by Sharada Rajagopalan
When Wimbledon announced in 2018 after an extended match between John Isner and Kevin Anderson that it would be introducing a tie-break in the fifth set at 12-all, all eyes were set on the French Open.
The second major of the year made no similar overtures to appease to sentiments of wanting matches to end early and continued with the tradition of regulation scoring in the deciding set. Each five-setter that was played, including the thrilling quarterfinal between Stan Wawrinka and Stefanos Tsitsipas, vindicated this continuity without compunctions even among those wanting for changes in the scoring format.
However, in mid-2019, nearly a year later, if the US Open organisers had expected its decision to trial on-court coaching – from the stands – in the main draw matches this year would have nothing but teeming positivity, reality has been the opposite. The ones clamouring for modifications are also hesitant about accepting these, unmindful of the polished putting out of its rationale.
This wariness surrounding the potential implementation of on-court coaching maps out the wider impression of the move beyond what any finessed language can provide. That it is not a good move for a sport that is defined by its individuality and in which players are expected to come up with solutions to problems on their own, without any external support during the match.
Even these are just a couple of fundamentals upon which tennis rests. Regardless of these, players and coaches’ unsubtle mannerisms to contravene this principle makes for familiar viewing. For example, the infamy surrounding the 2018 women’s singles final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka in which Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou’s ostensible coaching gestures accounted for more reactive responses than Osaka’s first major win.
It is not hard to decipher the US Open’s organisers to extend this option to players is another reactive demonstration to that incident. Only this time, it has manifested itself in a manner of appeasement at least towards the coach, if not towards the player.
For this reason, the biggest voice protesting against the move should be from Williams, apart from others who have criticised it, including former world No. 4 Tim Henman. For all the vociferousness she displayed about not being a direct recipient of Mouratoglou’s coaching tips while arguing with Carlos Ramos who, as the umpire officiating that final, had penalised her, this is the time when her words would carry heft. It would mean she would not only be living up to her claims but also was inclined towards to retaining conventionality as is.
However, the onus on ensuring the retention of tradition does not rest on Williams alone. It is on every player regardless of the gender divisions. Rather, to be specific, the argument for and against on-court coaching falls on the generation gap – and the different mindsets – existing in tennis presently.
With the WTA using on-court coaching as an expedient tool for about the last decade or so, there is an interesting correlation to be made in this context. It applies not just to the women but for the men as well.
The women who have come through the ranks in the professional circuit in this lengthy time-span have become used to the phenomenon of having their coach assist them as needed in a match. For them to have their respective coach helping them out from the stands would only be an extension of the existing normalcy. The same parallel can be made with the ATP NextGen. Of the youngsters thinking of these changes as widening (of sorts) of the rules of the NextGen ATP Finals that has on-court coaching in place and welcoming it.
If these scenarios do come to pass, the scope of USTA’s path of placation widens substantially. To the point it becomes the pivot introducing a newer tradition as suited to the ever-in-flux contemporary needs.