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Has tennis figured out its on-court coaching problem, or shown that it'll never be solved?
In reality, there isn’t a lot of time for complex instructions in the 25 seconds between points.
Published Sep 05, 2023
NEW YORK—“I need something, mate,” Andy Murray shouted at his coaching team. “Anything is better than nothing.”
Murray was in the middle of a dismal defeat to Grigor Dimitrov. By the third set, his banter with his player box had turned morose.
“I don’t have any energy,” he moaned, “and you don’t have any energy.” It was a recipe for a terrible performance, he concluded.
If you, like me, had often wondered what Murray was ranting about to his support team over the years, and why he got so worked up, this was eye-opening information. Personally, I was surprised by how little his coaches had to say back to him, other than, “Let’s go, mate.” I don’t think I heard Ivan Lendl utter a word. No wonder Murray is constantly raging about how he needs more energy from them.
These are the types of conversations—and tirades—tennis fans have been privy to since on-court coaching was legalized, in limited quantities, last summer. For a reporter who wants to get some inside information on how certain players and coaches interact, it’s a helpful rule change. But what do fans, particularly those who liked the do-it-yourself tradition of tennis, think of this injection of motivational jabber into their TV broadcasts? Do we want to hear Brad Gilbert say “make it physical” during every changeover? Judging by some of her reactions during her last match, Gilbert’s player, Coco Gauff, doesn’t always want to hear it herself.
The verdict on coaching from people at the Open seems highly mixed. Some yearn for the return of silence. Some are grateful that’s it less intrusive than the WTA’s changeover visits of old. Others just don’t like it. The latter viewpoint seemed to be summed up by Guardian sportswriter Tumaini Carayol last week on Twitter.
“I really don’t enjoy hearing some coaches yapping at their players after every point,” he wrote. “If tennis is so obsessed with on-court coaching, they may as well just give us the full psychodrama of coaching changeovers. This current setup is just annoying.”
Unlike Carayol, I can live with the current setup, but I’m still torn between traditionalism and practicality.
There’s always been on-court coaching in tennis, at all levels, including on the sly during professional matches. Despite that, the idea that the pros are, ideally, solving their own problems and making their own adjustments was an appealing one. Asking tennis players to be as tactically savvy as they are athletically brilliant raised them higher in the pantheon of sports stars. It’s something of a comedown to hear them take instruction on what to change in their games in the middle of a match.
The downside, when coaching was banned, was having to wonder whether a player was getting advice illegally. What crossed the line from legitimate support to illegitimate coaching? With the new rules, that naggingly distracting element of the sport is gone. Not having to guess or care what a player and coach are saying to each other has turned out to be a relief. To me, the trade-off is worth it. I’ll take not worrying about coaching over not having it.
But as Carayol says, there should be limits to the chatter, and there are in the rules. Players and coaches aren’t allowed to converse; they aren’t allowed to talk on changeovers or during rain delays; and coaches are only allowed to make brief comments to their players when they’re on the same side of the court.
This Open is the first time when I’ve seen those lines crossed on a few occasions, when a steady stream of “yapping” from coach to player has distracted from the play itself. But if the rules as written are enforced, this shouldn’t happen.
Much of the time, to my surprise, the advice you hear is general and generic. “Keep it up,” “move your feet,” “right here.” I’ve also been surprised by the lack of coaching in certain situations. Iga Swiatek didn’t hear much from her team as she sank below the weight of Jelena Ostapenko’s ground-stroke barrage on Sunday night.
In reality, there isn’t a lot of time for major changes or complex instructions in the 25 seconds between points. One camp that does seem to get more specific is Novak Djokovic’s, and the communication is helpful to him, even if he doesn’t always enjoy what he hears. For the most part the players really do the thinking and the playing themselves.
The Gauff-Gilbert duo may have given us the best example of this. At the start of her third set against Caroline Wozniacki on Sunday, Gilbert told her to “play with shape,” “put some air under the ball,” and “use your legs”—i.e., roll the ball with topspin and wear her older opponent down. Gauff, who had just lost the second set and didn’t seem to be in the mood to listen to anyone, promptly walked back out and did the opposite—and it worked. She drilled two flat backhand winners, broke serve, and didn’t lose another game.
Tennis’s do-it-yourself tradition survives.