Mailbag: Seven Reasons Why Mid-Match Coaching is a Terrible Idea

Jon Wertheim
Sports Illustrated
In his latest Mailbag, Jon Wertheim explains why mid-match coaching is a horrible idea, analyzes John Isner's Hall of Fame chances and more.
In his latest Mailbag, Jon Wertheim explains why mid-match coaching is a horrible idea, analyzes John Isner's Hall of Fame chances and more.

Hey everyone…

MAILBAG

Mid-match coaching doesn't belong in tennis, especially at big tournaments and majors. I don't even like it at smaller events, where we can eavesdrop on private conversations. Who's driving the agenda? Certainly not real fans!
@cjkel

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• We’ll continue banging this drum. The excellent Simon Briggs reported that the U.S. Open was planning on experimenting with on-court coaching. While the USTA has refuted this, I do know that the USTA has continued to push this and petition others on the Grand Slam board.

My usual points:

1. I hate this. It’s a true distortion of tennis. But what I really hate is the dishonesty. The USTA has tried to camouflage this fundamental change as an “innovation”— on the order of a shot clock or a truncated warm-up—much as a conniving congressman tries to tack essential legislation onto some boring grain subsidy bill.

2. Midmatch coaching is terribly unfair to players who cannot afford a coach. Why are we adding expenses to a sport we want to be accessible to as many as possible? The other moral failure: the USTA’s justification is “Lots of folks are coaching from the stands and it’s hard to police, so let’s just legalize it.” Since when do we respond to rampant cheating by permitting the banned behavior?

3. We respect democracy. If the majority of tennis wanted this, we would still dislike the concept, but we would respect the popular will. The USTA, though, has yet to provide any evidence that this is the case. Player after player has come out against this. Judging from your response—a reliable focus group—it’s easily 80/20 against. If you are going to change something so fundamental to the sport, don’t you have a burden to prove that people actually want this? As it stands, one stakeholder wants it: TV.

4. Stop blaming Serena. This talk of mid-match coaching has led to suspicion—wrongly— that it is being floated by the USTA to accommodate Serena, and avoid a repeat of last year’s debacle in the U.S. final. The irony here: Serena has the good sense to reject on-court coaching and has spoken out against it. Leave it to the USTA to float a nonsense proposal that has already brought collateral damage to the best American player of all-time.

5. Who summons on-court coaching? Players in distress. Players struggling with confidence. Players losing the match and losing control. Last weekend Donna Vekic—a thoroughly likable player who deserves better— lost the second set of her match and lamented to her (male) coach, “Finals are not for me.“ Her coach’s response: “Well, you’re in a final now.” This is a terrible look. What other sport would purposely expose their athletes at their most vulnerable? It might occasionally make for good TV. But it’s voyeurism, not fandom.

6. Tennis does consistency the way WWE does subtlety. The WTA allows coaching at tour events…but it’s banned at Slams. (When top players lose early, the inevitable, insulting speculation is that these dependent women couldn’t problem-solve.)  You have the USTA pushing this stupid “innovation” that no one wants. You have Wimbledon (bless, Wimbledon) openly discrediting this bastardization of tennis. What’s next? The Australian Open applying to permit players two bounces? The French Open conferring on players three serves?

7. We speak whimsically of a commissioner. But at what point do we reach the conclusion that all of these ruptures and inconsistencies are the enemy of growth (and the appearance of health in the marketplace)? And that these rogue operators ought to answer to an authority figure?

As someone who loves the Laver Cup and attended it in Chicago, even I was a bit surprised that the ATP is retroactively counting the matches that occurred prior to the Laver Cup joining the ATP.  Personally, I don't see it as a big deal.  The players have certainly never treated this event as an exhihbition. I guess I especially don't get why any Djokovic and Nadal fans have an issue with it.  I mean, Fed, Djoker, and Nadal are never going to play each other, so their head-to-heads won't be affected. And that's all the "haters" really care about, right?  I also don't get why folks blame Federer for this.  I highly doubt it was some kind of demand from him for this partnership to happen.
Michelle

• So a few weeks ago we noted that the Laver Cup became an official ATP event. It seemed a little strange, but politically pragmatic and expedient. The Laver Cup wants to preserve its date on the calendar, which has also been targeted by the ITF and the Davis Cup. By gaining the imprimatur of the ATP, the Laver Cup has strengthened its position and gained support.

What does the ATP get in return for this loyalty? For starters, it gets the political support of the most popular and powerful man in the sport. (Imagine, if, say, you were an ATP CEO under attack from the board and had the luxury of calling in a favor from this powerful figure.) The ATP support of Laver Cup also helps weaken the Davis Cup, which is important because the ATP is now hosting its international competition in January. (We made the World War I alliances joke last month; but imagine an outsider reading the above paragraphs and wondering how this sport stands upright.)

