« We ended up drying the court with... hairdryers »

Feb 5, 2014, 12:00:00 AM

Former great tennis umpire Jorge Dias officiated in countless Davis Cup by BNP Paribas matches. Including a memorable time in Botswana where he had the surprise of his life upon arriving on the court...

The Mag met with Jorge Dias, former Gold Badge, the highest rank amongst umpires. At 50 years old, the Portuguese became in 2001 the first non-Englishman to have the privilege of arbitrating a Wimbledon final. The man who officiated in countless international matches agreed to dig into his memories to give us some anecdotes. On the menu: mineral water, McEnroe, death threats and Botswana...


An unpronounceable name


"It was in September 1990, in Split. Yugoslavia was receiving Switzerland. A few weeks before the match, there was talk that (Slobodan ed) Zivojinovic (Editor's Note: current chairman of the Serbian Federation) could be part of the Yugoslav team. And I remembered that at Wimbledon, where I officiated as a linesman, the umpires had a lot, really a lot of trouble pronouncing his name. So every day I trained. I repeated his name so many times. And at the end, he didn't play..."


McEnroe visits the umpires


"It was in 2000. Spain was facing the U.S. in the semi-finals. Suffice to say that there was a lot at stake. But very quickly, the Spaniards took control and at the end of the first day, they were leading 2-0. And while I was the umpires' office with Bruno Rebeuh, another chair umpire, John McEnroe, captain of the U.S. at the time, arrived in the room and told us: "Hey, Jorge, Bruno, good job!" With Bruno we couldn't believe it. We expected anything but that!"


Hairdryer and death threats


"In a career, there are the good memories and the bad. This one is not part of the best even if we had a good laugh at the end. That was in 1995. In the semi-finals, Russia was hosting Germany who had with Becker and Stich two specialists of fast surfaces. Therefore, the Russians decided to install a clay court inside the Olympic centre. Up to this point, no problem. On the Monday, the Germans started training and it turned out that this clay was actually ultrafast. Anyway, on the Friday morning, a few hours before the match, we went on the court. And then, unbelievable: the court was completely soaked. Someone had watered it to make it slower. Something that is against the regulations since the courts cannot undergo any transformation during the week. But without a drainage system, it was screwed. We met with the ITF officials and the disqualification of Russia, pure and simple, was considered. Finally, we ended up on all fours trying to dry the court with... hairdryers. The first two matches were played and won by... the Germans. But the threat of disqualification was still in question. On that evening, the phone in my hotel room didn't stop ringing. At the other end, the guy was always leaving me the same message: "If Russia loses, you won't get out of Moscow alive!" Gilbert Ysern, the other umpire (Editor's Note: current tournament director of Roland Garros), received the same calls. Good luck to sleep after that... The next day with the other members of the ITF and the officials of the two delegations, we really didn't know what to do. At this moment, Niki Pilic the German captain, said: "Do you need bodyguards? We can give you four guys of our security service?" The day passed and on the Sunday, I had to arbitrate the final match between Chesnokov and Stich. The scenario and the suspense were incredible. The match ended with the victory of Chesnokov 14-12 in the fifth set after saving eight or nine ball matches in a row. Insane. On that evening, the official dinner was held in the Kremlin. And when we entered, we were treated to a standing ovation. With Gilbert, we were looking at each other: "And to think that we almost never got out of Moscow...""


"Water bottles were flying"


"Every time there was a tough destination, it was for me. Between chair umpires, it even became a laughing matter. Anyway, in 1998, I was sent to Brazil. Kuerten's Brazil. It was the first round but the atmosphere was crazy. People were screaming, water bottles were flying over the courts and insults were raining down like never before. And as I am Portuguese, I had the great "privilege" to understand... In this case, the Regulation provide us with a little pre-made speech like "Ladies and gentlemen, in order not to disturb, blah blah blah...” After a while, I was exhausted. It was just like "Please stop taking the piss." Everyone was shocked. Well, it's hard to arbitrate this kind of game but on the other hand I like it. At least, there’s passion. It's lively. You certainly can't get bored... "


They play the Davis Cup barefoot


"In 1997, I went to Botswana. I had to stay for a week to officiate on behalf of the Europe/Africa Zone Division 4. The lowest level in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. Before the first day of competition, I went to see the teams train. And when I saw Djibouti's one, I couldn't believe my eyes: the guys were playing... barefoot! They told me that they didn’t have any shoes. The only problem is that in the regulations, it is stated that proper attire is required. But the guys from Djibouti didn't know it because it was their first Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. And then they told us that they didn't have any money. Therefore, with ITF money, we went to buy them shoes. The problem is that once on the court, they weren't moving, they just kept tripping... "


His first final


"I officiated in three finals. Every time France was playing. The first one remains the most emotional. It was in 1996 in Malmö. It was an amazing final, very intense. The atmosphere was fantastic and the fifth and last match between Kulti and Boetsch was superb. At one point, and while France had already called for the physio, Noah started to massage Boetsch. A linesman then came to me: "Hey, you know that it is forbidden by the regulations?" I let it go. This match perfectly illustrated what is the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. A Kulti-Boetsch, even in a Grand Slam, no one really cares to see it. Especially since the match is held on the court No. 15... But that day, everyone loved it. "


Interview by Charles Michel