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On-Court Coaching: Change on the Horizon?

Oct 12th 2018

It seems hard to believe, but the 2019 Australian Open is approximately just a scant three months away. Already news is coming out about changes that will be in place next season in Melbourne.  Among them is electronic line-judging available on every court, a serve-clock on every court as fans saw at the US Open, and potentially a revised extreme heat policy.  One other possible change concerns the fate of on-court coaching, and this is the one that will undoubtedly spark the most conversation and controversy.

Patrick Mouratoglou

There are a few reasons that a switch to allowing on-court coaching could ignite some heated debate, starting with the catalyst behind the decision to take a hard look at it now.  Naturally, it sprung from organizers wanting to avoid a scene like what transpired during the US Open Women's Final, but some would question how valid that is.  Would the powers-at-be look at revising the rule now had a similar scene unfolded with a journeyman player on an outside court at any other point in the tournament?  Probably not.  Williams also has to shoulder some of the blame for what occurred on that day.  Whether she saw it or not, her coach was clearly in violation of the rule as it stands.  Her inability to let that go and apparent lack of understanding of how the code violation system works in tennis is what primarily led to the sorry scene.  In short, what unfolded that day is far from the norm when a player receives a coaching violation, so it should not serve as a reason to possibly rush a decision about on-court coaching.

A number of fans will also question the use of on-court coaching because they appreciate that the lack of on-court coaching is one of the things that makes tennis unique to many sports.  There is something thrilling about the one-on-one nature and the player being responsible for figuring out his own path to victory.   There is also an argument to be made about whether or not the pros outweigh the cons.  The number of women's seeds that tumbled out early at the majors may have been an indicator of the players being dependent on the coaching they receive at the regular tour-level, and yet few would argue that women's tennis is of a higher quality than the men's tennis, even though the men do not have access to on-court coaching at any tournament.  Furthermore, there have always been concerns that coaching visits could be used to impact betting on matches depending on what is heard, and as entertaining as the insight can be for television viewers, it is only effective if the viewers can understand the language being spoken or have it translated for them.  And again, there does not seem to be much lamentation that these insights are unavailable in men's matches.

Piotr Wozniacki

All of this said, if the rule is not changed to allow on-court coaching, there is no question that organizers and officials need to find a better way to more consistently enforce the current rule.  Right now, players and coaches roll the dice if they choose to engage in illegal coaching, because there is no telling if and when they will get caught.  There is no easy solution to upholding this rule, however.  Removing the coach or coaching team and relegating them to the locker room would certainly solve the issue, but the players then lose the emotional support from looking to their boxes as well as the opportunity to immediately celebrate a milestone victory with their teams.  Perhaps an official who understands the native language could be placed in each box, but that requires additional personnel.  No matter how one cuts it, it is a tricky rule to maintain.

It should be interesting to see what transpires in the weeks to come.  As with anything else in tennis, players, pundits, and fans will adjust to the change if on-court coaching is permitted all-around, but it would still be sad to see that solo element of tennis completely lost.  Instead, it would better for organizers to take some more time and explore the tougher road to find a way to more consistently enforce the rule that is already on the books.