by Rajagopalan Rohinee
Aryna Sabalenka was one of the favourites going into the 2019 Australian Open, before its start. And, so she remained right up to her third-round upset at the hands of Amanda Anisimova. The unseeded 17-year-old upsetting the 11th seed was shocking enough.
But, as one Twitter user pointed out, it also raised the question as to whether Sabalenka’s run-of-successes in 2018 were also courtesy of her receiving on-court coaching in the WTA Tour, a development that is yet – up to now – to be seen at the Majors, at least in the main draw. As the Australian Open unwound further, Sabalenka’s result was soon cast into the debris of the other results in the event as it was wont to. But the subject of on-court coaching once rekindled, despite having slipped into shadows amid the usual melee at the event, burned steadily without turning into a full-fledged conflagration.
In that, Sabalenka’s defeat – much like the controversy-ridden 2018 US Open women’s singles final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka – led to the bigger ramification of the Australian and US Open organisers mulling about enabling on-court coaching in the main draw alongside the qualifying draw. But should this have been the only takeaway in the first place?
Traditionally, in tennis matches, players are expected to dig their heels through the course of a match, finding out answers for themselves as to how to tackle their opponents. It is one reason why momentum swings happen so swiftly in the sport, with players using their presence of mind to analyse and exploit the vulnerabilities of the player on the other side of the net. Beyond using technical nuances, players are also expected to adapt their game to suit the playing conditions – especially when playing under a roof. Case in point: the Australian Open semi-final between Petra Kvitova and Danielle Collins.
Collins – despite having come this far at Melbourne Park after having upset a good few players along the way – found herself struggling when the roof over the Rod Laver Arena was closed on account of the heat. Her game came under pressure even as Kvitova thrived – in spite of scepticism abounding about her struggles with heat – leaving no margin for error for the American could take advantage of, as she had done in her previous matches. In doing so, she also put forth the most distinguishable salience of the Majors and of the top-tier players.
The majors, being the most elite tournaments in the sport’s hierarchy, need their contenders to up the level of their aptitude rather than them being spoon-fed tactics. If at all the players are to be aided on the court, then, it may as well be that the coaches themselves take to the courts and outplay the other, in newfangled battles of tactical will. Secondly, top-ranked players, choosing to avail the option of having their coaches come on-court during WTA tournaments, go at it alone in the Majors and, regardless of how they start out at first, manage to figure it out as they go along by adequately equipping themselves to battle all tilts and ebbs in a match, whenever they come about.
In a way, this also explains the high frequency of attrition in the WTA Tour in these last few years, where titlists win anew or are supplanted regularly even as it offers plausibility as to why only few names – one of whom is Serena Williams – win Majors ever so often, even as others – barring those affected by injuries – drop off the radar after cursorily going the distance a couple of times.
The focus of the sport’s administrators should, then, be to ensure that the number of players whose performances slacken off in the bigger tournaments is reduced, thereby making tennis more competitive. The only way to do so is by discarding the concept of on-court coaching entirely and not by seeking to introduce it with more vigorousness. One of the benefits of on-court coaching is often cited to be that the playing field opens up a little more than the usual. But the question to ponder here is this: is such an open playing field qualitatively better as well? For, if it is not, it is not really adding much to the game – except momentary assuaging of craving for those wanting the on-court drama between a coach and player to extend beyond the usual quota of events.