“The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change everything — or nothing.”
— Nancy Astor, the first woman member of Parliament in England
The 2003 movie titled How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days comes to mind during the current frenzy to change tennis rules. At the inaugural Next Gen Finals next November, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) will test a revolutionary set of changes — four-game sets, sudden-death deuce points to end games, no service lets, and a countdown clock during a player’s service points and warm-ups. If the proposed reforms, aside from the clock, are approved, the resulting debacle should be titled “How to Ruin a Sport in 10 Months.”
A current case in point is on-court coaching. When the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour adopted on-court coaching in 2006, it was supposed to be an experiment. Neither the fans nor the players clamoured for it — either then or now. Few coaches advocated it. Flawed in theory, on-court coaching has proved even more flawed in practice.
To figure out why, let’s go back to basics. At its best, tennis poses a supreme test of skill and will. Players reveal their character as much as, or even more than, their talent, especially in close, high-stakes matches. Ever since the first Wimbledon Championships in 1877, competitors have performed on their own once they walked on the court. Tournament players acknowledge and even relish the pressure. Stan Wawrinka, the 2016 U.S. Open champion, broke down in tears five minutes before the final, but went on to upset Novak Djokovic. Roger Federer, the greatest of them all, confided he was “super nervous” before the 2017 Australian Open final where he overcame long-time rival Rafael Nadal in a five-set thriller. They aren’t campaigning for on-court coaching because they don’t want it or need it.
But WTA CEO Steve Simon apparently believes women are the weaker sex and therefore just can’t cope with the pressure on their own. Like his predecessors Larry Scott and Stacey Allaster, Simon caved in to accommodate TV sports executives who like gimmicks, such as on-court coaching. Intended to be fan-friendly, this experiment has hardly been player-friendly or coach-friendly.
Neither Simon nor these execs care that allowing on-court coaching of women greatly diminishes their virtue of self-reliance, the time-tested hallmark of tennis for 140 years (except in Davis Cup and Fed Cup). They don’t care that TV viewers often can’t hear or understand what coaches are telling players, though this communication is the raison d’etre for the rule change. They don’t care that matches can come down unfairly to two-versus-one in the case of players who cannot afford a travelling coach, who don’t want a coach, or whose coach is unable to attend the tournament. They don’t care that on-court coaching can backfire terribly.
“It’s becoming a circus now,” says former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, now a Tennis Channel analyst. “Sometimes the mics aren’t being used, and sometimes personal issues are being exposed.”
Two of the most notorious incidents involved Spanish star Garbiñe Muguruza. During a loss to Andrea Petkovic in Doha last year, Muguruza lashed out at her coach Sam Sumyk, “Tell me something I don’t know.” A few weeks later at Indian Wells, she told Sumyk, “I don’t even want to play.” When Sumyk exhorted her to fight during a loss to underdog Christina McHale, a distraught Muguruza retorted, “You think I’m going to fight, [down] 3-0 in the second set?” Nothing is worse than an athlete not trying to win and letting fans know it.
Davenport offers that she’d favour on-court coaching if there were no mics during coaching visits. But she misses the point: those mics are precisely why Simon advocates on-court coaching. “There is real value for the fans in giving them the insight they want,” insists Simon. “Through our partnership with SAP, we are also introducing real-time analytics technology that is available to the coaches, players and fans, setting new standards for the WTA.”
Rather than cut his losses and ditch this misbegotten reform, Simons wants to expand it. “There is no current initiative under consideration which would allow for coaching from the sidelines,” Simon says. “I do, however, feel it should be discussed as from a perspective of consistency. If we allow for on-court coaching, why would you then limit it from the sideline?” The bizarre extension of this rule, if approved, would likely mean coaches would frequently shout advice and encouragement from the Player’s Box, 50 or more yards away. You cannot be serious!
Reasons abound for not allowing any on-court coaching, rightly contends Mary Carillo, an authoritative Tennis Channel analyst. “These are some of the most famous women athletes in the world. They are multi-millionaires. And WTA CEO Steve Simon wants more on-court coaching,” criticizes Carillo. “Not only that, Simon said players should be allowed to be coached from the sidelines.
“Do you know how bad that looks because it’s only [allowed] on the women’s side? Do you know how weak and fragile and emotional and vulnerable it makes women look?” Carillo argues. “And Simon thinks that’s a good look.
“It’s getting worse and worse especially because so many women, it seems, get tight and choke,” explains Carillo, the 1977 French Open mixed doubles champion with John McEnroe. “So many of these changeovers are all about, ‘You’ll be okay. Don’t worry.’ Then the woman says, ‘I can’t hold my serve. I don’t know what I’m doing out there.’ Is that a good look for women’s tennis? And the men don’t have it [on-court coaching].
“Most of the coaches who come out there are guys,” continues Carillo. “It doesn’t make the coaches look good either. I don’t think it’s doing Garbine any good. Why didn’t all this [preparation] happen on the practice court? Coaches are supposed to teach players how to problem-solve. I feel sorry for a lot of the coaches, putting up with this nonsense. If you can’t figure out a way to win, then you’re supposed to lose.”
That’s exactly what has happened to less self-reliant women at the prestigious Grand Slam tournaments where on-court coaching is prohibited. The most pathetic collapses were suffered by a tearful Dinara Safina in the 2009 French Open final, and a nerve-stricken Sabine Lisicki in the 2013 Wimbledon final. For these damsels in distress, there were no words of wisdom or encouragement to rescue them.
Simon offers one last argument. “Coaching is a part of sport and fundamental to the story of competition.” Translation: On-court coaching should be allowed in pro tennis because it’s allowed in almost every other sport.
Like many flawed analogies, Simon’s analogy erases critical differences. For example, what is best for U.S. football — which is a city franchise, team, contact, and national sport with many players and coaches and few contests per season — may not be what’s best for an individual, non-contact, and international sport like pro tennis.
Even comparisons with a similar individual, mano a mano sport such as boxing can be misleading. Would anyone seriously suggest that boxing should become more like tennis and make its combatants aware of the score? Of course, not. This would allow boxers to coast to victory, and that would diminish the warlike, primal appeal of the “sweet science.”
The main point here is that boxing is unique. What suits boxing may or may not suit other sports that have little or nothing in common with it. The same truism applies to tennis.
Our sport boasts several uniquely meritorious aspects, too, including its brilliant scoring system, service lets, foot-fault rule, and diverse court surfaces. And most notably, its individual battle of skill and will that is embodied in its time-honoured no-coaching tradition.
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