Like most younger siblings, Kader Nouni was eager to follow in the footsteps of his older brother in life — and that pursuit has led him to a fulfilling career as one of the world’s best tennis umpires.
The son of Algerian immigrants who was born, raised and still resides in Perpignan in southwest France, Nouni was seven years old when Yannick Noah captured the nation’s imagination by winning the men’s singles title at Roland Garros in 1983. After Noah’s momentous achievement, Nouni’s elder brother, Miloud — who is four years his senior — became enamored with the game.
“I was playing basketball from when I was six… and I never used to be a big fan of tennis, actually. But after Noah won the French Open, my brother wanted to play. He even built his own racquet with a piece of wood to hit balls against the wall,” Nouni recalled.
“Tennis was an expensive sport in France, and at that time, we couldn’t manage that, so we did a lot of different things at the club to help out, like handymen — sweeping the clay courts, painting the lines or the clubhouse, things like that.
“At one point, they were looking for umpires for a local tournament at the club, so my brother and I decided to climb up to the chair to earn a bit of pocket money and help pay for the tennis lessons that we wanted to attend. That’s how officiating started for me.”
While Nouni, who was a two-sport athlete in basketball and tennis until the age of 16, had a fateful introduction to officiating, he showed promise almost immediately.
“The first time I was in the chair, I was maybe between 10 and 12 years old doing these local matches, and those matches were with adults,” he continued.
“It’s funny to say now — when you’re 12 years old and you get to say to an adult, ‘I’m right’ — but people liked it too, actually. When we finished the matches, I would get good feedback. So when you’re young, and you get good feedback, you want to continue with what you think you’re doing well.
“The French federation is quite involved with officiating and has a good program. With a lot of tournaments in France, there is a need for umpires. They invest in it, and the educational part of it is very important.”
Soon enough, Nouni was on the national radar. In the summer of 1991, he and other aspiring young umpires — representing each of the country’s regions — were invited to participate in what he described as an officiating camp at the national junior championships, which were, at the time, held at Roland Garros.
After receiving top marks for presiding over the matches of peers his age, the teenaged Nouni was deemed ready for the biggest stages and the professional ranks. Less than a year later, at age 16, he debuted at a Grand Slam as a line umpire at the 1992 French Open.
“For me, at that time, tennis was only something in my neighborhood or even in my region, so to be at the French Open at that age was something unbelievable,” he said.
“To be somewhere that I had been watching on TV… you open your eyes and it’s like, ‘What am I doing here?’ I was just happy. That year, I was the youngest of the youngest ones there, but I think the fact that I’d gone there in August the year before, it helped.
“I’d been in the stadium, but to see it full of people, top players, it was a dream. It was already a big achievement for someone like me, from where I was coming from and what I was expecting to do.”
After completing his compulsory schooling, Nouni elected to pursue officiating on a full-time basis. After briefly studying sociology at university, he supplemented his income from tennis events by working in bars in his hometown during the offseason.
“In high school — because the French Open is during the school year in May, and I had to miss school for that — teachers would ask me, ‘Kader, what are you going to choose, tennis or school?’,” he said.
“At 16, I was a bit too young to think about the idea of being a top umpire… but then after I did university for six months, I said, ‘Officiating is what I want to do,’ so I started on this path and it worked out.”
Having received his white badge at an ITF Level 2 school in Poitiers, France in 1998, Nouni went on to pass a Level 3 school in Cairo, Egypt to earn his bronze badge in 2002. Promotions to silver badge in 2004 and gold badge in 2007 followed, and he has been a member of the WTA’s team of chair umpires since 2008.
Over the course of his career, the Frenchman has been in the chair for the women’s singles final at his home Grand Slam four times — in 2007, 2009, 2013 and 2014 — added a Wimbledon women’s final to his resumé in 2018, and was selected to three Olympic Games in 2000, 2008 and 2016. In addition, he has presided over four finals at the season-ending WTA Finals in three different cities and numerous finals at WTA Premier events.
“Things like your first Grand Slam final, your first WTA Finals, the first time that you are asked to be part of an officiating group like the WTA, your first selection to the Olympics — all the ‘firsts’ are great memories,” he said.
And yes, he adds, even the first international mishaps.
“The first time I traveled to the U.S. — I’d been selected as a line umpire for ATP events in Montreal and Boston — and I was so excited that by mistake, I booked my flight one day earlier than I was supposed to,” he continued.
“I needed help to figure out my transportation and hotel… but I got an extra day off to visit Montreal. It was the first time I saw skyscrapers, because they didn’t have them in my city in France.
“Leaving Boston later, I lost my passport. It was raining very, very heavily, and somebody found it under a bench and returned it. For my first travel, it could’ve been a nightmare… but thankfully, that didn’t happen.”
In recent years, the 44-year old has also made other considerations with respect to his travel plans. Nouni and his wife, Melanie Conesa, who met in 2010, have two young children: Oscar, 6, and Rosalie, born in December, which has required him to adjust his tour schedule.
“Even though my wife knew from the beginning that I was traveling a lot, I’m lucky that she is able to do this all, too,” he said.
“Since I’d been doing 20 years of this job, I’d kind of prepared myself. I knew the world of the tour, and I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy because of that, and seeing the people around me who had families and kids. It would’ve been easy for me to say that it would’ve been too complicated… but it was something that I wanted to have.
“You need a good philosophy and a good perspective, and I’m happy that the tour can be a place for this. It’s cool that I have the opportunity to do both, and that female umpires who have or want to have families have that also.”
And whether it is by revisiting his earliest days at a tennis club close to home, or appreciating his present in some of the world’s biggest stadiums, Nouni has never lost the perspective that his officiating journey has afforded him.
“I’ve never been someone who was saying, ‘I want to do this, I want to be a top chair umpire.’ I’m more of the kind of guy who enjoys the moment and tennis is more than a job in my life,” he said.
“It has been 12 years since the WTA gave me the chance to work with them, and I am quite happy to still be a part of the group here. I was lucky to be a part of the first WTA officiating group, and hopefully, I wish to work with everyone into another decade. It’s a good team and we all have a good relationship.
“After so many years, I still like to take all the opportunities this job can give to me. When I started traveling, I really liked to discover new places and meet new people, and love to try new restaurants. Now, when I go back to several tournaments, I have good friends… and I like to think that I can get good addresses in each town I travel to.
“At 16, I didn’t want to say that officiating was what I wanted to do, even though I was hoping to do something with it. I wanted to do the best I could do and reach the level I could reach. Every year, I tried to just improve more and more… do one more step, one more step, and that’s what happened.”