Anyway, the purists may bristle over the ATP supporting an event that A) has its own format B) is so inextricably tied to one member/player c) hand-picks its field, and is not necessarily open to all eligible players based on ranking.

But, in and of itself, this sanctioning seems okay to me. For one, the Laver Cup is a force of good: a great attraction for tennis and a welcomed addition to the calendar. It draws the best players. It’s created buzz and excitement and sells out arenas. What is it we always ask of governing bodies? “Stop these destructive turf wars and think about the greater good of the sport.” This might qualify as an example.

But here’s the issue: the press release mentions that the Laver Cup now has “access to ATP services, including marketing and social media, along with operational personnel such as officials and physios.” Fair enough.

It did not, pointedly, mention the historical record. There was no mention of this—an eagle-eyed reader brought it my attention—but suddenly Laver Cup results started counting in players’ head-to-head matches. What’s more, match results count toward a player’s win total. (According to the ATP, at the end of 2018 Federer was credited with 48 wins. He now is credited with 50. Yet—again according to the ATP—statistics like aces and winners are not counted. This is nuts. It’s like altering the Patriots’ win/loss record retroactively but not counting the passing yards Tom Brady accrues in those additional games).

This has infuriated some of you. I agree that it’s not a good look and distorts the historical record. A win in an event that doesn’t use the official entry system and has an invitation-only field…that utilizes a round-robin format…with a super-tiebreak…and comes with a mandatory doubles component….it cannot be equated with a win at a conventional event, much less a major. It just can’t.  (And again: how do you credit a player with an additional win or loss, but not include other metrics like aces or double-faults?)

I asked the ATP about this and here’s a statement: “The partnership announced in May saw the Laver Cup become an official part of the ATP Tour calendar. Since its inaugural edition, the Laver Cup has proven to be a world class credible event, and the feedback we’ve had from players supports that. While the official partnership between ATP and Laver Cup only begins this year, the belief was that, in time, when looking back at Laver Cup through history, matches should count from the inaugural edition, and not just from 2019.”

Fortunately, the solution is simple. The Laver Cup and ATP did not enter into this partnership for the sake of statistics. It was strategic. Instead of scrapping the data portion of the partnership, let’s just create a new category for “Laver Cup,” much as other sports would for  “postseason” or for all-star appearances.” There’s still a historical record. But it’s kept separate from other events. No one is consigning the Laver Cup to an exhibition. Keep the ATP collaboration, the physios, the social media and, most important, the date on the calendar. Just create an independent historical record. Next case….

John Isner for the Tennis Hall of Fame? Yes, that sounds strange & misguided for tennis’ equivalent of Dave Kingman  (in terms of skill, not as a person.  John Isner seems like a really good guy.) But consider:

—He possesses the single most powerful stroke—his serve—in the history of the game.

—Because of his unique skill set—best serve combined with below average everything else—he is a tiebreaker waiting to happen

—Because Wimbledon accentuates that skill set , he has played two of the longest and most memorable matches in tennis history

—John Isner is solely responsible for the fifth-set rule changes in Grand Slams

—He’s been a top-10 player andd the highest-ranked American for a while.

It’s not quite enough to get my vote, but it’s worth considering in this Fed/Rafa/Novak era, when virtually no one else ever wins a Grand Slam. If he could somehow win a Grand Slam, his case becomes interesting.
Bill, New Jersey

• Before we get started, it’s worth pointing out that Dave Kingman was, ironically, a tennis fan known to bring rackets with him on road trips.

Interesting thought exercise. And to your credit, you seem to acknowledge the whimsy of your own question. (Even at one major, it’s a serious yoga stretch.) But if I’m the Tennis Hall of Fame, I’m mildly concerned here. It’s gotten to the point where people are making cases for players who have never even entered the top five, much less won a major.

Leaving Hall of Fame considerations out of it, I do agree with your larger point. John Isner, despite his prodigious size, might be considered an underrated player. He has a totally sui generis game. He was a late bloomer and yet still put together a fantastic career. He has comported himself like a total pro. It pleases me that—whether it’s Isner or David Ferrer or Lucie Safarova or Alison Riske—fans appreciate the players who may not win majors, but enrich the culture.

Even if Serena never surpasses Court's record haul of 24 singles Grand Slam titles, do you think she'll ever turn her attentions to mixed doubles and attempt to complete the Boxed Set before she calls it a career?  She's only missing two titles, and Navratilova has made a great case for it being more than possible, even deep into a fifth decade.
Stacy R., Miramar, Fla.

