On court coaching: the debate heats up again

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On-court coaching is in the news again as well-known tennis analyst Mary Carillo brought it up in an interview with WTA CEO Steve Simon. You can see that here.

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Carillo’s two main points are valid, but fail to tell the whole story. Let’s take a closer look at what’s really behind the controversy.

The first point to bring up is that tennis’s rules regarding on-court coaching are inconsistent.

It’s not allowed in junior tennis, where it is arguably needed the most although back in the day, those 10-minute breaks between second and third sets could get awfully instructional. On-court coaching is used in high-school and college tennis. It’s not used in adult or senior tournaments, or USTA league play. It’s used in Davis Cup. It’s not allowed anywhere on the ATP Tour. The WTA Tour uses it, but only in limited fashion. And the women have no access to it at Grand Slam tournaments.

Got it?

On-court coaching, from both sides

My first experience with on-court coaching was many years ago at the century-old tournament in Ojai, California. I was probably 15, watching top college player Robbie Ventor stylishly dissect his opponent. Legendary UCLA head coach Glenn Bassett would get right up in Ventor’s face on each changeover, animatedly talking and gesturing. Ventor would get back on court – and play impeccable tennis. As a young player, I remember being awestruck at the magic of coaching.

A few years later, I was playing for UCLA at the same tournament, sitting on the same bench.  Late in a tight match, Coach Bassett got right in my face during a changeover, just as he did with Ventor years before, and with the same passion and animation.

“Deep breathly … Deep breathly.”

“Huh?”

“Deep breathly …Deep breathly!!”

“You mean ,”‘breathe deeply’, Coach? Jesus, Coach, get away from me! You’re more nervous than I am.”

A few years later, those roles were reversed. I was the college coach working with players as tempestuous as my younger self.

After watching a player dump three straight volleys and lose serve, I figured the next changeover was the right time for a little technical correction. After my player sat down, I immediately jumped in.

“Now, on your volleys, you’re breaking your wrist badly on the backhand side. Move your left hand up the throat a little more for a firmer support of the racquet head next backhand volley. Got it?”

The player looked back at me blankly for a second, as if he could not believe what he had just heard, and responded.

“God, get away from me! And seriously, don’t give me f…ing technique tips in the middle of a match! What are you thinking?”

Confused, I walked away.

My player eventually won the match. Afterwards, he approached me.

“Hey, thanks for the tip and the help out there.”

“Uhhh. You cursed at me and told me to get lost.”

“Oh, whatever. I just needed someone to blow off some steam at. I was getting pretty frustrated out there. You were just the right person to vent at without getting a point penalty because I know you’ve been there. It was perfect timing. I started playing great right after you left.”

All humorous vignettes aside, let’s try to clarify what on-court coaching is really all about.

Winning tennis is about handling emotions

As Carillo stated, some of the emotional breakdowns on the court are hard to watch and do make the women look weak. But if you think a struggling, frustrated ATP player talking to his coach during a changeover would be calm, civil discourse, think again. Many of them would come across even worse.

Just look at how Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic scream at their support teams in the stands, as the rules currently stand. Imagine them having a chance to give their coaches a piece of their mind for a full 60 seconds, face to face.

Traditionalists like Carillo long for the days when tennis was the purest form of competition. Two players, one court – the ultimate zero-sum game. You won or you lost completely on your own, with no outside assistance or interference permitted. A huge component of becoming a successful player has always been managing the stressful emotions induced by competition.

Players able to find the solutions within themselves prosper; those who succumb to the moment do not.

What really wins and loses tennis matches? It’s rarely a tactical shift that fails to be communicated. Close tennis matches overwhelmingly are won by the player who handles his or her emotions better. On the whole, the on-court coaching debate is about whether professional tennis players should be permitted assistance during play to manage their emotions.

Every player handles the stress differently. Some players use on-court coaching to joke around and stay loose. Some, who are wrapped a little more tightly, use it to vent pent-up frustration at a supportive target. Other players, like Serena and Venus Williams, want nothing to do with it at all. To each his own.

Viewer experience enhanced

Does it add to the viewer experience? It absolutely does; anything highly emotional and unpredictable can be captivating to watch although so many of the on-court consultations aren’t in English. Can it cross the line into uncomfortable voyeurism? Of course.

Sometimes, they have fun with it – as American Madison Brengle did during a match against Venus Williams. She designated doubles specialist Nicole Melichar as her “coach” for the match.

I believe that in time, on-court coaching will be a net positive. The WTA players obviously approve of the idea, or we wouldn’t be talking about it. As with any innovation, players and coaches will work out the bugs to minimize the embarrassing moments. as they add a colorful side to a sport in dire need of more engaging personalities.

(Ed. note: the conversations are as remembered, all these years later. They are used for illustrative purposes and should not be taken verbatim).

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