Does on-court coaching have a future?
A decision on whether, and how, to expand on-court coaching is expected at the WTA's year-end board meeting. Bonnie DeSimone takes a closer look.
The WTA's on-court coaching experiment -- a trial run driven by television and conducted at three events in the 2006 season thus far -- will continue for the next two weeks at tournaments in Zurich, Switzerland and Linz, Austria.
A decision on whether and how to expand what WTA president Stacey Allaster called "the most controversial of all the innovations we've tried" is expected at the organization's board meeting at the year-end championships in Madrid next month.
Casual fans might shrug at the idea of a player receiving a little advice and counsel during a match, but the prospect of lifting the age-old ban arouses a lot of passion. High-profile players including Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Serena Williams, and most recently, world No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo, have been outspoken about their opposition.
On the flip side, iconoclasts Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova have said they back the change. The WTA has posted a number of positive player comments on its Web site, including endorsements from Svetlana Kuznetsova and Martina Hingis.
"You can talk about how things are going and get another opinion," Hingis said in a story posted after the first test tournament in Montreal in August. "It's nice to try something different."
Others have struck a more neutral note. Lindsay Davenport said she was "curious and interested," but wanted to see how the change might affect the flow of a match. Nadia Petrova told the Montreal Gazette that most of her fellow players felt it would be "strange" to have company on the court.
"I think the better way would be if they would just allow some kind of coaching from the side of the court and limit it to, for example, a couple of words or sentences and not more," the Russian said. "We'll see how many players would use it, and it will be quite interesting if they will be in favor of it."
On-court coaching made its experimental debut at WTA events in Montreal and New Haven this summer. Each player was allowed to call for a coach once during a set, again at set breaks and during an opponent's medical timeout or bathroom break. Before the third test tournament in Stuttgart, Germany, the WTA tweaked the temporary rule by limiting it to set breaks and the medical and bathroom breaks.
Statistics compiled during the three test tournaments so far show that at least one player or doubles team called for a coach in 67 percent (139 of 209) of the matches, asking for a coach 327 separate times in all. So far there's no indication that it conferred any kind of advantage. In matches where only one player or team called for a coach, the competitors who received coaching won just 23 percent of the time.
On-court (sometimes called in-match) coaching is prohibited at all levels of professional tennis and in junior competition, with the exception of Davis Cup and Fed Cup. It is allowed in NCAA competition and World Team Tennis.
The International Tennis Federation's rule is as follows:
Coaching is considered to be communication, advice or instruction of any kind, audible or visible, to a player. In team events, where there is a team captain sitting on-court, the team captain may coach the player(s) during a set break and when the players change ends at the end of a game but not when players change ends after the first game of each set and not during a tie-break game. In all other matches, coaching is not allowed.
Allaster said the impetus for the WTA's move came from two networks, ESPN and Eurosport, both of which lobbied for the change last winter, and tour sponsor Sony Ericsson. Producers argued the change would make players and coaches more accessible to viewers, provide some compelling visual interactions and give commentators further grist.
A player designates one person to be coach -- other members of the posse are not allowed to butt in -- and coaches wear microphones when they go on the court. The footage can be aired after the break.
"I've been on the front line selling men's and women's tennis for 15 years, and I know how hard it is to get people to watch our great game," said Allaster, who supports the rule change. "We're facing diminishing or flat ratings, and the sport couldn't be better. We need to look at what we can do to compete in this sports and entertainment world."
The rule against in-match coaching dates back to tennis's amateur days when coaches were viewed as paid professionals, and not all players could afford to hire private coaches.
Another less tangible but perhaps more important aspect of the tradition was the sense that tennis should be mano a mano -- a contest between two individuals thinking and acting entirely on their own during a match.
"One of the arguments against changing the rule is that it would change one of the very special elements at the highest level of tennis, that's almost unique to tennis," said David Benjamin, the former Princeton University coach who is now executive director of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.
Benjamin has been arguing the merits of on-court coaching since the early '70s, when it was introduced in U.S. college competition. He contends that it's a great teaching tool whether the player is a promising junior or a top-10 fixture.
"Anything you are able to say or do to get the player to concentrate in that crucible, under tremendous pressure, is worth a thousand moments in a non-crucial situation [like practice]," he said.
Benjamin doesn't buy the notion that on-court coaching would dilute the character it takes to win an important match. "I don't think anyone's ever questioned how mentally tough Tiger Woods is, and caddies are coaches," Benjamin said. "The reality is that no matter what you say to someone on the court, the player has to hit the ball and the player has to win the point."
Allaster said the well-publicized signal-calling that took place between U.S. Open winner Maria Sharapova and her father/coach and hitting partner in the stands has not affected the WTA's discussion of a potential rule change. But Allaster added that the tour may consider relaxing the restrictions on what kinds of gestures are permissible from the seats. "If we have a rule on our books that we can't enforce, it shouldn't be there," she said.
Milestone: It took less than three months for 17-year-old Vania King to win her first professional title as she paired with Croatia's Jelena Kostanic to win the doubles competition at the Japan Open last week. King, ranked 80th this week, opted to go pro this summer rather than attend college after months of weighing the decision. She and No. 51 Kostanic, who defeated a team from Chinese Taipei in the final, got together just two weeks ago but have made the final of both tournaments they've entered.
Teen not idle: Serbia's 19-year-old Novak Djokovic notched his 34th win of the season over Austria's Jurgen Melzer in the final of the Open de Moselle in Metz, France. His 34 match wins are second only to Great Britain's Andy Murray (37) in the under-20 set. It's always good to have a ranking number less than your age, and the win propelled Djokovic, who has won 18 of his last 22 matches, six places northward in the charts to No. 16.
Streaky: Nothing about the second half of Nadia Petrova's season indicated that she was ready to win her fifth tournament of the season, but that is exactly what she did when she topped No. 25 Tatiana Golovin in three sets in Stuttgart, avenging her third-round U.S. Open loss to the Russian-born French player.
Petrova won four titles from March through May, then missed several months with a hip injury that contributed to her first-round French Open ouster. She couldn't seem to get going after that, losing in the first round of five straight tournaments. Following the U.S. Open, Petrova lasted just two matches in Beijing and exited in the first round in Luxembourg. She is playing this week in Moscow and is in seventh place in the qualification race for the year-end WTA championships in Madrid, where the top eight women in the standings make the cut.
Beijing buildup: Wild card Sun Tiantian became the fourth Chinese player to win a WTA singles event in the last three seasons on Sunday in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Sun, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in doubles, has nine doubles titles. Her countrywoman Zheng Jie has three singles championships, including two this season.
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.
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