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Advantage, coach: How mid-match coaching in men’s tennis could ruin the beauty of the game

It looks like Daniil Medvedev, currently the world number one men’s singles tennis player, will have to leave the ghosts of his Australian Open 2022 singles semi-finals meltdown behind.

Advantage, coach: How mid-match coaching in men’s tennis could ruin the beauty of the game

© MoneycontrolAdvantage, coach: How mid-match coaching in men’s tennis could ruin the beauty of the game

Ranked fifth at the time, the Russian player blasted the chair umpire for ignoring what he alleged was the constant coaching his opponent, the Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, received through the match from his father, who was in the stands. At the time, coaching during matches was banned by the Association of Men’s Tennis Professionals (ATP), the governing body of the men’s tennis tour. If caught, players could be fined up to $5,000, per the ATP rule book.

Medvedev won that match and went on to play in the finals, but was docked$12,000 (Rs 9.39 lakh) for shouting at the chair umpire. Tsitsipas too was penalised, for, well, getting illegal coaching. Not just for that match, but for two other previous matches in the tournament; in all he ended up paying $13,000 (Rs 10.17 lakh) in penalties at the 2022 Australian Open.

Those fines may soon be a thing of the past, if the ATP has its way.

Last month, the governing body announced that men’s tennis will allow off-court coaching on a trial basis. This means that coaches in designated seats in the stadium will be allowed to give advice to their players, either verbally (if the player is on the same side of the court as the coach) or through non-verbal means such as hand signals. The ATP had announced that the trial would begin in July and run till the season-ending Nitto ATP Finals tennis championships. Thereafter, it would decide on whether or not to let the practice continue.

The move may sound radical, but it isn’t, because women’s tennis has already blazed a path for the men, allowing on-court coaching, for instance, since 2008. On-court coaching is where a player’s coach can step on to the court, and be with the player mid-match, either to provide coaching advice or simply to motivate a player. The ATP has been silent so far on whether it would allow on-court coaching in future; for now it wants to start off-court coaching or coaching from the stands.

In 2020, the WTA also allowed coaching from the stands, more popularly known as off-court coaching. However, the women’s body is still testing off-court coaching and doesn’t appear to have made up its mind on which way to go. So, the men could well shine a light on the way forward for this practice.

Nuisance or necessity?

For years, tennis’ governing bodies have been working to make the sport more popular.

Aside from making the matches shorter, the ATP and the WTA want to make tennis appealing to newer fans, especially on television. Tennis bosses who govern the tours and tournaments feel that the sport is not just being threatened by other competitive sports, but also by shifting TV audiences, who consume more content from streaming services and other, a fact outlined by ‘One Vision’, a game plan overseen by Andrea Gaudenzi, the ATP chairman. Gaudenzi, a former tennis player who won three titles and reached a career high ranking of 18 in 1995, presented his plan in 2019, but Covid-19 slowed its implementation.

The first phase of this plan, which involves extending the number of days of marquee tournaments, making tournament balance sheets more transparent to make sure their and player interests are better aligned, was approved this month and will be implemented in January 2023.

Although off-court coaching isn’t directly part of the ATP’s One Vision document, it is one of the many innovations that the tennis tour has been trying to implement over the years, to add yet another dimension to how the fans consume tennis on television.

When the WTA had introduced on-court coaching, then chief executive officer Larry Scott had said: “It gives commentators and producers some more colour, another actor in the play, a peek behind the curtain.” This, said Scott at the time, was done more to enhance the television viewership experience.

Designated coaches on the women’s tour are required to wear a microphone, especially when they step on the court to interact with their players; this conversation can be used for television broadcasts.

When Serena was penalised for cheating

Innovation is not the only reason, though. Despite being banned until now, coaching during matches was prevalent, clandestinely. In 2018, at the US Open Tennis Championships’ women’s singles final, Serena Williams, ranked 26th in the world back then, and chasing her elusive 24th grand slam title, got into a dramatic meltdown with the chair umpire after he gave her a warning. The umpire spotted her coach Patrick Mouratoglo giving her advice.

Williams was furious because she claimed that she wasn’t looking at her coach and was unaware. But the rules said that didn’t matter as players are responsible for the conduct of their coaches. Things went downhill from there; the umpire handed her a second penalty after Williams broke her racket in anger. That led to another warning and another heated argument, ending with the chair umpire handing down another penalty, which cost Williams a point. Furious, Williams called the umpire a “thief”, this led to a third penalty that then cost her an entire game. Meanwhile, Naomi Osaka, who was playing in her first grand slam tournament final, was at the top of her game and Williams lost in straight sets.

Later Mouratoglo admitted that coaching during matches was nothing new and many did it.

When ATP announced the beginning of off-court coaching last month, Mouratoglo was among the first to hail the decision.

Taking individualism out of the sport

It’s tough to see how tennis fans will embrace this change, positively. As a tennis fan myself, I’ve always enjoyed watching players work out strategies to turn the game around when they’re losing.

A good example is how Steffi Graf solved the Jana Novotna puzzle in the 1993 women’s singles final at Wimbledon when she was 1-4 down in the final set. Or when she was down a set against then world number 1 Martina Hingis in the final of the 1999 French Open. For the better part in both matches, Graf was outplayed by her talented opponents. Yet, she somehow made the most of small openings and won both those matches.

Good for Nadal, bad for Nagal

Mouratoglo, like many tennis experts, is right when he says that coaching during matches has been prevalent but hard to catch. Although the ATP chairman doesn’t appear to have said it outright, many tennis insiders and observers believe that the tour’s legal sanction to the new coaching rules is a tacit admission that if policing didn’t curb the practice, it might as well be allowed so that everyone benefits.

But there’s a problem with that assumption. It won’t benefit everyone. Both on-court and off-court coaching benefits only the top-ranked players, who have an entourage. The lesser mortals will find themselves at a disadvantage. That’s because many of these players cannot afford full-time coaches, so on-court and off-court coaching will work against them.

Australian tennis player and world number 45 Nick Kyrgios is a fierce critic of the ATP’s latest decision, He does not have a coach at the moment, per his profile on the ATP website.

Many lower-ranked players travel on their own or with minimal entourages as prize money comes in only if you go deep into tournaments. But air tickets, hotels, food costs and treatment costs can dent a hole in a player’s pocket if he or she doesn’t win consistently. Add coaching fees to that. This is also why Covid-19 was hard on lower-ranked players when tennis was suspended for five months in 2020, including the Wimbledon Tennis Championships.

Now, this new rule will see many lower-ranked players, who on some days hit the zone and beat the very best players in the world, at a disadvantage.

At the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in 2015, journeyman Dustin Brown, a Jamaican player ranked outside the top 100, beat Spain’s Rafael Nadal, who was ranked second in the world at the time, in the second round. Brown came through the qualifying rounds and overpowered Nadal. That year, Brown ended up winning just 10 matches and lost 16. Nadal won 61 matches and lost 20. Needless to say, Brown’s victory over Nadal is one of the best wins of his entire career. When tennis allows mid-match coaching, it aims to throttle the spread of such unexpected results, which bring lesser-known players into the limelight.

But like Mouratoglo, many coaches aren’t complaining about the ATP’s new off-court coaching rule. After all, their paychecks may go up now that they will be expected to drop a word or make a gesture from the stands.

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