Poaching On-Court Coaching

by: Peter Bodo | February 26, 2014

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“There has never been a need for it. So I guess that’s why we have never moved towards it. (But) if that (on-court coaching) would make it more popular with the fans, I would definitely say we should give it a try . . . it seems to be working with the women.”Dmitry Tursunov, suggesting that the ATP ought to try on-court coaching, in an interview with The National.

You have to give Tursunov a lot of credit for engaging in some “outside the box” thinking here. But you also can get so far outside the box that you float away into the ether where the laws of gravity—or in this case—logic, no longer apply. And that’s never a good thing.

First of all, you can question Tursunov’s assertion that on-court coaching “seems to be working” for the WTA. I haven’t seen any impact on the game as a result of the tradition-busting and publicity-seeking experiment, which began in 2009. I know of no studies or surveys suggesting the fans even like the idea.

What’s so attractive about watching a middle-aged guy in a track suit yelling at his charge while she stares straight into space, or, in the best case, a former pro encouraging his protégé to “stay focused,” to “live in the moment,” to “take your chances?”

I can’t think of a single instance where I felt I had been privileged to eavesdrop on a truly interesting bit of on-the-fly strategizing during an on-court coaching session.

Tursunov goes on to to admit: “The one big drawback is that if a player is traveling without a coach due to his lack of funds and someone who he is playing has a coach, it does make the conditions a bit unfair. . . There’s always going to be some degree of unfairness. It’s just the nature of the game.”

“Fairness” is a legitimate issue. We know that the stars are never sentenced to hard labor on the outside courts at a tournament. They get the best officials in their matches. They rarely have to play early in the day, when the atmosphere is lacking, and they often have the benefit of the challenge system when their less fortunate brethren do not. But does the fact that the game isn’t entirely fair justify making it even less fair? Heck, why not just take the second serve away from unseeded players?

Tursunov added: “It definitely helps quite a bit (to communicate with a coach) when you do start panicking in some difficult conditions through a match. The coach can come out and snap you out of it.”

Well, sure. But problem solving on the trot, with no outside help, has always been a vital, unique part of tennis. The facility is part of what makes some players better than others. Why exactly should something that has made tennis a more challenging and admirable game be cast aside, in the mere, unproven hope that it will improve the “fan experience?”

It would be one thing if on-court coaching had somehow energized or changed the WTA for the better. But it hasn’t, at least not to any significant, quantifiable way. So for now, I prefer to do my thinking inside this box. There’s no need to add whistles that don’t whistle, or bells that don’t chime.

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