Serena Williams’ defeat to Jennifer Capriati and egregious line calls in the 2004 US Open quarterfinal directly led to Hawk-Eye being institutionalised in tennis. Her defeat to Naomi Osaka in the US Open final could introduce another alteration to the game. The 23-time Grand Slam champion lost the match, and the plot, after being handed the first coaching violation of her career on Saturday. And the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) used the resulting hullabaloo to push forward its agenda of making on-court coaching legal across tennis.
In 2009, WTA introduced on-court coaching, with players able to consult their coaches once per set, either at the end of the set or during a changeover, or or during toilet/change of attire break. ATP too did a dry run at last year’s Next Gen finals.
While it was also used for the US Open qualifying, reservations from ITF have kept the rule out of Grand Slams. But the Williams episode, along with allegations against Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, could send the governing body back to the drawing board.
Former India Davis Cup captain Anand Amritraj believes “if they’re going to coach from the stands then let them.” “The player still has to go out and play. It’s like you sitting in the captain’s chair during Davis Cup and telling your player to do this, do that, whatever, the players still have to go and play,” Amritraj told The Indian Express. “Coaching from the stands is across the board. (Williams’ coach) Patrick Mouratoglou also mentioned that Toni is talking to Rafael Nadal constantly in Spanish. To police this is not easy and some people get hurt because they get caught. And a lot of times this thing goes unseen. So they should just let it go.”
On Saturday, chair umpire Carlos Ramos spotted Mouratoglou motioning Williams to move forward, and issued the first code violation against the American, triggering the chain of events.
“This time Ramos caught Patrick making hand signals, I’m sure he’s missed eight out of 10 and caught just two. That’s the problem,” said Amritraj, adding, “Apparently Serena doesn’t use it. So why that guy was making hand signals is beyond me because apparently she doesn’t even look at him when she’s playing.”
Except that she did. Williams tried to explain Mouratoglou’s gesture to go forward as “thumbs up”, and did the bidding on the next point, advancing to the net and smashing a backhand passing winner. After the match Mouratoglou admitted that he was coaching, to which Williams said: “We have never discussed signals. I don’t even call for on-court coaching.”
Then there’s the 2015 interview in which Mouratoglou not only said that Williams had asked him for on-court coaching a few times, but also that he turned down the requests. “I refused because I think that would make her weaker to think that she would need someone to win a match after winning without anyone for so many years,” the Frenchman told The Straits Times. “Second thing, in the Grand Slams you cannot call your coach… One of her strengths is to figure how to win even when she is in trouble. If she takes the habit to call me when she is in trouble, she might lose this ability or make it a bit weaker, which would be a big mistake.”
Different rules for different tiers on the women’s tour make the situation trickier. On-court coaching is not allowed at the ITF events, which serve as the Futures tournaments for women, but is promoted on the WTA events. The Grand Slams then punish any infractions with code violations. On the men’s side however, it has always been prohibited (save for a controversial five-tournament test in 1998), but that hasn’t stopped anyone.
At the 2015 Wimbledon, Djokovic denied being coached by Boris Becker during matches while “acknowledging special ways of communication for encouragement and motivation”.
Last year the Serb said on-court coaching “is fine, when you have your player on your side.” Roger Federer has regularly expressed his disapproval, but admitted that coaching does occur against the rules. “I’m sure (on-court coaching) is not going to make that much of a difference because I’m sure there’s hand signs going on as we speak … It doesn’t take much to understand that message,” said Federer. “I find it kind of cool that in tennis, you know, you’re sort of on your own out there. I really don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s fair maybe, because not everybody can afford a coach…it’s just not right.”
Ankita says unfair
India’s top women’s singles player Ankita Raina agrees with Federer on both counts, and believes on-court coaching across tennis would be unfair to players trying to climb their way up the ladder. “Only players who have good enough ranking play WTA events. Why do players, who are playing at the top level, who have sharpened their skills and have resources, need on-court coaching?” asks the 25-year-old, who has spent most of his career playing in the lower echelons without a travelling coach.
“Not everybody has the resources, or the luxury to have a travelling coach with them. So, it can end up being you versus two opponents. There have been moments when I’m a set up, or equal with my opponent, and she calls her coach on court. I usually end up losing the match. At those times, it definitely feels unfair.” Raina analogises on-court coaching as a student, who has had time to study and do multiple revisions, calling for teacher’s help in the examination hall.
“You train and get coaching all the time. But when you step on the court, at least then you need to be on your own, and devise ways to win. That’s tennis,” said Raina. Amritraj however believes that the days of Laver, Rosewall and Newcombe — “they didn’t have anyone in the stands hinting things at them. That was a world where great players were great players and figured everything out for themselves” — are long gone.
“In my opinion, just let it happen. Let coaches talk from the stands, if they want to come down and talk to the girls, that should be fine too,” says Amritraj. “And if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it.”
Although it was introduced to benefit players, on-court coaching has largely been a gimmick to please the TV executives. WTA CEO Steve Simon admitted as much, when he justified the rule as “our audiences are looking for access, and I think coaching during a match adds to the strategy and the fun of what’s going on.” It is perversely fun to watch Garbine Muguruza yell “Tell me something I don’t know” at her coach or Denis Shapovalov say “Dude, I’m telling you, best coffee I’ve ever had in my life” to his coach, but the powers-that-be need to find a way to implement the rule while preserving tennis’ gladiatorial element. Till then, ‘thumbs up’ should suffice.