and Southern Open. She described Nouni as the “Barry White of tennis.”
“When he’s in the chair, I immediately know it’s him,” Gaston said. “It’s a very distinctive, deep tone that you can immediately recognize.”
Cliff Jenkins of Cincinnati said he and a friend try to imitate Nouni when he’s in the chair. “He’s got the velvet baritone voice — easy, effortless and full of richness,” Jenkins said.
Such praise of his timbre used to worry Nouni — that he would be known more for his voice than his work, he said.
“We always say that a good official is someone that we don’t talk about,” Nouni said. “I always wanted to be good and wanted people to speak more about being a good official.”
These days, as a gold badge umpire, the highest level for tennis officials, Nouni feels he has proved himself in the business, and comments about his voice don’t bother him as much.
“If they want to keep talking about my voice, I have no problem anymore with that,” he said.
Several feet above the court in a lone chair, an umpire keeps score and enforces the rules of the game, but the job also extends to quieting boisterous crowds and regulating a player’s temperament on the court. That’s where a voice like Nouni’s is an effective tool in what he believes is one of the main keys to officiating — communication.
“If you don’t know how to sell the call, it won’t help,” he said. “There’s always this pressure of input from the players. If they’re not happy with your calls, they’re going to get mad. If the crowd is unhappy with your calls, they’re going to get mad.”
Before he was an umpire, Nouni’s first work in the sport was at a tennis club when he was 9 years old, doing such jobs as stringing rackets. Nouni and his brother wanted to play tennis, but lessons and court time were expensive for their mother, who raised them on her own in the southern French city of Perpignan after Nouni’s father died when he was 2.
“It was not easy,” he said. “To be able to play tennis, we had to work.”
When Nouni was 12, a tournament organizer was looking for officials for a local competition, and Nouni was asked if he wanted to work as an umpire for adult matches. He obliged, not realizing it would become his job for decades.
“When you’re 12 years old and you have to deal with adults, and they have to listen to you, it’s kind of funny,” Nouni said.
For a while, umpiring matches in local tournaments was just a summer job. But when Nouni was 16, he was invited to call matches at the national championship in Paris. The tournament was special for Nouni because he and the other teenage officials slept at the Roland Garros complex, and they were allowed to play on the clay courts when official matches weren’t taking place. For Nouni, who had lived with his family in public housing, staying at the home of the French Open was a remarkable experience.
“We didn’t have much money,” Nouni said. “For me, being there at the French Open, even only for the summer, was fantastic.”
Nouni’s performance during that tournament led to his selection as a line judge for the 1992 French Open. Since then, Nouni has been an umpire for dozens of Grand Slams and other tournaments around the world, including in the 2018 Wimbledon women’s singles final, where he was the chair umpire. Nouni has also been the chair umpire for five French Open women’s finals, in 2007, 2009, 2013, 2014 and 2021.
With so many memorable matches under his call, Nouni finds it difficult to single out one, but he always remembers his firsts — his first time in New York for the U.S. Open, his first time at the Olympics and his first time on Centre Court at Wimbledon.
“Those moments are great,” Nouni said. “To be in the middle of the action, it’s priceless.”
The job comes with downsides like being yelled at by players on occasion, often in high-profile matches, and especially in tournaments without the automated line calls of the U.S. Open. During a match at the 2012 Australian Open, David Nalbandian told Nouni to “shut up” after Nouni called a serve by John Isner as an ace, overruling the fault call from a line judge.
“Let’s play,” Nouni said into the microphone, trying to regain control of the match.
The match was delayed when Nalbandian called a tournament supervisor to the court. Nouni’s call stood, and after losing the match, Nalbandian told reporters that Nouni was not qualified to umpire.
Nouni said tough calls can be difficult to let go, but he uses them as learning experiences.
“You don’t think about it every day, but it’s somewhere, it’s part of you,” he said. “You don’t think about the best calls.”
On the tour, Nouni usually calls two matches a day during the first week of a tournament, and he has other duties such as evaluating other umpires.
“The first week is work, work, work, work,” Nouni said.
But traveling around the world for the tour has given him the chance to see sights and explore. (A trip to Central Park and a Broadway show were on his to-do list while in New York.) The travel has also introduced him to people in many different cities.
“I’ve been in the business for a while, so now I have my friends all around the world,” Nouni said.
While the tour means a lot of travel days, Nouni said he does not plan to leave tennis soon.
“You cannot do this job if you don’t like it,” Nouni said. “Impossible. You don’t survive. I think I will stop when I feel like it’s time to stop, and I’m not enjoying it anymore.”
When that time comes, Nouni said jokingly, perhaps his voice would give him a shot at a different career.
“Maybe Disney comes at me and asks me to do some voice-over for them.”