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(Off-Court) Coaching Comes Out of the Shadows: Tennis loses a distinction, but gains replenished integrity
“It’s time for this,” says Pam Shriver. “Seeing how they were having a hard time enforcing the no-coaching rule, why not?”
Published Jun 22, 2022
One of the last barriers separating tennis from other sports came tumbling down on Tuesday, when the ATP and even the USTA opted to allow coaching during matches on a trial basis for the rest of 2022. The trial starts immediately after Wimbledon, and when the US Open unspools in late August, it will mark the first time that any type of coaching is permitted at a Grand Slam tournament.
We know what tennis lost in this transaction: The distinction of being the one major sport in which the athlete, even in the heat of competition, must be a self-reliant problem-solver. But what did the sport gain?
One answer to that question is easy: replenished integrity.
As the popularity of tennis swelled over the years, the increasingly high stakes and a pressurized environment has led to a widespread and flagrant disregard of the rule against coaching in real time. Thus, tennis has been lurching from one coaching controversy to another—from the machinations of Ion Tiriac to the ghastly ruckus that may have cost Serena Williams her landmark 24th Grand Slam at the 2018 US Open to the recent, incessant dueling between chair umpires and the Tsitsipas family.
ESPN and Tennis Channel analyst Pam Shriver spoke for a great swath of her colleagues when she told me, “It’s time for this. Seeing how they were having a hard time enforcing the no-coaching rule, why not?”
Proponents of the change cite an additional potential benefit: enhanced interest among fans and television viewers. They see the rule change as a win-win, yet if history is any indication, that bonus is far from guaranteed. But there is tremendous pressure on tennis officials to make the game more marketable to a larger and less expert audience. Elite coach Brad Stine told me, “I tend to lean toward tradition in our sport. But I think this is a nice non-invasive way to produce a better overall product.”
There are prominent dissenters, though. Tennis Channel analyst Jim Courier, a former world No. 1, wrote in a text message: “I consider myself a progressive but do not support this initiative. How many tennis fans have been saying for years how much more they enjoy WTA tour matches (where coaching has long been allowed) compared to the Slams where coaching is not allowed? It is not essential to the game and is one of the things that differentiates tennis…[you] figure it out yourself.”
Courier’s skepticism is warranted. The ATP held a trial run of on-court coaching in official matches in 1999, allowing one coaching visit per set. ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert guided Andre Agassi to three titles before the ATP abandoned that experiment. But he is now adamant about eliminating the rampant cheating and convinced of the entertainment value of visible coaching.
“I was massively in favor of it (on-court coaching) in 1999, and 23 years later I still am,” Gilbert said. “There are pieces in the plan that I don’t like, but I’ll live with them just to have it. It adds a lot of plot and creativity to a match.”
One of the most powerful arguments against allowing coaching is the advantage it gives to players, like the major stars, who can afford to hire top coaching talent. “Hiring a coach used to be prohibitively expensive,” Shriver said, “But now pretty much everybody has one.”
I consider myself a progressive but do not support this initiative. ... It is not essential to the game and is one of the things that differentiates tennis…[you] figure it out yourself. Jim Courier, former world No. 1
The new ATP rules address the two most prevalent forms of illicit coaching: the use of hand signals, and furtively delivered verbal advice. Under the plan, ATP mentors will be obliged to occupy seats close to the court at opposite ends, where they will be free to use unlimited hand signals as well as communicate verbally when their proteges are on the same side of the court. But verbal communication that disrupts the flow of play or “hinders” an opponent is forbidden. Chats will have to be confined to “a few words and/or short phrases (no conversations are permitted).”
I’ll leave it to better minds than mine to determine exactly when a few words becomes a conversation. Curiously, coaches will not be allowed to chat with players when they leave the court, which looks like yet another strategy to combat the growing plague of bathroom and injury-treatment breaks. Even more curiously, endorsing on-court coaching of any kind was apparently a bridge too far for the ATP. Could it be that ATP honchos lacked enthusiasm for the WTA’s bold foray into on-court coaching?
Starting in 2009, WTA events allowed a limited number of coaching visits with players during changeovers (complete with audio for TV viewers). The approach became business-as-usual until Covid put the kibosh on it. However, it was about as interested as conversation at the 30-minute oil change. You can certainly watch it happen, but is it really that compelling?
Nobody has been clamoring for the resumption of on-court coaching. Fans—television viewers, mostly—became privy mostly to anodyne pep talks delivered to stony-faced, zoned-out players during changeovers. Apart from familiar pleas to stick the first serve or to be patient in rallies, the visits rarely produced useful strategic, tactical or personal insights. Part of the problem: No coach was honest—or dumb—enough to share nuggets of precious intel while everyone had their ear to the keyhole.
“Obviously, there will be some open talk about strategy and stuff,” ESPN analyst Jimmy Arias, the Director of the IMG Tennis Academy, predicted. “But a lot of coaching is—I don’t want to say baby-sitting—but it’s about helping a player in different ways, making everything as easy as possible to help him go out on the court relaxed.”
I’m looking forward to this. If I can help Hubie (Hurkacz) in any way, that’s great. ... If you have a few different plans or ideas and he’s on the fence you can now give him a nudge in the direction you want. Craig Boynton, current ATP Tour coach
Coaching in real-time can be a perilous business. Arias said that the best game plan can go “out the window” if the player—who is ultimately the employer and boss of the coach—won’t or can’t execute it. An opponent also has a lot of say in the efficacy of any given strategy or tactic.
“Coaches will be 100 percent under a microscope,” said Arias, who is willing to accept the trade-off between self-reliance and greater entertainment value. “It could get very interesting. We know that some players like to take their emotions out on their coaches. I’m not sure how the coach is going to react when he says, ‘I think you should do this. . .’ And on the microphone his guy goes, ‘You’re just an idiot, go get my lunch.’”
Craig Boynton, the coach of world No. 10 Hubert Hurkacz, is more sanguine. He believes that the intense scouting and preparation that now takes place before matches leaves little room for surprises. One of his favorite quotes about coaching is, “You don’t need to teach the greats, you just need to remind them.”
Boynton, whose protege Hurcaz is shy, diligent, and self-controlled, added: “I’m looking forward to this. If I can help Hubie (Hurcaz) in any way, that’s great. It’s a positive if you can (legitimately) encourage a player, give him a little clearer direction. If you have a few different plans or ideas and he’s on the fence you can now give him a nudge in the direction you want.”
However the experiment turns out, ATP coaches will now find themselves in an unfamiliar place: the spotlight.