At the women’s final of the 2018 U.S. Open, Serena Williams faced Naomi Osaka. Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, made a few gestures at her from his seat in the crowd. Then, the umpire gave Williams a violation, setting off one of the ugliest incidents the tennis world saw that year.
The controversy raised the issue of on-court coaching once more. It’s still not allowed in Grand Slam events despite many players and coaches protesting. Let’s take a closer look at some of the pros and cons of on-court coaching, why it hasn’t happened yet, and examples of times it took place.
Pros and cons of on-court coaching
An advantage of on-court coaching: It may lead to better play. Currently, every other sport allows it. Having a coach on hand to guide an athlete could lead to better outcomes. Even the best tennis players could use an expert opinion during a particularly difficult match. It would allow them to focus their energy on competing as opposed to remembering proper techniques.
Another advantage is that it’s viewed as inevitable anyway. Currently, on-court coaching is allowed during non-Grand Slam events. Implementing it would bring the debate to a close so the sport can move forward.
A possible disadvantage? It could slow the pace of play. Right now the players have nowhere to turn in between serves. Having a coach on the court and instituting some sort of timeout system would inevitably lead to longer match times without adding any actual tennis action.
Another disadvantage: It may erode some of the sport’s traditions regarding players relying on themselves to win. Some tennis stars, like John Isner, believe on-court coaching may not make much of an impact on the game. He told ESPN: “I never felt I lost a match because of coaching from the other player’s box. Not one time. It’s a bit overblown.”
Why it hasn’t happened yet
Many in the sport are still divided on whether it should be allowed. Some see it as an inevitable evolution of the game catching up to other sports. But the romantic ideal of the tennis player being a competitor on an island is a popular sentiment among many, including Williams herself. Despite being penalized for allegedly receiving coaching during the 2018 U.S. Open, she doesn’t believe it has any place in the game:
One thing I love about tennis is being out there [alone]. It’s the one time I don’t want to hear anyone tell me anything. You have to figure out. You have to problem-solve.
Roger Federer agrees. During Wimbledon 2019, he told reporters, “I think the player gets his advice (before the match) then it’s how much can he remember, how much can he deal with in the moment, figure it out yourself a little bit.” The tradition of self-sufficiency in tennis is a hard thing to throw away. Many players value the uniqueness in that regard.
Famous examples of on-court coaching
According to ESPN, the WTA introduced on-court coaching on a trial basis in 2008. Here are two examples of it (one sanctioned and one unsanctioned):
- Williams’ infamous 2018 U.S. Open final where the umpire allegedly saw her receive signals from her coach in the stands
- Two-time Grand Slam winner Garbine Muguruza, who frequently receives instruction from her coach Sam Sumyk
This debate won’t likely go away anytime soon. The prediction is that at some point in the next five years, on-court coaching will make its way into the Grand Slams.