The debate over on-court coaching will rage on, especially after the innovations during the qualifying at the US Open this year.
And you can count former WTA Tour CEO Stacey Allaster, now the USTA’s head of pro tennis, among the devotees.
That was also true, of course, when she was at the WTA.
“I think at the end of the day, those of us that are in leadership positions in tennis, our responsibility is to engage fans, to recruit fans, and ultimately for the USTA it’s to grow the sport. On-court coaching, or off-court coaching that we did in 2017, was a long process. And it really originated from our commercial partners – ESPN and other broadcasters,” Allaster told Wertheim during an SI podcast.
“It started in 2015, before I even arrived (at the USTA). ESPN sat with the leadership to say, ‘Look, these are a number of innovations, enhancements, improvements to the competition, of flow that we believe you, and the USTA and the US Open as a product need to review in order to keep your sport relevant,’ ” she added.
Wertheim, who also works for the Tennis Channel, emphatically opposes on-court coaching. So a discussion of its merits with Allaster is a good point-counterpoint conversation.
As valiantly as he tried, though, Wertheim couldn’t really get Allaster off-message. That’s always a challenging task.
Here’s the podcast. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in there about the process, too (the Allaster portion begins at about the 24-minute mark).
What’s clear, in hearing Allaster discuss it, is that the in-match coaching element is a move that the game’s “broadcast partners” asked for, and got.
Do the fans REALLY like it?
Wertheim asked Allaster several times if there were any empirical evidence that the fans actually liked it the on-court coaching element. Even though it’s been part of the regular WTA Tour for nearly a decade now, she sort of dodged and weaved. In other words, probably not really.
In short: ESPN and the former players who commentate asked for it. They must know what the fans want, right? End of story.
“I think coaching, for some, they enjoy it. We haven’t really had it on the Grand Slam stage yet. So to have a true understanding whether fans like it or not … It’s been on the WTA for over 10 years I think that is a telling stat unto itself,” she said. “We hear from the broadcasters that there are moments when it’s compelling. … In-venue, there’s a barrier. So the rationale from ESPN, and the producers, directors and talent, is let’s give the fans watching at home that insight. … It creates storylines for the commentators.
“We know the debate, I respect everyone’s opinion, It is a very polarizing inner change to the game. At the moment, it’s a test. We’re working through it.”
Wertheim tried again.
“Once again, we come back to our partners with ESPN and other broadcasters and what we can do to make the show more engaging for fans. The USTA hasn’t worked in isolation. This is coming from leaders, in the sport and entertainment industry … Ultimately it comes from fans who watch broadcasts, who watch ratings. That’s where we’re taking our guidance from,” Allaster said.
“We have the leaders of the sport to guide us … on how we can improve how we present the product. Because they’re in the know; they’re doing it 365 as the experts. So they have a good pulse on fans, on commercial relationships.
“These are baby steps – these are nothing. What we have to do is get the players used to change. Because we as a sport have to make some material changes when we look at our audience. It is gray, and it’s not growing. And if we continue to just sit on the sidelines – I take your points, we need more data. There is old data, and there is anecdotal, and it is a polarizing issue – but on an aggregate, we think it’s good content. And it’s good for the fans who are consuming it online or on broadcast,” she added.
On-court language divide
The coaching element doesn’t address the very real fact that the majority of players these days don’t communicate in English. So, with ESPN commentators being resolute in their monolingualism, there aren’t many storylines to be created for the commentators.
Interestingly, Allaster mentioned subtitling among the innovations the broadcast partners brought up. (Also mentioned were interviews between sets, playing lets, and “wearable technology”). Those haven’t been adopted, although they tried the mid-match interview in 2015).
(That’s probably great insight. But how many commentators speak Polish?)
In terms of examples, Allaster evoked Sven Groeneveld and Darren Cahill as great examples of what fans want to see.
But is watching the world No. 2 Halep being negative and resisting some excellent advice really a great look for women’s tennis?
And is watching the usually strong, independent, fierce Sharapova sitting there looking as though she’s a little girl being chastised, silent, head down, a good look?
Of course, there is the “arguing with your coach who also happens to be your husband about the futility of life” consult (with, reportedly, some profanity):
And then there’s current No. 1 Garbiñe Muguruza, who has some epic moments with coach Sam Sumyk.
And then, there are the times that player’s parents (not coaches) come on. Or a player friend designated as the coach. In terms of legitimacy, as Allaster compares the coaching involvement to other sports, that falls rather short.
So it’s not surprising that some would like it, others – not so much.
The US Open experiment
Allaster told Wertheim that by the final day of US Open qualifying, some “90 per cent of the athletes were using coaching – men and women.”
We’re not too sure how they arrived at this figure, unless they had bird dogs on every single court watching the movements of every single player. They might have.
Having spent the entire week at US Open qualifying this year, tennis.life’s anecdotal impression is that this is a major exaggeration.
On the men’s side, you didn’t see it much. On the women’s side, you saw it from some of the usual suspects who might well have been coaching from the stands anyway. But it was definitely not that widespread.
Some coaches we talked to didn’t want to do it much. They believed that because it was so new (in addition to the serve clock) it might prove off-putting to players who, on the whole, are creatures of routine and ritual.
And it didn’t occur to most coaches that it was something that could be eased in ahead of time, in practice matches, to prepare their players.
Much of it looked like this, as Slovakia’s Anna-Karolina Schmiedlova went courtside to chat (sort of) with her coach while opponent Dalma Galfi was having a medical timeout.
“There are moments in coaching where there’s some brilliant content. There are other moments that aren’t the best. The scenario is for ongoing improvement with it,” Allaster said. “I take my guidance from the fans, from commercial partners who are in the business of helping us sell our sport, and from other past champions. (Tennis is) still mano-a-mano.”