Should There Be Coaching in Tennis?
A good coach can make the IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE.
There’s always been a debate about coaching in tennis during a match. Some say that all sports (baseball, football, basketball, boxing, soccer, etc) have coaching, so why not tennis? Others (like me!) claim that coaching will only corrupt a sport known for its sheer individualism. For my cadre, a part of being a champion in tennis is the ability to figure it out for yourself. The ability to adjust and adapt should remain the player’s domain. Allowing coaching, for us, means surrendering the outcome to a group of talking heads who can no longer play. A tennis match would become a chess match between two former players. Implicitly, this turns players into either Stepford wives and/or husbands or mere automatons.
The women’s WTA currently permits coaching in many of their events. Coaches are allowed to speak with players, when asked by the player, once during a match. This coaching must happen on changeovers. At the same time, the men’s ATP Tour does not allow coaching. This double-standard only denigrates the status of female players who are deemed, by implication, to be too mentally dull to win on their own. This is a whole other subject, however. Our subject will remain: should there be coaching in tennis?
At this year’s US Open, coaching will be permitted in the qualifying rounds. Stacey Allaster, the U.S. Tennis Association's chief executive for professional tennis, states it as follows: “The idea is to bring it out into the open. From their seats in the stands, coaches will be allowed to speak or motion to their players when they're on the same end of the court — so long as they don't "interrupt the pace of play," she said.”
I was extremely interested to see if coaching could change the outcome of a match.
I attended the qualifying round on Thursday and here’s what I observed. All of the matches were second round matches. First, I watched the entire 2 ½ hour long Louisa Chirico versus Kaia Kanepi match which Kanepi won 6-2 in the 3rd. Kanepi had a coach; Chirico did not (actually she did, but his “philosophy” was to make her “independent”, so he offered her nothing at keys moments of the match). (Now, to be sure, I said above that I didn’t like coaching because it ends up demanding less from players. But, once coaching is permitted, well then, get in there and coach!) This ended up determining the outcome of the match as Kanepi changed her serving targets just in the nick of time to come back and take the victory. Unfortunately for her, Chirico’s coach elected to remain mute. (I told this story to a soon-to-be freshman at Cal Tech. He responded:”There’s a big difference between a short-run problem and a long-run goal. He should have coached – particularly when Chirico had reeled off 5 straight games in the second set to get to within one game of victory.”) Bottom line: without the coaching, Kanepi would be out of the tournament. Her coach did an excellent job.
I moved quickly to watch tour veteran Nicholas Mahut whom I had seen put up a good fight against Nadal in Miami take on a newcomer from India, Ramkumar Ramanathan. Ramanathan was being coached by the highly-respected Emilio Sanchez. I arrived near the end of the first set with Mahut up a break at 5-2 and Ramanathan serving. I heard Emilio saying:”Remember the plan.” This is going to be a treat, I thought to myself as I had found a seat only three spots away from the esteemed coach. Ramanathan lost a baseline rally and Sanchez coached:”Get to the net!” His player responded by serving-and-volleying twice in succession to get the lead and he eventually won the game. However, Mahut served out the set and Sanchez immediately left. At first I thought it was a bathroom break, but he was away for the entire second set and into the early part of the third.
During this part of the match, Ramanathan pumped himself up with emphatic “come on’s!” after each and every point which he won. He was also being supported by an extremely vocal contingent of fans. His level of effort was outstanding and was beginning to take its toll on Mahut who was doing his best to stay focused but squandered numerous break point opportunities. Ramanathan eked out a second set tiebreak 7-5 to level the match.
At this point, Mahut added some “come on’s!” of his own and the match was reaching a fever pitch – it was like Jimmy Connors playing himself! At 2-all in the 3rd, things were still even, but I was suspecting that the emotional expenditure by Ramanathan was taking too much out of him. I told my wife and a fan we were enjoying the match with: 6-2 Mahut. “So you’re saying Ramanathan won’t win one more game?” the fan quizzed me. “Yup”, I responded. Sure enough he was broken in this game to fall behind by 3-2.
At this very moment, Sanchez returned to courtside. Ramanathan immediately noticed his presence. However, since Emilio had not seen any of the second set, he was at a loss as to what to advise his player. In other words, he could not give tactical advice because he didn’t have the relevant information at his disposal. So, instead of doing nothing, he rattled off about 20 “Vamos!” to his player. Each “Vamos!” was followed by a glance from his player over to Emilio. The glance was saying:”I don’t want to let you down.” Now if you think about it for just a second, Ramanathan is already trying his heart out – and he’s having enough trouble dealing with Mahut – he didn’t need his coach’s expectations added to the stressful mix. He had pushed himself to his emotional limit and his coach is telling him to “Vamos”. This had the immediate effect of raising his player’s tension level to the underperformance level which we all know is there when we try too hard. In other words, Sanchez made it easier for Mahut. Ramanathan dumped 3 sitter volleys in his final service game to drop serve to 2-5. Mahut served it out. (This caused the fan to look at me, his facial expression asking: who is this guy?).
The best coaching is process-oriented and not goal-oriented. Of course, your player wants to win. But if a coach has the opportunity to interact in a live match, he needs to have the humility to say nothing when he doesn’t know what’s happening. Emilio would have given far better advice if he had simply told his player to calm down! This is straight from Deconstructing Tennis: step 3 – Calm Down!
So two matches, three coaches (Mahut may have had one, I’m not sure). One helped their player to win. Two were of no help whatsoever. Conclusion: players do better on their own! Get rid of coaching in tennis for the sake of the players!