In every competitive sport, players rely on coaches to help them out and strategize as much as possible. Most coaching takes place outside of actual competition, but in-game adjustments are also very important. Considering that, why isn’t on-court coaching allowed in tennis?
Tennis is one of the few sports that leave the in match adjustments for the players alone, at least on the ATP tour. They have never allowed in-match coaching, and although there have been debates for and against it over the years, the rule doesn’t seem to be changing in the immediate future
Why Is Coaching Not Allowed?
In the beginning, a lot of players did not even bother to bring coaches to all the tournaments. Not only was it viewed as largely unnecessary, but it was extremely expensive as well. Only in the last couple of decades has the pay been solid enough for most of the top players to bring not only their coach, but other members of their team to different tournaments around the globe. Still, those players who have a low ranking would be at a severe disadvantage at most tournaments because they simply can’t afford to have their coach there to help out.
Tennis has been reluctant to change mainly because it is an individual sport, and part of the appeal is watching the physical and mental side of the game. A lot of fans who are very strongly against coaching like that players largely have to figure things out themselves. It makes the game a truly one-on-one experience.
The Ups And Downs Of On-Court Coaching
Tennis players are notorious for hiring and firing their coaches with little to no warning. It’s a tough job to be the head coach of an ATP or WTA player. Yes, they are looking for advice, but they also need encouragement. If the player doesn’t perform as expected, the easy person to blame is the coach.
A great tennis coach proves their worth during small breaks during the tennis season, and overall match preparation. The tennis season is very long with a lot of travel, so there is not much of a formal off-season. Some coaches might only have a few days to work on something with a player and prove they bring something to the table.
Gameplans and match preparation is tough, because in the middle of a tournament, there might be less than 24 hours to put a plan together. Since there is no coaching during the match, different scenarios need covered that night, and during the morning hit around.
The harsh reality is a tennis coach can do everything right, but a bad result can leave them without a job. No one is safe either. Ivan Lendl has eight Grand Slam championship as a player, and three as a coach with Andy Murray. However, it took less than a year for Alexander Zverev to dump him after a poor stretch of tournaments.
The Role of a Tennis Coach
Tennis might not condone coaching during matches, but the sport requires a lot of coaching to reach the top of the sport. In fact, it is one of the hardest sports to play at the highest level, since roughly the top 150 players or so on the ATP and WTA tours make a great living every single year.
It takes years of practice and coaching to get to the top of the sport. Any player who doesn’t start taking the sport seriously before the age of 10 is at a severe disadvantage. Unless a player grows up with a tennis coach as a parent, it can cost tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars for the right amount of coaching to reach pro status.
Coaching is always going to be extremely important in tennis, but their role is to prepare their players for matches. Once it is match day, it is similar to an exam. It’s time for the player to see what they can do on their own.
The Coaching Advantage
The money disparity between the number one player in the world and a qualifier at a Grand Slam event is pretty significant. A player who has multiple Grand Slams under their belt like a Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, or Novak Djokovic has millions and millions of dollars to fly a team of coaches and trainers to every single tournament. Compare that to a player who mostly plays at the Challenger level, and they are barely breaking even in some cases when coaching, travel, food, insurance and, more is all factored in.
The top players already have a significant advantage by having a superior team around them, first-class travel accommodations, favorable draws and more. Also allowing coaching would just be more of an advantage, because most the lower-ranked players can’t afford to have anyone come with them unless it is a short trip.
Most team sports do not have this problem because it is a more level playing field with the coaching staff. Even in a sport like golf, there are fewer players in the major championships competing, and they normally don’t have as hectic of a travel schedule. The money disparity is not quite as much either.
Skating Around the No On-Court Coaching Rules
Athletes play tennis at the highest level with millions of dollars on the line, so every player is looking for an advantage. With entire teams at matches occasionally, a little bit of coaching inevitably comes out here and there.
It’s not really a secret that illegal coaching goes on all the time, and coaches are always pushing the limit to see how much they can get away with. If caught by the umpire, a warning is giving out initially for illegal coaching. After that, there is a chance to lose points, games and even lose the match by default if it is excessive. Players also run the risk of facing a fine depending on the severity of the offense.
Perhaps the most notorious case in the history of the sport happened just last year at the U.S. Open. Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglu was spotted by the chair umpire giving hand gestures in an effort to get her to push forward on points against Naomi Osaka in the final. The coaching itself did not get her more than a warning, but it led to one of her three code violations that resulted in a one-game penalty. Williams became visibly upset, thoroughly denying any coaching or cheating.
After the match, Mouratoglu was very open about him giving instructions to Williams, but he also pointed out that it is very common, despite being against the rules. Even if Williams did not see his instructions at the time, he was still trying to help her.
It’s very tricky to enforce the no coaching role that tennis currently has. Obvious coaching is easy to spot, but hand signals and gestures throughout an entire match can happen without anyone realizing it. It is even tougher when it is up to the judgment of the chair umpire, since they are also paying attention to the match.
The WTA Embraces Coaching
Most still look down at coaching during matches, but the WTA has been a little more open about it. In 2006, they decided to experiment with on-court coaching for the first time in the sport’s history. The experiment went well enough that they still allow it at WTA events to this day. It is limited to one time per set during a changeover, and also in between sets.
With a decade now in the books, most players on the women’s tour seem fine with the change. It has impacted some matches, as a coach can calm down their player and provide solid advice against an individual opponent. Some players opt to not receive on-court coaching even though it is allowed.
Will The Coaching Rules Change In the Future?
Right now, it seems like the WTA is comfortable allowing limited on-court coaching. The ATP doesn’t seem to be budging on their stance though, and the four Grand Slams also are firmly against it at the moment.
Like other rules in the sport, there will always be people for and against it. Maybe it is something that will experiment with at some point on the men’s tour, but there will be a lot of resistance at the Grand Slams. Call it tradition, or call it a true one-on-one matchup, but a lot of players and fans want to keep tennis coaching-free once the first serve of the match is hit.