Has in-game coaching changed tennis at the US Open?
Communication between player and coach has been seen as a benign infraction for years. But in New York this year it has become legal
To the casual tennis fan, there’s likely a sense that the US Open has looked and felt different this fortnight from prior years. And that impression would be entirely accurate. Aside from the return of full attendance in Flushing Meadows following the Covid intrusion upon all live events in 2020 and 2021, several rule changes implemented over the last 13 months have changed the look, action and rhythm of the competition.
In 2020, Novak Djokovic was defaulted in the first set in his fourth-round match against Pablo Carreno Busta when, in a moment of intense frustration, he smacked a ball away, hitting a lineswoman in the neck. His tournament came to an immediate halt.
If Djokovic had received his Covid vaccine and was at the Open this year, he wouldn’t need to worry about a repeat infraction. The reason: there are no longer linespeople at the US Open, as all calls are now handled electronically. This has undoubtedly been a positive development, save for the not-insignificant downside of fewer jobs in the sport. The lack of interruptions with the absence of player challenges has been a welcome change, allowing a match to proceed unimpeded.
In that same year of 2020, Dominic Thiem rallied from two sets down (the first time that had been accomplished in the final since 1949) to defeat Alexander Zverev in an extended fifth-set tiebreaker, 9-7. But this year that wouldn’t be enough, as the US Open has joined the other slams, and now requires a 10-point tiebreak in deciding sets. Again, this is a wise altering of the rules. When a match comes down to a fifth set (or third set for the women), a seven-point tiebreaker has always felt abrupt. Adding several points allows a match to proceed to its more organic conclusion and ratchets up the tension in its final moments, as it should be.
Finally, in the 2018 final against Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams infamously incurred a code violation after chair umpire Carlos Ramos, always known to be a stickler for the rules, penalized the American for receiving coaching in the players’ box from Patrick Mouratoglou. Now though, in-match coaching is allowed.
Permitting coaching during a match has been the most talked about change in the sport in some years. In the lead-up to the Open, several top players weighed in with their opinions on the matter and reaction was mixed.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has been accused of receiving coaching more than any other current player was not surprisingly in full support. He stated, “My coach has not been as discreet as other coaches, but it has been always happening. Trust me, it’s happening with almost every single player. The fact that it’s legalized now is going to make tennis a bit more peaceful, make players concentrate more on the game, less on different kind of nonsense.”
Others were just as direct in opposition to the rule, such as Taylor Fritz who said, “I really hate it. t’s not something that should be a part of our sport.” Still others, such as current men’s No 1 Daniil Medvedev, likely spoke for many players when he said: “I was never against coaching but I know I’m not really going to use it with my coach because we know how we work together.”
However one feels about it, what should be somewhat concerning is the overly specific – specific to the point of vague – wording of the new rules that inevitably opens the door for loopholes. For example:
“Off-Court Coaching is allowed from the designated Player/Coach Box or seats. In case the Coach prefers to sit in a different area, coaching is only allowed from the side of the court (not behind the court).”
“If a Coach’s verbal Coaching, hand signals, or gestures begin to interrupt play or become a distraction to the opponent(s), or if either the player or the Coach do not fully comply with the procedure, the Chair Umpire will notify the player of the escalation. Should the non-compliance continue, the player may be subject to penalties under the Coaching rule.”
To stretch an analogy, the issue of in-match coaching has been one of those, “everybody does it” kind of benign infractions that the powers that be in the sport have decided to come clean on. Think of it like the legalization of marijuana across much of the United States; despite the illegality of pot for decades, a built-up, societal consensus concluded that the ills caused by the drug didn’t match the penalty.
But wouldn’t it have been easier and more in line with the tough-it-out-on-your-own mentality of tennis if instead of allowing frequent in-match exhortations or instructions, players were allowed an on-court “meeting” of a minute or two with their coach at the conclusion of a set?
We’ll know if this new rule will have truly changed the outcome of a match when a player declares something to the effect of, “my coach calling for me to serve out wide in the deuce court is the reason I won today.”
But until we see a direct connection, nothing much will really change. After all, for any pro athlete the notion of multi-tasking is impossible. If a player is fully locked into a match, any input from their coach will likely be muted.