An award-winning tennis writer and USPTA teaching pro says on-court coaching in the pros is not a good move.
By Paul Fein
The battle for the soul of tennis rages on. Arlen Kantarian, the USTA chief executive for Professional Tennis, confidently predicts, “In the next three to five years, we’ll see more change in tennis than in the last 25.” Television has inspired many of the proposed and enacted reforms.
In their 1993 book, A Brief History of American Sports, Elliot J. Gorn and Warren Goldstein perceptively analyzed: “Sports entrepreneurs, including television networks, have a different approach to games from that of fans. Because television networks make money by, in effect, renting audiences to advertisers, they have considerably less interest in the internal structures, particular histories and traditions, or distinctive rhythms of a given sport — except insofar as they affect the number of viewers.”
To placate television moguls and their relentless quest for ratings, the ATP and WTA are trying, seemingly desperately, to transform tennis into what they claim is a more attractive television package.
The most dubious WTA experiment — permitting on-court coaching (which has long been barred at ATP, WTA, and Grand Slam events) — merely recycles a past failure. The ATP tried limited on-court coaching at five World Series tournaments in 1998, allowing the coach on the court during the first two-minute changeovers after the first and second sets. Interestingly, the ATP estimated that about 90 percent of the players used coaches during the beginning of the trial, but by the summer events, that number dropped far below 50 percent. Fans weren’t enamored with the idea either, and the ATP shelved it. This time WTA players may request their coach on court once per set during changeovers as well as during the break between sets. Coaches wear microphones so TV viewers can hear the consultations.
Tennis’ Unique Battle of Skill and Will: Much of tennis’ historical and enduring appeal comes from its fair and complete test of athleticism, skill, stamina, courage, and strategic acumen. And that unique test is achieved without on-court coaching, substitutions, lengthy halftime or between-period breaks, or being “saved” by a game-ending clock. Put differently, self-reliance makes the individual sport of singles tennis a highly respected and entertaining battle of skill and will between two finely tuned and mentally resilient athletes.
On-court coaching unquestionably diminishes these cardinal virtues. “That’s like taking an examination and your teacher giving you all the answers,” argues ESPN, NBC, CBS and HBO tennis analyst Mary Carillo. “I want these players to know their craft and figure out how to win. And if they can’t, they lose. One of the reasons I love tennis is because you’re out there on your own.”
Former Top 10 player Jimmy Arias, an analyst for The Tennis Channel, agrees: “A better coach shouldn’t determine who wins the match. This is an individual sport: mano a mano.” Matches would also come down to two-versus-one in the case of players who can’t afford or didn’t want a coach. And when two opponents share the same coach, imagine the conflict of interest, not to mention the probable conflict.
Think of what on-court coaching could do for Andy Roddick, whose strategy, shot selection, strokes, and positioning need help. Yet Roddick, to his credit, favors the coaching ban because, “Tennis is unique in the fact you actually have to think for yourself.”
Besides making players smarter strategically, soothing words would relax the nervous Amelie Mauresmo and Jana Novotna, calm the vesuvian Marat Safin and Goran Ivanisevic, and comfort the despondent Vera Zvonareva, who has cried during matches.
Simple advice, such as slowing the hyperactive player down between points, or telling the struggling player to switch to a racquet with slightly looser (or tighter) strings, or reminding the absent-minded player to eat or drink during changeovers, can also improve performance considerably.
Andre Agassi, who occasionally tanked matches early in his career and supported on-court coaching in 1998, now staunchly opposes it. “Tennis is one-on-one combat,” he asserts. “It’s a sport that forces you to solve problems by yourself. It’s a vehicle for education, a great thing for somebody’s life. That message needs to be sold better.” Tournament tennis not only reveals character; it builds character.
Spectator Appeal: On-court coaching is supposed to expose TV viewers to new personalities as well as inside strategy. However, tennis coaches, just like baseball coaches and managers talking to a struggling pitcher on the mound, will frequently prevent their advice from ever being overheard. No prudent coach would reveal the advice and information he gives to his player simply because it can be used against her in that match or in future matches. Yet another barrier is language. Only two of the top 30 and only 13 of the top 100 female singles players come from countries where English is the primary language.
Our sport must remain a fair and credible test of skill, will, and self-reliance; and only when that sine qua non test is passed, can tennis leaders strive to make it more entertaining. Chris Evert, the ultimate court thinker and competitor, superbly captured the essence of the coaching debate in 1998 when she told The New York Times: “When you go down in history as the world champion, you’d better have done it yourself. You can get all the coaching you want before the match.”
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About the Author
Paul Fein is a veteran tennis writer. His book, *Tennis Confidential: Today's Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies,* was listed No. 1 among tennis books by Amazon.com and BN.com. For information or to order, visit Tennis Confidential on the web. His second book, *You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers,* was published by Potomac Books Inc. in February 2005. Visit Tennis Quotes on the web.