In-Match Tennis Coaching Is Hiding in Plain Sight

In-Match Tennis Coaching Is Hiding in Plain Sight

Brad Stine is a remarkable, deeply experienced coach and a law-abiding man in general. But like many in professional tennis, he has regularly broken the rules by coaching during matches.

Stine, unlike some of his colleagues on the men’s tour, does not give signals or use code words to communicate with his players, but he does subtly deliver messages. He said that he had never been penalized for it.

“I think there’s a lot of coaching that goes on, and I think anyone who doesn’t admit to that is not being honest with what is actually happening,” said Stine, coach of Kevin Anderson, a Wimbledon finalist this year.

The sport is clearly at a crossroads. Women’s tennis allows in-match coaching once a set in its regular tour events, including this week’s WTA Finals in Singapore.

Footage of the coaching visits, which are often long on emotion, has become a staple of television coverage and the tour’s social media feeds.

Yet coaching is banned during play at the four Grand Slam tournaments that are the sport’s primary showcases. It is also banned at all events on the men’s tour, which, according to ATP Tour officials, has no plans to introduce in-match coaching at its regular tour events in 2019.

But the issue is back on the front burner after the contentious United States Open women’s final last month when Serena Williams was given a code violation by the chair umpire Carlos Ramos after her coach Patrick Mouratoglou signaled to her from the stands. Williams, who denied seeing a signal or being coached during the final, went on to lose her temper and the match to Naomi Osaka.

“I tried to coach her, like 100 percent of the coaches in 100 percent of the matches all year long,” Mouratoglou said afterward. “Everybody knows it. Nobody denies it, including the international governing bodies, the players and the coaches. There needs to be a debate, a big one, on whether to authorize coaching, because hypocrisy has its limits.”

Mouratoglou has since set off further debate, posting a detailed argument in favor of legalizing in-match coaching on his Twitter account. His central points are that tennis is one of the rare sports where coaching is not allowed during competition and that in-match coaching will increase the sport’s entertainment value and potentially broaden its fan base. Mouratoglou and others have argued that the coaching could increase the quality of play.

Mouratoglou is not the ideal messenger on this issue. Though he has pushed for change in the past, his advocacy at this post-U.S. Open stage seems defensive. It is also worth noting that Williams never calls him on court to coach during regular WTA Tour events. But he makes some valid points, many of which were also made behind closed doors this week in Singapore when the leaders of the Grand Slam tournaments, the International Tennis Federation, the WTA and the ATP discussed in-match coaching.

Opinion within the game is deeply divided with Roger Federer, the biggest draw in the sport, one of those against any change. “I understand why top players are not supporting this, because they know it would make a difference; it’s their winning edge,” said

Boris Becker, the three-time Wimbledon champion who formerly coached Novak Djokovic.

The chief argument against change is that tennis’s great champions through the years have often been great problem solvers under pressure, which is part of their appeal.

“I just think that’s gold: the full package for an athlete,” said Roger Rasheed, former coach of Lleyton Hewitt, Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Even some coaches who already come on court, like Osaka’s coach Sascha Bajin, are against expanding the practice to the Grand Slam events. “We’re just going to support too much information,” Bajin said. “I believe that a lot of juniors are already over-coached. I believe that they would stop thinking for themselves.”

Though increased prize money has raised incomes for lower-ranked players, there is also concern that allowing coaching could create inequities with some players not able to call on a highly qualified coach for advice.

“Is that fair?” asked Paul Annacone, the former coach of Federer and Pete Sampras who is now counseling the young American Taylor Fritz.

The ATP and Wimbledon remain the most powerful roadblocks to expansion of in-match coaching. The U.S. Open, which has tried it during qualifying and junior matches, would like to introduce it for main-draw play in 2019, but with unanimity required among the Grand Slam tournaments to make such a change, Wimbledon can stop the move, although U.S. Open leaders hope Wimbledon executives eventually will at least allow the other majors to proceed.

The U.S. Open plan is not to follow the WTA lead but to allow coaching from only the players box or the stands. That is in part — if only in part — because they say they believe the existing rule is unenforceable.

That seems undeniable when you speak with members of the coaching community. Not all agree with Mouratoglou’s assertion that “100 percent” of them are coaching during matches. “Some do; some don’t,” said Mardy Fish, a former top 10 player.

But there is consensus that surreptitious coaching is widespread.

“I don’t know one coach who doesn’t coach from the sidelines,” Becker said. “The secret now is not to be caught. That can’t be a good system.”

For now, illicit coaching is served in many forms, as it has been for decades. Brad Gilbert, an ESPN analyst, was once ranked No. 4 and has coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori.

“I’ve done it a lot, and I never got called for any coaching in my career,” Gilbert said in an interview from Malibu, Calif., last week. “The subtlety of it is not being obvious. Never make a motion with your hand like your forehand or backhand. Never put the finger to your nose for a first serve or something like that.”

But Gilbert, long an advocate for in-match coaching, said he had seen players have running conversations with their coaches without being penalized, especially those who could have them in a language other than English.

“I think sometimes the most effective thing is having a sneaky code word that doesn’t mean anything to anybody else,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert provided a few of his own: “Fudge,” “Boca Town Center” or, most intriguingly, “Toss the Salad.”

“I’m not telling you the player,” Gilbert said.

Positioning an official in the box might help with enforcement, but a coaching signal could be as simple as standing up or running one’s hands through one’s hair. Penalties are rare: Only 11 fines for coaching have been given so far this season on the ATP Tour; only six in 2017.

Stine said the intuitive relationship between a coach and player could make it possible to give meaningful cues. “We’re having conversations all the time in relationship to areas we are focusing on with his game,” Stine said. “So a day or two or three later if I then say a word to him, I know he’s going to understand that this is what we just talked about, and this is something I’m asking him to apply a bit better in the match. Not that it makes it any more right in what you’re doing, but I personally would feel awkward about having legitimate signs and signals and code words and stuff like that.”

Chair umpires concede that it is “mission impossible” to fully police coaching but say it is possible to minimize it. And the current rule on the ATP Tour does indeed restrict the impact a coach can have on a match. Code words, signals or brief comments can convey only basic information: serve down the line or wide; move closer to the baseline or other tactics.

But as the W.T.A. approach makes clear, being able to legally communicate at length with a player has the capacity to affect a player’s mentality and performance in a much more profound way.

Does the sport truly want to alter its essence? Or is it better to continue with the current paradox: tolerating some level of cheating for the greater good?

“It’s one of those great debates,” Gilbert said.

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