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Christmas Countdown: WTA on-court coaching - yes or no?

Andrew Hendrie in Opinion 2 Dec 2018
  • WTA on-court coaching is dividing opinion amongst figures in the tennis world
  • Should we allow on-court coaching across the entire sport, or should we eliminate it completely?
Garbine Muguruza receives on-court coaching from Sam Sumyk (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

The subject of on-court coaching on the WTA Tour has increasingly been dividing opinion, especially in the aftermath of Serena Williams’ now-infamous U.S. Open final meltdown - is it time to allow coaching in Grand Slams and on the ATP World Tour, should it continue in its current format, or should we completely eliminate on-court coaching across the board? is celebrating the off-season with a Christmas countdown series of articles in which our editors give their take on the burning questions facing tennis in 2019, from the stars to the schedule to the sport’s very structure. You can find the master list of articles here – and feel free to join in the debate via our Twitter and Facebook pages!

Since 2008, the WTA Tour has permitted players to request coaches once per set at either the completion of the set or at a change of ends. On-court coaching is not allowed in Grand Slams or in any capacity on the ATP World Tour, but trials have been put in place recently during qualifying for the U.S. Open as tennis seeks to continuously evolve itself. But is on-court coaching the way forward? Should it even be acceptable now?

I’m a firm believer of no on-court coaching at any time on both tours. Tennis has always been an individual sport and players should be able to solve their own problems on the court without the assistance of their coach or any outside influence. It’s one of the many factors that sets tennis apart from most other sports: there’s a certain beauty in an individual figuring out tactics by themselves and then implementing accordingly. Tennis IQ is a big part of our sport and some players are better at it than others. In some cases, it can be the difference between a top 10 player and a top 20 player. It can separate Grand Slam champions from Masters 1000 or Premier Mandatory champions. We need to stop meddling with tennis and calling for it to conform just because other sports are doing it. Point of difference in a niche sport like tennis can never be overstated.

Simona Halep receives coaching from Darren Cahill (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
There’s also the issue of players becoming too dependant on their coach. If players know they can simply rely on their coach to tell them what to do in challenging moments, they will eventually stop thinking for themselves - and that doesn’t lend itself to more competitive matches or higher quality of tennis. And then when it comes to the Grand Slams - where on-court coaching is banned - then all of a sudden they are like a fish out of water.

The issue is dividing current coaches on the WTA Tour. Former ATP player Raemon Sluiter - who coaches top 10 star Kiki Bertens - said he wasn’t in favour of on-court coaching during the WTA Finals in Singapore at the end of the season.

"So I am not a big fan of the on-court coaching," he said. "I think a lot of times when the coaches come on court, they are not necessarily used as a help line but more as an ambulance.
"And also the fact - solve the puzzle yourself. I would like the girls to solve the puzzle themselves even more. I think they are fully capable of it. I think with the on-court coaching we are slowing down that process just a little bit."

Sasha Bajin - the coach of Naomi Osaka who was in the players box during the U.S. Open final against Serena Williams - agrees with Sluiter, declaring on-court coaching isn’t the way forward.

"I believe that they would stop thinking for themselves, and everything just becomes too much," he said. "I think that's something beautiful about this sport, that it's really only you and to find a problem, to be a good problem-solver. If you look at the best tennis players, they are good problem-solvers on-court and off-court. My opinion is I definitely don't want [more on-court coaching]."

However, Andrew Bettles - who helped guide World No. 4 Elina Svitolina to the WTA Finals title - takes a different stance.

"I think it's good. I like it. I mean, it gives us more involvement, so that's a good thing,” he said.

WTA CEO Steve Simon also supports on-court coaching and wants it to be introduced in men’s tennis and at the four majors.

"We think the issue of coaching needs to be addressed and should be allowed across the sport," Simon said. "The WTA supports coaching through its on-court coaching rule, but further review is needed."

Patrick Mouratoglou in the stands during the U.S. Open final (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Advocates for on-court coaching will often point to the argument that players are repeatedly being coached from the stands during matches in any case, so why not allow them onto the court for a face-to-face debrief? I completely agree that players are being coached during the match - it’s so easy for a pre-arranged agreement such as hand signals, head movements or any motion in general that discreetly lets a player know what they should or should not be doing. A coach leaning on their right hand could mean hit the ball flatter. A coach leaning to the left might mean use more spin and favour depth rather than power. Looking up at the sky could be telling a player to serve to the backhand. And so on. You also have the not-so-subtle gestures when players consult their box to see whether to challenge or not. Coaching from the stands happens all the time, as we saw in the U.S. Open final when Patrick Mouratoglou admitted he was coaching, which ultimately led to Serena receiving her first warning before copping a game penalty for further indiscretions.

But there is a huge difference between discreetly coaching from the stands in the seconds between points and two minds conversing face-to-face for an extended period of time during the change of ends or set at a crucial juncture in the match. And you can even argue that some players don’t even benefit from on-court coaching - have you ever seen Garbine Muguruza and Sam Sumyk try and work things out as a duo on-court?! There’s also the matter that not all WTA players even have coaches, which then brings up the issue of unfairness. And for those who think the U.S. Open final debacle could have been avoided with on-court coaching: not a chance. Most players mutter under their breath and briefly argue with the umpire before moving on after receiving a warning, but Serena couldn’t let it go and proceeded to behave inexcusably for the remainder of the match. That’s on her and not anyone or anything else.

At the end of the day, tennis doesn’t need on-court coaching. As mentioned, it’s an individual sport and self-reliance is part of being a great player. I’m totally fine with coaches subliminally making gestures from the stands - it’s human nature to try and find ways around it - and umpires punishing them accordingly when they are caught out. But coming out onto the court is going way too far and is completely unnecessary, especially when players and coaches have had ample time before the match to discuss tactics. It’s time to abolish on-court coaching across the board, not pursue it further.

Check back tomorrow for the next in our Christmas countdown series!

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Christmas Countdown: WTA on-court coaching - yes or no?

From 1-24 December, we count down the days of the off-season with articles on some of the burning questions facing tennis as it heads into 2019. Today's question: are you for or against on-court coaching on the WTA Tour? Should it be allowed in Grand Slams or even on the ATP World Tour? Or is it time to eliminate it altogether?

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