LISBON — Day after day, Jose Miguel Fernandes, a budding tennis player, and his father would pick up his friend Carlos Ramos and drive to a tennis club outside Lisbon, where the two teenagers would practice for hours.
For Ramos, it was to little avail: He remained a persistent but unspectacular player.
He did know and embrace the rules, though, in a way that made others encourage him to officiate at matches. However average he was on the tennis court, he was regarded as excellent when seated eight feet above it in the umpire’s chair.
“We knew he wasn’t good,” Fernandes said, recalling his friend’s ineffectual, one-handed backhand. “So we said, ‘Hey, go with this.’”
That decision set Ramos, 47, on a course, decades in the making, toward a still much-debated crescendo of contentious exchanges with Serena Williams at the United States Open women’s final in September.
He has become what most umpires never want to be, famous, or to some, infamous, after issuing violations to Williams for being coached during the match, throwing her racket and questioning his integrity. The infractions cost Williams a game in a match she lost, 6-2, 6-4, to Naomi Osaka.
The dispute became a reference point for complicated discussions about gender, race and power dynamics. Weeks later, it is still being parsed, with the Women’s Tennis Association this week calling for all tournaments, including Grand Slam events, to drop penalties for coaching, to end any confusion.
Ramos’s trajectory, however, has been little discussed. His arc from mediocre tennis player to the upper echelon of officiating included overcoming a lisp, which mentors thought would hold him back; cutting his teeth on the scrappy matches of the Portuguese tennis circuit; and developing a reputation for rigidity, even among fellow umpires.
Like other professional tennis umpires, Ramos is generally not allowed to speak to the news media; through a representative at the International Tennis Federation, he declined to be interviewed. The rule is meant to keep the judges out of the limelight. He shies from it, anyway, friends said.
“Carlos doesn’t want to go to an airport and have people say, ‘That’s the umpire that had a problem with Serena Williams,’” Fernandes said. “Some people might like it, but not him.”
Instead, Ramos has spent much of his life trying to blend into the scenery and feed his passion for tennis and, more to the point, its rules.
From humble beginnings to highest ranks
Unlike many others who find their way into the rarefied professional tennis ecosystem, Ramos came from relatively modest beginnings.
He was born in Mozambique, the son of a Portuguese aircraft maintenance technician. When he was young, he and his family were forced to leave their home after Mozambique established independence from Portugal in 1975.
They started again from scratch, moving to Agualva-Cacém, a working-class suburb close to Lisbon dominated by tight rows of matchbox-like tower blocks that has for decades welcomed immigrants from Portugal’s former colonies.
“Sometimes the immigrants that come change, but it’s always been the same,” said Edivaldo Pereira, a Brazilian transplant who owns a bar catering to them.
As a young child, Ramos dreamed of becoming a soccer goalkeeper, those who knew him here said. But at age 11, he discovered tennis on a visit to Angola and decided to see how good he could be. He, Fernandes and other local children trained at Clube de Ténis do Jamor, a complex overlooking the mouth of the Tagus.
He was 16 when he set aside his playing dreams and committed himself to umpiring, developing a persona in the chair that was far more assertive than the quiet, unassuming one he displayed away from court.
“I realized that as a player it would be very difficult to get where I wanted to go,” Ramos said in a 2015 interview with the Portuguese newspaper Observador. “I was very interested in languages, travel, interacting with people from other countries and cultures. And as a tennis player, I could not have that. In officiating, I saw that door open quickly.”
Ramos completed the national officiating courses and first found work — and, associates said, a knack for sticking to the rules — at the many satellite tournaments that were popping up around Portugal back then.
These were scrappy competitions — long days, hardcourts, hot sun — where hungry players on the hunt for ranking points “fought like hell in order to win,” according to João Lagos, 74, a sports entrepreneur credited with building Portugal’s modern tennis scene.
“It was a real big fight on court, and for that you need a good umpire to keep them balanced,” Lagos said.
He recalled the laserlike focus Ramos gave to even the lowest level game, umpiring “as if he were at Wimbledon.”
Ramos was looking increasingly like an umpire who would outgrow the local scene. Miguel Seabra, who worked alongside Ramos in those years before becoming a journalist and broadcaster, remembered him as a disciplined teenager, one who would head home early while the other young officials stayed out late eating, drinking and socializing.
