The On-court Coaching Debate

by Jan McIntyre

March 15, 2018

The WTA has allowed on-court coaching for nearly ten years, now the ATP is considering changing their rules. Did the change deliver any real benefit to the game?

It has been almost a decade since the WTA changed the rules to allow on-court coaching during matches and the debate continues. Since 2009, a player can request that her coach comes onto the court during one changeover per set and when her opponent takes an injury time out. The big reason for this rule change – television executives thought it would make the game more interesting and “fan friendly”. Television viewers can listen in on the player-coach conversations while spectators in the stands can only watch the interplay, as the conversations are not broadcast in the stadium. As of today, on court coaching is only allowed at WTA women’s tour matches, not the ATP men’s tour nor in ITF competitions including the Grand Slams.

There was and still is a lot of controversy surrounding the rule change. A common objection is that singles tennis is an individual sport and players should prepare before the match and make the necessary split second decisions about how to play the opponent while on court. This differentiates tennis from team sports where the coaches are omnipresent. Another objection is that it favours players that travel with a coach – one might argue that they already have an advantage for their pre-match preparation. Will it become a weakness for players who rely on calling the coach onto the court or are in a situation where the coach is not available or not permitted?

Can women truly be considered strong and independent if they need to have a coach give guidance and support during the match, especially considering that most coaches are men?

In 2016, Coach Patrick Mouratoglou announced that he refused to coach Serena Williams on court. If every time she got in trouble on court she called him, then it would become a crutch. She knows how to get out of trouble on her own and that is what she should do. The player needs to be the one responsible on court.

Also it seemed to contradict the WTA slogan “Strong is Beautiful”. Can women truly be considered strong and independent if they need to have a coach give guidance and support during the match, especially considering that most coaches are men? To my view this seems to denote a lack of confidence from the WTA in its own product. Women’s tennis has tried several tactics to make the sport more interesting, but in the end make it look more desperate – like in 2013 when the Rogers Cup removed upper stands “to give a more intimate feel” then tried to increase attendance at the women’s tournament by adding a men’s invitational, featuring players eliminated from the men’s tournament. Then there were the photo shoots to make the women look sexy (and strong)!

Mandy Minella of Luxembourg hydrates while coach Tim Sommer offers her some advice.

On the other hand, we have all seen both female and male players who look to the box for support and receive discrete, or even not so discrete, hand signals on what to do – come to the net, change tactics, challenge the line call, or to try to adjust the player’s mood. Most often these interactions are ignored and infrequently players are cautioned with a warning that is not much of a deterrent. On-court coaching legitimizes the interactions that occur anyway with some caveats – the designated coach must be announced to WTA officials before the match, and must use a microphone for televised matches. The coach has one minute to convey a message to the player. How entertaining can this really be for viewers? How many interactions are actually televised when changeovers are considered as commercial time? For spectators in the stands it does not really add anything other than to see who the coach is and how they react to each other.

We can learn quite a bit about the player-coach relationships during the on-court interactions – sadly very few give great insight to the technical and tactical advice imparted. Interactions range from succinct pertinent tactical strategy and support that Coach Lindsay Davenport gave Madison Keys at the 2015 BNP Paribas Open to heated arguments and hostility between Garbine Muguruza and Coach Sam Sumyk at almost any tournament. Some exchanges are animated with the player mimicking the troublesome shots, others are silent with no eye contact or reaction from the player like Caroline Wozniaki and her Coach/Father Piotr Wozniaki. It is too often a chance for players to get out frustration and the coach telling her to step up and get in the game like Simona Halep and Darren Cahill 2017 Miami Open Quarterfinals or Nick Saviano telling Eugenie Bouchard to let go, relax and change things because she will not win if she continues with the same attitude. Coach and player interactions can be in their preferred language, limiting the pertinence to people who speak that language.

Luxembourgish player Mandy Minella explained in a post-match interview at the Luxembourg Open that she calls her Coach/Husband Tim Sommers on court early in the match as he can read the opponent quickly and provide her with insights on how to play.

An interesting aspect is to see where the coach sits in relation to the player – beside her on the bench, kneeling directly in front blocking the player from view, standing is rare, and picking up the player’s racquet during the exchange is fairly common.

All of this makes me wonder whether the on-court coaching is for the player or for the coach, who feels powerless in the stands – knowing what should be done but being unable to get the message to the player.

Eugenie Bouchard of Canada and Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium playing in the doubles final at the Luxembourg Open.

In 2013, the WTP partnered with SAP to create an application that could be used on mobile devices to track match statistics. This app was further curated to provide essential information that coaches can share on-court. A year later, the WTA introduced the idea of adding technology and allowing coaches to bring WTA-approved tablet devices on court to discuss match statistics with the player during the match. So far I have not seen this in practice and when I asked a WTA representative in 2016, the WTA did not have statistics on the up take.

The ATP and its players vehemently opposed on-court coaching at the time of its introduction in the women’s game and took some backlash in that subtle coaching occurs anyway. Fast-forward to 2017 and there were discussions and even some trials related to on-court coaching – albeit with slightly different rules for the men.

On-court coaching made its debut at the ATP Next Gen Finals held in Milan in Nov. 2017, where players were allowed to talk to the coaches via a headset. The coach is not allowed to come on court and the session will be shown during the broadcast but not in the stadium. Players were allowed to speak to the coach at the end of each set and during opponent injury time-outs and bathroom breaks. Players and coaches were encouraged to speak in English. No other coaching was permitted during the match. Medical time outs were also restricted to avoid gamesmanship or the perception of it.

The question is whether in 2018 the ATP tour will endorse on-court coaching with the possible rule being conversations allowed when player and coach are on the same side of the court, and hand gestures when on opposite sides. There are disparate opinions on whether on-court coaching should be allowed on the men’s tour. At the top level for example Roger Federer is against and Novak Djokovic is for it.

The world is becoming more reliant on technology and the younger generation will most likely find this an unavoidable progression. Whether a coach should come onto the court and its real value is still a question for me.

Jan McIntyre is a Canadian tennis fan who lives and works in Luxembourg.