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ATP finally gives in, off-court coaching to get a trial

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It was by far the most dramatic sequence of events at this Australian Open, involving a bout of rage, then a sting and finally the sanction.

During the second set of his semi-final against Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev sat on his chair and yelled animatedly to the chair umpire while repeatedly asking—among other sentences and name-calling—this question: “Can his father talk every point?”

The officials launched a covert exercise to find out, which had fellow umpire Eva Asderaki-Moore hide inside the tunnel right under the Greece player’s box. Once the Greek-speaking umpire heard Tsitsipas’s father passing on instructions, she signalled to the chair umpire. Handed the coaching code violation in the fourth set, Tsitsipas didn’t win a single game after that in his four-set defeat.

It was reminiscent of the 2018 US Open women’s final between Serena Williams and Noami Osaka, which unravelled and concluded quite briskly after the former was penalised for receiving coaching.

A little over a year later after that controversial match, WTA, the association for women’s tennis, began trials for coaching from the stands in 2020. It has taken the men’s governing body just a few months since that much-talked about incident in Melbourne to follow along.

The ATP on Tuesday announced that off-court coaching will be trialled starting next month till the end of the current season. More significantly, it will also be allowed at this year’s US Open. Grand Slams are governed by the ITF (International Tennis Federation), where the rule states that coaching, except in team events, is not allowed. The Grand Slam rule book further reads that “communications of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching”.

Off-court coaching is among the most notoriously grey areas in professional tennis. It’s a practice frowned upon by some, normalised by others but largely accepted as common practice during most matches involving a majority of the players on tour.

Renowned coach Patrick Mouratoglou, seated in Serena’s box in that 2018 final who now coaches Simona Halep, said it in as many words after the ATP decision.

“Congratulations to the ATP for “legalizing” a practice that has been going on at almost every match for decades. No more hypocrisy,” Mouratoglou, who admitted to coaching Serena in the final against Osaka using hand signals but added that the player did not see it, wrote in a tweet.

From Serena to Novak Djokovic to Rafael Nadal, almost every top modern-day player has been handed a coaching violation during matches at some points of their career. The difference is in the way they perceive the act and the process of handing the penalty; which, ideally, comprises a warning from the chair umpire before the code violation (like in the case of time violations) but not always followed to the T by the officials.

A few years ago at the US Open, Nadal termed it “stupid” that a coach travelling with a player for tournaments cannot convey anything during matches “in the most important moments”. At the 2015 Wimbledon, Djokovic acknowledged “special ways of communication for encouragement and motivation” from his then coach Boris Becker after the German revealed that they used special signals to communicate during matches.

The other Big Three member though—rather unsurprisingly—has a contrasting view. Roger Federer has neither been a fan nor an advocate of on- or off-court coaching, labelling tennis “cool” because players are “sort of on your own out there”. In other major individual racquet sports like badminton and table tennis, players can interact with coaches at the change of ends and/or between games.

Tennis has, at various stages and forms over the past few years, experimented with allowing coaching. The WTA introduced on-court coaching, wherein coaches enter the court and chat with players during changeovers.

The ATP, in its NextGen Finals competed between the season’s best 21-and-under players, allowed players to use headsets to communicate with their coaches during changeovers. The spectacle also made for good television, an aspect the ATP aims to tap into with this off-court experiment. “In addition to ensuring consistency across the sport for the benefit of players and fans, the trial aims to create additional points of intrigue and insight to enhance the fan experience,” the ATP statement said.

But what this move also does is widen the bridge between the world’s top and the lower ranked players. Not every player—certainly not those ranked below 100—can afford a travelling coach or an exclusive one for all tournaments throughout the year. Federer, too, spoke of every player not having “the same amount of resources for coaching” in his argument against permitting coaching.

“Often, lower-ranked players share coaches, and certainly not all of them can afford a traveling coach,” Balachandran Manikkath, who has coached many of India’s top pros including former world No 75 Prajnesh Gunneswaran, said. “So for a lower-ranked player playing a top opponent, it becomes a one versus two or three battle. It’s hard enough for a player ranked 100 or so to face Nadal, imagine if it’s Nadal and (inputs from Carlos) Moya.”

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