An Experiment Bound to Go Awry
At the 2004 Pacific Life Open, Justine Henin-Hardenne was given a warning by the chair umpire after her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, was heard shouting instructions from the side of the court late in the second set of the quarterfinal match. Henin-Hardenne didn’t deny it, and instead blatantly admitted that Rodriguez was helping her. “He told me be aggressive … go to the net,” she said, “You can tell it’s coaching. I know what I have to do, but sometimes it’s hard for me when I’m on court, in the match, to do what you know you have to do.”
At the time, Henin-Hardenne held the World No. 1 ranking.
Experiments Are Fun
The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour is going to allow players to have their coaches on court next month at two events, breaking a long-held taboo in a sport that has long been bound in tradition.
The ‘experiment’ will be limited to the Rogers Cup in Montreal (Aug. 14-20) and the Pilot Pen in New Haven (Aug. 21-26), though coaching also might be considered at the Year End Championship in Madrid. Players will be allowed one coaching break per set, as well as between sets, and if the other competitor takes an injury or bathroom break. This means that a player could receive strategic advice a maximum of five times in a three-set match.
Coaches are currently restricted to their seats and are banned from offering advice during the match. Insiders know, however, that this prohibition is widely ignored. Just last month, Maria Sharapova received a code violation during her semifinal match at Birmingham against Jamea Jackson for coaching from the sidelines by her frequent offender father/coach Yuri Sharapov. With the WTA’s move, coaches could be stepping out of the shadows in tennis, where they are obscure entities to the average fan, and thrust into a role of quasi-celebrity.
And who wouldn’t want to give Richard Williams or Yuri Sharapov more TV time?
ESPN proposed on-court coaches at a WTA player meeting in January, along with a host of other initiatives that would give TV cameras more access to players. The network has not fully worked out the components of how it will handle the coaching experiment, except to say that conversations between players and coaches will be broadcast for viewers. Since tennis is an international sport, one of the big details to be ironed out is the instance of conversations in foreign languages, which might be unintelligible to an American audience. Suffice to say that it’s probably safe to assume that ESPN won’t be springing for translators.
What makes tennis different?
Different individual competition sports have used strategic interludes from coaches with success. Golfers go over shot and club selection with their caddies, and boxers receive counsel in their corners between rounds.
Critics counter that what makes tennis so unique is that coaching isn’t allowed — other than in World TeamTennis or Cup team competitions. The beauty of singles tennis lies in having two competitors on court without a Regis-style lifeline to any advice or help, duking it out on their own. By allowing players access to their coaches, the WTA could also be helping those players with more resources that are able to hire high-quality coaches. Rank-and-file players can’t always afford to travel with a coach. What will they do?
Will it make the players stop looking to their coach after every point? Or will it make the coaches bank some endorsement contracts of their own? One also has to wonder why the WTA didn’t decide to hoist their experiment onto doubles, which actually is a team competition. Then again, this move by the Tour only serves to legitimize a practice which goes against the code.
Tennis mascots winging weenies into the stands can’t be far behind… not that I’m trying to give the WTA any ideas.
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