Ali Nili
Ali Nili Image Credit: AP

Dubai: Ali Nili, one of the most familiar faces among tennis officials, has sent a personal plea to UAE residents to stay safe during these trying times of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nili, who took a nostalgic trip down memory lane on the final day of this year’s Dubai Tennis Championship after being honoured on centre court, told UAE residents to “stay safe during these challenging times” in concurrence with guidelines laid down by the Government.

Nili officiated the men’s singles final at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium on February 29 that witnessed Novak Djokovic pick up a fifth crown in the 28 years of this competition. Ali was at the centre of attraction, much to his discomfort, as Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free was joined by Ramesh Cidambi, COO of Dubai Duty Free, Sinead El Sibai, Senior Vice President Marketing and Tournament Director Salah Tahlak in honouring him on court on the last day of February.

Now, in a video sent specially to Gulf News, the US-based gold badge chair umpire is seen sending his wishes and prayers to UAE residents and tennis fans while playing with his pet goldendoodle Rio. “Hi, Ali Nili here with the ATP Tour. I want to wish my friends and tennis-lovers in the UAE all the best during these challenging times. Please stay safe. Stay inside,” Nili says. Listen to the guidelines from your local Government.”

Nili’s journey in the world of tennis officiating started right here way back in 1998 when the Iranian teen was invited by then Tournament Referee Hani El Khafief. Until then, he had been happy in his own world back home in Tehran, either playing tennis or being tournament director at a handful of smaller events.

And then came the call from El Khafief, and Nili was more than thrilled to break out of his world and travel to Dubai for the 1998 men’s tournament. Not overawed by his very first experience at such a high-level ATP Tour event, Nili watched as one of the on-court line umpires as Alex Corretja went on to beat Albert Costa in an all-Spanish final in the inaugural edition.

That was the beginning for Nili as he went up the officiating ladder to finally end his 22-year career as a Gold Badge chair umpire while sitting in for the final of the 2019 ATP Tour Finals between Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas in November.

In a career lasting more than two decades, Nili has officiated at three Grand Slam finals — 2015 Wimbledon between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer; the 2016 US Open final between Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka and the 2019 US Open final between Daniil Medvedev and Rafael Nadal.

Ironically, the 41-year-old was also the one overseeing the final tournament on the 2020 ATP calendar before all tennis competitions were called off at least until the middle of July. Luckily, he took off the same night to be with his wife Maria — also a line umpire whom he met at the 2011 Gstaad Open — in Florida.

“It was just a month ago that we had an amazing tournament in Dubai. Who would have thought that the Dubai Open would be the last of professional tennis for the months to come?,” Nili said.

“With everyone’s help we can get back to business as usual very soon. Meanwhile, stay put and make the best use of your time at home. Take care and be safe.”

After receiving the award in February, Nili had maintained his humility for all that the Dubai tournament had done for him. “I am extremely humbled by this recognition. If it was not for Dubai and Hany [El Khafief], I wouldn’t have been blessed with my life journey of the past 22 years. The path that started right here in 1998 has taken me to 55 countries, hundreds of tournaments and thousands of matches while rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest tennis players and champions,” Nili had then told Gulf News.

“The tournament may be called the Dubai Open, but the positive impact of such a big event enriches the whole region.”