In-match coaching is not everyone’s cup of tea. When the WTA first introduced the rule in 2008, it elicited strong reactions from both sides of the spectrum. While the proponents welcomed a peek into the player-coach dynamic, opponents worried that the move would take away the authenticity of the game, where players solve their own problems on the court.
Fast forward to 2017, when the USTA reignited the debate by announcing that the US Open would allow in-match coaching on a trial basis.
“The US Open has always been at the forefront of tennis innovation, from blue courts to electronic line calling, and beyond,” said Gordon Smith, USTA’s Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer, who will step down from his post at the end of the year. “Throughout the years we have consistently looked for ways to enhance the experience of both our players and our fans, and we think these changes will continue to move the sport in an exciting direction.”
This news did not sit well with some of the players, including 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer.
"I'm not all for it," said Federer. "I find it kind of cool that in tennis, you know, you're sort of on your own out there. Not everybody has the same amount of resources for coaching, as well. So I'm not sure if it's that beneficial.”
However, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic was quick to embrace the idea, pointing out that it was time for tennis to catch up with other sports.
"When the WTA introduced on-court coaching, many ATP players were not really positive about it. I thought it was a good move for the sport," said Djokovic. "I mean, we're probably one of the only, maybe [the] only global sport that doesn't use coaching during the play. Even golf, individual sport, you have caddies that you communicate with throughout the entire course."
Later that year, the Next Gen ATP Finals reignited the controversial topic further by introducing the in-match player coaching using headsets. Instead of having the coach come on court, he or she would communicate with his or her charge through a headset.
Frances Tiafoe listens to his coach during his match against Jannik Sinner. (Getty Images)
Aware of the skepticism, ATP’s chief player officer and former Top 150 player, Ross Hutchins, tried to dispel the misconception that it would remove the one-on-one aspect.
“You're out there competing by yourself,” he said. “You have to do it yourself so it's still a one-on-one sport.”
ATP Executive Chairman & President Chris Kermode, who ends his tenure at the end of the year, praised the use of wearable technology.
“From the outset, the Next Gen ATP Finals have been at the cutting edge of innovation in our sport, and the use of wearable technology this year during matches will provide some valuable insights to players, coaches and ATP medical services,” he said. “This is a unique tournament that has always embraced new technologies, and this is the latest step as the event continues to pioneer innovation in the game.”
Ugo Humbert talks to his coach on Day 1 of the Next Gen ATP Finals. (Getty Images)
Former world No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion Lleyton Hewitt, who is part of 20-year-old Alex de Minaur’s coaching camp—the young Aussie is competing at this week’s Next Gen Finals—echoed the sentiment.
“I think it's a good thing,” he said “I think it's a good thing for the audience as well to be able to see that and hear it and see if it's having any impact on the match.”
Is headset coaching the future of tennis? Given de Minaur's 3-0 record in Milan, more players may want to give it a try, if given the option.