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On Court Coaching

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

It's a discussion which continues to simmer in the tennis world, should on court coaching be allowed in professional matches? If so then what should it look like, how much is too much? Whilst the Women's game is embracing it as part of the sport, the ATP prohibit coaching during a match apart from during rain delays or extended breaks in general. Grand Slam events are run independently meaning they can set their own rules regarding on court coaching, something none currently allow.

The arguments for and against on court coaching haven't changed much in years. Those in favour of it see it as a natural progression in our sport, making it more enjoyable to watch by adding another dimension. We would get to see more personality from the players and their coaches, something we only really get to see on the men's side in a handful of exhibition or trial tournaments. The Laver Cup is one of those tournaments. It has provided us with some great footage where we see some of the greatest players ever giving their team mates advice during matches.

Those against see it as a fundamental change to tennis, dampening down the one-on-one battle side of the sport. Many great players feel their problem solving skills and mental toughness was what took them to the top of the game and don't want to see that side of the sport being lost. "Thinking your way through a match and switching tactics when needed, is what makes the sport so unique." said Federer when asked about his views on coaching during a match.

For others it’s the idea of it potentially slowing down the sport or that they simply don’t want to watch the coaching side and just want to watch the player themselves. Some also argue that it’s an unfair advantage for players who have coaches, many of the pro players outside of the top 100 can't afford to have a full time coach travel with them.

The WTA have been trailblazers when it comes to on court coaching. When they first introduced on court coaching in 2008 they hoped it would add entertainment value and to give insight to fans watching. It's pretty difficult to argue that this hasn't achieved that.

In 2015 the WTA took on court coaching to another level. Coaches were provided with tablets which displayed match stats data which could be shown to the players during matches. The more data has become a big part of coaching the more this became a logical step. Standardising this data and technology makes it fairer for players with smaller teams or potentially no coaching team at all as everyone gets the same information should they want it.

The most recent change to the WTA rules came in 2020 when coaching from the stands was allowed for the first time in a trial period. This does two big things, it stops some players getting an unfair advantage receiving coaching from the stands when it shouldn't happen, it also gives steady but un-intrusive communication between player and coach.

Coach Darren Cahill is in favour of what the WTA has brought in, something he experienced first hand when working with Simona Halep. "You'd be surprised how little coaching the coaches will do if they're allowed to do it. The reason why a lot of it goes on at the moment is because you're not allowed to do it, so you're trying to get the sneaky coaching message across."

The prohibited coaching that currently takes place is a big reason why I believe we will start to see on court coaching be allowed in the men's game sooner rather than later. It's not just the sneaky messages from the players box anymore, earlier this year Zverev accused Tsistipas of receiving coaching during a bathroom break. Andy Murray highlighted this issue when he was asked for his views on the topic.

“I’m not a massive fan of on-court coaching. I don’t really like it that much. But I do think that unless it’s policed properly I would rather it was allowed, because if your coach is not coaching you from the side of the court and your opponent is getting coached but it’s not being policed and they’re not getting punished for coaching, then you’re at a competitive disadvantage. I think most people on the tour would agree that it happens quite often and there’s not maybe enough done about it. So unless they’re able to police it – and I don’t know if they ever will – I think you probably should be allowed to, because I wouldn’t want to be at a disadvantage because my opponent’s being coached and I’m not.”

Another reason why I think we will start to see it creep into the men's game is the next generation of players are largely in favour of on court coaching. This is a big shift from years gone by where most top players were against it. It would be much easier to bring it in at a time when you have high profile players such as Tsistipas and Djokovic supporting it.

Tennis is a sport that prides itself on its history. Finding the balance between traditions and letting the sport evolve is difficult. It's a balance which I'm sure will be carefully considered over the next few years.


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