Purists' nightmare?

The Women's Tennis Association is going to allow ON-COURT COACHING at the Rogers Cup in Montreal and Pilot Pen in New Haven next month. The experiment is bound to have purists frothing, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

Sporting purists are easily recognised, and not merely because of a fondness for typewriters that clack madly and teeth that click suspiciously at modern dress codes. A commentator had to be revived with smelling salts recently after being confronted by Ian Poulter's Liberace-inspired trousers at the British Open.

Purists can be identified by their twitching like nervous shoplifters at the sight of Virender Sehwag's footwork, or clutching their hearts in fear of a coronary after witnessing various bowling actions. When a young lady once skittered across centre court in pursuit of Bjorn Borg, the distress in the venerable commentator Dan Maskell's voice was almost moving: "My god," he cried, "she's wearing high heels."

Purists, who sleep with wooden rackets under their mattress and consider astro-turf the devil's playground, are self-proclaimed guardians of the game, who will regale you with dark tales of how sport is under assault.

They are horrified that only the umpires' head (and it has been tried) lacks a camera in cricket and that soon enough TV will make lbw decisions. They are outraged that golf equipment is making courses redundant, claim hockey has become too complicated, and splutter over badminton's fiddle with scoring systems. They have a point.

Much of the pressure to tinker with sports is exerted by television, and the new pre-match interviews in tennis, for instance, are silly, an interruption not enhancement of the drama, and while tennis players are not quite going out to perform surgery it is a tense time when they are best left alone.

But no sport stands still, almost all have evolved over time, at varying paces. These days sports are eager to splash on make-up and make themselves presentable to sponsors, for money is limited and games are many. The most entertaining, most TV friendly sport wins.

Tennis has embraced all manner of change to stay relevant. Ball colour changed because of TV. So did clothes, except at Wimbledon. Cyclops made an entry, now Hawkeye has. The line cord judge disappeared but chairs at changeovers arrived. Over time, tennis has discussed having one serve, moving the service line and no doubt doing unmentionable things to the net.

Purists might have grumbled, but what frightens them is an altering of the basic fundamentals of a sport, like the scoring system. Some are still not convinced by Jimmy van Allen's marvellous invention of the tie-breaker, though if it weren't for his genius some claycourt matches from last year might still be continuing.

But tennis' latest experiment is bound to have purists frothing, for next month, at the Rogers Cup in Montreal and Pilot Pen in New Haven, the Women's Tennis Association is going to, gasp, allow on-court coaching.

In short, players can call their coach on to court once every set during a changeover, and also during breaks between sets. To this comes one additional point, so breath-taking in its slyness that I am still applauding. Should a player take a medical time-out or bathroom break, her opponent may summon her coach. Since pleas haven't worked, nor good sportsmanship embraced, this will quickly put an end to the sudden muscle strains and kidney malfunctions that occur when a player's serve is broken in an attempt to shatter an opponent's momentum.

Still, coaching, during a match, in tennis?

This could be fun. Anyone who has been nominated in advance can be called on, and some may beckon courtside psychologists with a folding couch, others mothers to soothe their nerves, and if the men were allowed this luxury Federer might summon a hairdresser. Spats may break out and should the eccentric Richard Williams arrive on court, he may well go and have a chat with his daughters' opponents.

Part of the appeal of sport is that often the obvious from the stand, is not apparent from the field. In football, for instance, we can map an entire field, but at ground level the player is confronted by a different dimension. In tennis, players, tied up in neuroses, heavy with sweat, cannot think sometimes with the fine clarity of the coach in the stands. We are all experts from the outside, and now some will be allowed inside. Whispers of "attack the forehand", "go forward", "toss the ball straighter", "hit short to her backhand" will abound. As an idea it holds the possibility of making the game more intriguing.

Intensifying the theatre is one reason, but perhaps it is also to discard a familiar fraud. Constantly, coaches (often fathers) will hiss and snort and semaphore instructions from the players' box, and Sharapova's father in particular appears to own a high degree in sign language. It is cheating, no one cares, so might as well make it legal.

Some will insist that since money buys the best coaches, it puts less successful/rich competitors at a disadvantage. Others will be delighted, especially young players yet to grow the muscles of experience, and those who were handed out an inadequate helping of mental toughness on creation.

Some scepticism lingers, for it might be argued we overstate the effect of coaches (especially in the 1-2 minutes they will be allowed on court), and anyway most tactical advice has been chewed over more times than Sun Tzu's Art of War before the match. It is the translation of advice into action, of idea into point design, where players fail, sometimes simply because they lack sufficient skill. If it seems an intriguing concept and worthy of experiment, the purist will see it as ignoble. And he will not be without argument.

Football has its half-time, basketball its time-outs, cricket its endless breaks for discussion, even golf its caddies to lean on. But tennis' allure, and its uniqueness, lies in the collision of individuals, unaided, unsupported, just one against one, an overcoming of fear, a mustering of self-belief, a contest mentally more gladiatorial (in a way) than even boxing where seconds can ease tension from shoulders and soothe wounded egos.

Tennis, better than so many sports, advocates most purely the idea that winning is a lonely business.