Mixed reaction to on-court coaching trial

Mixed reaction to on-court coaching trial

The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour’s decision to experiment with on-court coaching has been met with a lukewarm response by Ana and her coach David Taylor. They are both concerned that the rule change fundamentally alters the one-on-one nature of the sport.

It was announced last week that the forthcoming tournaments in Montreal and New Haven – Ana will be in action in Canada – will include a temporary modification to the rules that will allow coaches to appear on-court to advise players. It is part of title sponsor Sony Ericsson’s commitment to making tennis more entertaining and fan-friendly.

Under the terms of the trial, players can call for their coach, whom they designate before the match, once per set during a changeover, at the end of each set and when their opponent is receiving a medical time-out or taking a bathroom break. The dialogue between coach and player will be broadcast to television viewers via a tape delay.

“Of course, I am in favour of changes that will make the sport more entertaining. The fans are very, very important,” said Ana. “But it is also important that we protect certain areas of the game. I think that the communication between a coach a player should be private.

“I also think this is going to be distracting. I prefer to focus only on my game – my shots, my movement and my tactics. Having this possibility to invite the coach to the court is something that I would prefer not to think about. [But] we will see how it goes.”

Noting that it is a trial and not a permanent rule change, Taylor said that he is “interested to see the response and feedback”, but he too is not overly enthusiastic about the move.

It is a first in the history of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, but Taylor himself was part of a similar experiment with on-court coaching on the ATP Tour some years ago. Taylor, who coached a player at a tournament in Atlanta during the trial, described the test as “unsuccessful”.

He said: “The trial proved not to have any significant positive affect on the matches or public interest. In fact, as I recall some players including [Andre] Agassi didn’t ask for their coaches to take part.

“I think potentially it could be quite distracting to the match and players,” Taylor added, echoing Ana’s words. The Australian said that having a coach enter the court during a match is “a much different dynamic and something that will affect players differently.”

He explained: “We definitely prepare in training with the thought that the player will have to process information during the match independently. A player and coach develop very clear patterns to structure points to be effective against certain situations you predict an opponent will present you with.

“So as coaches we should prepare the players to recognise tactical weaknesses and find ways to use their strengths to exploit opponents' weaknesses. It seems that TV has really pushed this idea along to get an insight of the communication between the player and coach.”

Coaching guru Nick Bollettieri is a passionate proponent of on-court tuition, which he believes will greatly enhance the entertainment value of the sport. He wrote a column in The Independent newspaper in London during the French Open in May, arguing its merits and shortly after several leading players were asked for their views. The response was overwhelmingly negative.

Both Lleyton Hewitt and Tim Henman spoke about the need to preserve the one-on-one nature of tennis. “I think one of the beauties of our sport is that once you’re on the court, it’s you against your opponent. I think that’s the way it should be,” said the Briton.

Others cited Andre Agassi as a great example of a player who has won matches by figuring out how to change his game during a match, while women’s world No.3 Justine Henin-Hardenne was also against the rule change, reasoning: “When you’re on the court, I think it’s too late.”

Not all players are opposed, however. Rafael Nadal supports a more active role for the coach, and world No.7 Svetlana Kuznetsova lent her support to the trial. “This will add a new story to the match and I think that fans will enjoy this new element. I know that as players we are all interested to see how this test works out,” she said.

Eurosport commentator Chris Bradnam, meanwhile, echoed the sentiment of title sponsors Sony Ericsson: “It is going to be a lot of fun!” he said. “The role of the coach is going to change massively. It’s a huge change. Some players are going to absolutely love it, but if you’re a player who is good at making the decisions yourself, you’re not going to be so happy.”

There are several other factors that must be considered to ensure fairness. Just 11 of the current women’s top 100 are native English speakers: as fluent as Elena Dementieva is in English, is it reasonable to expect her to converse with her coach in English rather than Russian, possibly to the detriment of the technical points of the conversation?

Additionally, some lower-ranked players cannot afford to travel with their coaches. While they are permitted to appoint anyone as their on-court coach, there is no doubting that the introduction places them at a disadvantage compared to the top players.

It should be noted that even if the trial is deemed successful, on-court coaching cannot take place during Grand Slam tournaments because they are governed by the International Tennis Federation rather than the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. However, the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank in Montreal is a Tier I event with plentiful ranking points, so the practical impact of the test will not be small.

The trialling of on-court coaching follows hot on the heels of the Tour’s swathe of television innovations, announced earlier this year, which are also designed to make the sport more entertaining. One of them, the placing of microphones on players and coaches, goes hand in hand with on-court coaching, and also concerns Ana.

“I don’t really like the idea of putting microphones on the player and the coach,” said Ana. “It’s a little bit embarrassing, knowing that other people can hear our conversation. The communication between a player and a coach should be private, we obviously don’t want people to know our tactics.

“As players we are taught to find solutions on-court on our own, without the help of the coach. That is part of the challenge, and what makes tennis such a great sport to play and watch. I think it should remain that way.”

By Gavin Versi