There’s a lot of confusion surrounding what coaches can and can’t do at professional matches. The waters get really muddy when you realise there are different rules for the WTA players compared to ATP; different again from grand slam to tour level.
Rather than go too deep into what the rules are for the different levels of tournament and the WTA vs ATP, I thought I’d pass on a few observations based on experience gained after the ATP decision to allow off-court coaching for the remainder of the 2022 season.
What “Off-Court Coaching” Actually Means
This definition goes for both the ATP and WTA. The WTA has had it in place since 2020:
“Verbal and non-verbal coaching will be allowed as long as it does not interrupt a player or hinder the opponent. Verbal coaching will only be allowed when the player is at the same end of the court as his/her coach”.
Traditionally, different pro players have used their support crew for different reasons. Some hurl abuse. Others have a chat…..OK so it’s usually because they have something about which to complain. Still others just use their support crew for a fist pump or other gesture of encouragement.
Since 2020, and for the last half of the 2022 season on the ATP tour, any interaction can now include coaching, provided it falls within the bounds of the above definition.
Why the game is implementing coaching
The push to implement some sort of coaching has largely come from the US and most of it because the TV audience enjoys seeing what coaches are doing: Baseball’s hand signals; the NFL’s headphones and mouth coverings; Basketball’s courtside coaching for the faster game.
It’s not only other sports from where the push has come. US College tennis has a few different rules: no-let and no-Ad scoring; no need to “hush” the crowd; and coaching from the side of the court that looks more like Basketball than Davis Cup.
All of it adds up to, supposedly, a better audience experience, whether live at the court or on TV. There’s also the argument that tennis should fall into line with other sports. The attitude that “other sports do it so tennis should fall into line”.
The second reason for implementing coaching is to avoid situations like the one we saw at the US Open a few years ago, where Serena Williams controversially copped a code violation because her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, gestured from the side of the court.
Impressions so far
As part of Thanasi’s team, I’m watching most of his matches live from my office. Whether I’m analysing them live usually comes down to time of day, but I’m always watching. That becomes a little more serious when some coaching is allowed. So serious that I have 3 screens going at once per the image above.
I can feed information by text message to either Thanasi’s coach, Todd Langman, or his S&C trainer, Jonna Segal, who are both courtside, either on what I see or on the numbers I’m recording. Todd can then choose whether he wants to pass any of this on to Thanasi.
Equally, Todd can ask me for some information based on what he’s seeing to back up what he wants to say during the match.
Given the rules, the information being passed on has to be very short. The other thing we are finding is that it has to be absolutely necessary ie a fairly big strategy change. Even then, it still has to be no more than a few words, and from close range so that the opponent can’t hear.
The Broader Issue – Should it be Allowed at all?
In my opinion, no, and there are several reasons why.
Reason number one refutes the argument that tennis should fall into line with other sports. Every time I hear this argument, I can hear my mother saying “if your friends jumped off the harbour bridge, would you?”.
Why does tennis need to be like other sports? It’s the ultimate in one on one. Even in golf they have caddies. Boxers have trainers and the possibility of a draw. Tennis is different. Embrace it, don’t water it down. It really is the ultimate in one on one.
Reason number two is related to number one. There are tennis formats where participants play as part of a team: US College, Davis Cup, ATP Cup. All of these allow coaching and on a much bigger scale than the off-court coaching implemented at the top level of the game. I love that those formats are different, but it’s in a team environment.
Davis Cup has already taken a major hit with formatting and scheduling. Don’t water it down even further by allowing coaching at pro level events. Leave the coaching to when tennis is a team event, like Davis Cup or college tennis. Increase the team experiences at junior level to allow more events or competitions where coaching is allowed.
Reason number three is the biggest reason why I am extremely nervous about the trial. Allowing coaching widens the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”, even if it’s just off-court. At the pro level, that’s concerning. At the junior and developmental level, it’s alarming.
Not a lot of parents are going to want to pay a coach to sit by the side of the court to deliver instructions to their child, and I’m not sure there’s a lot of benefit in parents doing the job either. So, only a select few players will have the benefit of a coach by their side for junior matches.
If it becomes more than a trial at pro level, it will have to permeate through the ranks of all tennis in time.
The Final Word
As one prominent ATP coach said to me last week, “I haven’t really noticed the difference between it being allowed and banned”. Is that a good enough reason to allow it? Everyone’s been doing it so if we allow it, we won’t have controversy?
Back in the day, a player would be given a code violation for throwing a racquet. Nowadays the racquet has to snap into a million bits before the umpire dishes out a warning. It’s a slippery slope. If we go down a path allowing off-court coaching today, what’s next? Will we get to a stage where we lose the individuality of tennis entirely because coaches are seated with their player at the change of ends?
That not only changes the sport entirely, but kills off Davis Cup completely, and that would be a sad day. One I hope I never see.
I should add that I have absolutely no problem with US College formatting. In fact, I love it! But that’s for a team environment, not for the pro level of the game, or junior level tournaments.
I refer again to the coach I spoke to last week: “by allowing coaching, we’re just giving the player the ability to blame someone other than themselves for a loss”. Not true for all players, but let’s not advance further down the slippery slope of match day coaching without some more serious thought regarding the broader implications.
Author’s Bio: Nicholas Scott is the Co-founder of 135 Tennis Analytics, and co-developer of the 135 TennisAnalytics system. Nick works with Thanasi Kokkinakisand his coach, Todd Langman, as well as other ATP and WTA pros, college and high school tennis teams and coaches, and developing players of all ages. For more information, visit 135tennisanalytics.com