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Want to make on-court coaching work? Go Big
If mid-match coaching is indeed impossible to police, the tours ought to experiment with a full commitment to the practice to maximize transparency.
Published Nov 22, 2021
WATCH: Tennis Channel Live discusses the possible expansion of on-court coaching.
The topic of on-court coaching in tennis has made my head spin for decades. Once upon a time, I was highly in favor it, thinking it would raise the quality of competition and add several intriguing plot lines.
But when I started working for Tennis Channel nearly 20 years ago, a colleague’s thoughts made me see it differently. This person had witnessed hundreds of baseball, football and basketball games and was new to tennis. He told me how much he loved tennis’ mano-a-mano dynamic. As Andre Agassi put it, “Tennis is like life: Two people, by themselves, trying to figure things out.”
And so, I changed my mind. When advocates for coaching made the argument that it was part of every other sport, I countered: Why not let tennis own an attribute different from all the others? Since when should our precious individual sport succumb to peer pressure? As a former world number one once told me, “Tennis? Coaching? You play tennis so you don’t have someone telling you what to do.” Let team sports players be evaluated, supervised and subordinate themselves to a boss. Not tennis players. How great that the tennis player can hire an instructor, personally arrange practice sessions, enter tournaments as desired, and be completely in charge of his or her destiny once in the cauldron of competition.
I’ve remained adamantly opposed to on-court coaching. Several years ago, a friend asked me to play his daughter, adding that he would coach her during the match. I told him if those were the terms, he should find someone else. We compromised when I gave him the choice of either a pre-match discussion with her or one mid-match visit. He picked the former.
So, I’m holding on strongly to my opinion. But I’ve also come to see a sober truth: Coaching is impossible to police. This is particularly true among the pros, amid crowds, noise and all sorts of commotion. A Grand Slam champion once told me that when his coach said, “Let’s go,” it meant “hit to the backhand” while, “Let’s go, let’s go” translated to “hit to the forehand.” That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to comments and signals.
And so, while I think coaching should remain illegal and not part of player’s development path, I’m willing to experiment with it at ATP and WTA tournaments.
But here is my message to both tours: If you’re going to permit on-court coaching, then give it a 100 percent commitment, similarly to how coaches are an integral part of the NFL, NBA, MLB and the NCAA. This has never happened in tennis. Instead, on-court coaching has often been a half-baked effort. Comments from one corner of the stands? Intermittent visits? These are spotty methods. Instead, make it a big deal:
- Player and coach will walk onto the court together.
- The coach will sit on the bench, next to the player, for the entire match.
- At the end of each set, TV viewers will be allowed to hear the coach-player conversation.
- Comments from the player entourage are permitted.
- Bathroom breaks will be limited to one per two-out-of-three set match, a predetermined length (5-7 minutes) based on the location. Player and coach can go off the court together.
- At all times during a tournament—matches, practice, meals—the coach will wear a shirt with both the name of the coach and the player on the back of it. Everyone needs to know who these folks are.
- The tours will publish biographies of every coach of a top 100 player, detailing various credentials—playing career, teaching gigs, past clients, etc. It will help to have quotes from and about the coach that give insights into their ideas.
- The tour websites will detail the exact dates when a player has hired a specific coach. This information will be updated constantly and simple for anyone to find.
- Practice times will be published on-line and easily accessible (many tournaments already do this). Whoever arranges the practice—coach, agent, assistant—will list the name of the hitting partner, be it a fellow pro or someone else. If possible, a bit of information on the hitting partner (college player, ex-pro, instructor) will be available on-line so that fans and media can know even more about the pro’s support team.
- Coaches will conduct post-match press conferences after every match. Perhaps, as an experiment, coach and player could attend them together.
- Once a player reaches the semifinals of an event, the coach will participate in a pre-semi press conference, as well as one prior to the finals.
Consider this The Coaching Manifesto, a blueprint for how it might work at the pro level. Anything less, and I’ll remain opposed. But why not give this a full-fledged effort?