Ramos consumed little alcohol, went out for frequent morning runs and was focused on his diet — a change from the days when he earned the nickname Empadão, or Pie, for his love of the Portuguese snack of minced meat encased in two layers of mashed potato. (Even today, old friends will shout, “Empadão!” from the stands when Ramos is overseeing a match.)
Another Portuguese umpire, Jorge Dias, 56, served as a mentor to Ramos and spotted his drive early on. Ramos, in those days, had a speech impediment. Dias told him he thought Ramos’s lisp affected his on-court authority.
“We told him he had to do something about it,” Dias said. “He got an operation and learned to speak again. That shows how keen he was to be an official.”
An inflexibility fellow umpires noticed
Ramos’s devotion to his career was such that he had little spare time to focus on much else.
So it was no surprise to his friends that he would meet his wife, a Frenchwoman named Florence, at a tennis tournament: the Estoril Open in the early 1990s, when Florence was working for the tournament’s sponsor, the Swiss watchmaker Rado.
They, along with their two children, live in Lyon, France.
Today, Ramos speaks four languages fluently: Portuguese, English, French and Spanish. And still, even after obtaining his gold badge certification (the highest level for a tennis umpire given by the International Tennis Federation) in 1993, there were questions from some of his senior colleagues about his effectiveness as a communicator.
“The impression I got was that he was fairly strait-laced, and he wasn’t very flexible,” said Norm Chryst, who spent almost two decades as an umpire for the ATP Tour, which employed Ramos on a contract basis through the 1990s.
“And when we would talk about, ‘Gee, how do you think we could change the way we officiate and try to make it better for the players and sport and the fans?’ he’d always be the one who’d push back and say, ‘What we’re doing is the way we should be doing it.’ He was less likely to say, ‘Let’s try that.’”
Chryst, like most other umpires, thought Ramos behaved appropriately at the U.S. Open women’s final. But he recalled officials at the ATP two decades ago expressing concern that Ramos’s rigid adherence to the code at times hindered his ability to adapt to individual players and situations.
“It was a feeling we had that he wasn’t going to improve enough to do the really big matches,” Chryst said, pausing for a moment. “Obviously, we were wrong.”
In 2004, Ramos found a full-time position under the I.T.F. and thrived. Aside from overseeing finals at all four Grand Slam tournaments, he also served as the umpire for the gold medal match at the 2012 Olympics.
Top umpires can be on the road from 30 to 40 weeks per year, often seeing one another more than seeing their friends and family. In this setting, colleagues said, Ramos became well liked. An avid distance runner, he has been known to recommend books on the sport to fellow runners in his orbit. At Wimbledon some years ago, a group of I.T.F. officials rented a house together, and Ramos was the primary cook.
Ramos developed a reputation for helping junior umpires on the circuits. Félix Torralba, a former gold badge umpire for the Women’s Tennis Association, recalled cornering him at the French Open to ask him about the craft. “It was very interesting, especially as a young umpire coming onto the tour, feeling so comfortable talking to somebody with so much experience,” Torralba said.
Ramos was also known for supporting equal pay and opportunities for men and women in the sport. “Unfortunately in most countries and professions, women are still paid less than men, which is extremely unfair and absurd,” he told the Portuguese tennis website Bola Amarela a few years ago.
Yet on the court, his focus has been strictly on order, and in the aftermath of the U.S. Open final, his history of verbal dust-ups with players was newly relevant: Andy Murray accused him of “stupid umpiring”; Novak Djokovic once accused him of “double standards”; Rafael Nadal accused him of being overly strict.
It has not cost Ramos work, with fellow officials and the people who run big tournaments generally supporting him on principle. But after the U.S. Open, Katrina Adams, the president of the United States Tennis Association, and Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA, were both critical of Ramos’s officiating in the women’s final.
A week later, Ramos resumed his normal professional life, heading to Zadar, Croatia, for a Davis Cup match. He issued a code violation when Marin Cilic, a Croat, slammed his racket into the clay court, breaking it.
Seabra said Ramos did not appear rattled by the confrontation with Williams and the debates emanating from it.
“In this situation, it’s better if I keep going,” Ramos said after the incident, according to Seabra, who spoke to him for about 45 minutes the next day.
“It seemed like he was doing better than me,” Seabra added, laughing.
Williams, in anger, told Ramos on the court at the U.S. Open that he would never umpire one of her matches again. But the I.T.F. has backed him (and fined her).
The next tournament where they both might be is the Australian Open in January.
For once, there may be interest in which match an umpire is assigned.
Ben Rothenberg and Christopher Clarey contributed reporting.