• Sadly, no. The singles record is just too important. Remember, she played doubles at the 2018 French Open—avec Venus—and injured her pec, causing her to withdraw from singles.

I challenge you to find a greater accomplishment in all of sports than Nadal's 12 French Open titles. Can you?
Ben, Queens, New York

• I’m drawing blanks. Esther Vergeer? Michael Phelps in the pool. Some of Ichiro’s baseball seasons? (I joked Holzhauer at trivia.) Honestly, Nadal at the French Open is a clause that, reflexively, triggers a smile simply because of its absurdity.

I appreciate your 50 Parting Thoughts article after each major, but I was surprised not to see Johanna Konta's name mentioned once.  On the one hand, this was a great tournament for her on her weakest surface.  On the other hand, she really should have done better, but her mentality is majorly (some pun intended) costing her.  Up in each set of the semi with a chance to win the set on her serve, and she gets broken in each set.  We talk about the best to not win a major list, and everyone puts Svitolina and Pliskova on top.  When you ignore results and look at ability, Konta has to be on the top of the list, but I am afraid her mentality will get in the way every time she is close.  
Shlomo Kreitman

• From “we proved the doubters wrong” (when there were no doubters) to “I played at only 70% of my abilities and she still won” to “we shocked the world”…..athletes are often masterful at creating stories and framing situations in ways that are curious to the outsider but maximize their esteem.

You and I might be crushed if we appeared in a Grand Slam semifinal, leading a teenager in both sets, and failing to close either. Here’s Konta’s self-assessment: I mean, it's always tough to lose a match, any match. It's also tough to lose matches where you do have opportunities, you do have chances. However, I feel very, very comfortable and very assured in the fact that I did do the best that I can, the best that I could out there. To be honest, yeah, I mean, it's hard to lose any match like this, but, yeah, no, I think my opponent played really well. I'm proud in how I tried to find a way out there. I'm proud in how I tried to work the points, how I tried to play out there against her. It just didn't go my way.

That strikes me as a measured, mature and healthy response.

I was very happy to see Adrian Mannarino win his first ATP title (at age 30) this weekend. I became a fan of his after seeing him play Dominic Thiem in the third round of the 2017 US Open. He lost to Thiem in straight sets, but he played well, and I loved his attitude. He didn't get down on himself, didn't give up, kept fighting for every point. This weekend, he played excellent tennis, beating Goffin and Coric along the way. He earned this title. How much momentum do you think this grass-court title will give him going into Wimbledon?
Keegan Greenier. Macon, Ga.

I love it when fans latch on to random, deserving players. Whoever thought that Mannarino—a French veteran; Malta resident; now a title holder—would have such a loyal and deserving supporter in central Georgia?

Is he going to win Wimbledon? Not likely. Is he going to be seeded? Possibly. Is he a player no one will want to face? Probably. Mannarino has a very nice game for grass—a lefty who requires little backswing, stays low to the ground and moves well. He’s 13-8 for his career at Wimbledon and his last three losses have come to Federer, Djokovic and Djokovic.

First, in honor of Pride month, thanks for your compelling piece on the Rainbow Railroad on 60 Minutes.  It was meaningful to so many of us.  On another topic, there’s a longtime television commentator and former champion who perpetually can’t help himself from predicting mid-match what he thinks will occur in the next point, game, set, and match.  He’s often incorrect in his prognosticating, and I also find it grating.  My question is, do tennis’ on-air personalities like yourself receive constructive feedback from network executives or producers to hone your on-air skills?  What sorts of advice do they give to strengthen the broadcast?
Josh, New York City

• A few of you have asked, so, cringing at the immodesty, here’s the Rainbow Railroad piece. Non-tennis but one of the more meaningful projects I’ve done.

As for your question, I will not have you bash Tony Romo like that. We jest. Sure, there’s feedback in television. Some people seek it out more than others. Some people are more receptive to it than others. Some producers are more inclined than others. The feedback can be anything from the cosmetic (“stay on the single camera longer”) to the performative (“try to vary your voice more”) to the substantive (“don’t’ ask such long-winded questions.”)

This is less a complaint than an observation, but TV is wildly subjective. Some people like Broadcaster X’s nicknames; others hate them. Some people like that Broadcaster Y is restrained and dignified; others find her boring and devoid of meaningful contributions. Some people want mid-match predictions. You clearly find them grating.

I only speak for myself, but—maybe because I am late to the game—I’m happy for feedback. I think it’s important to know what the audience thinks, especially since there are so few ground rules.

Scheduling incompetence made it impossible for Thiem today. It would have been like a starting pitcher winning back-to-back games in the World Series against rested world-class competitors. It’s a shame journalists are covering this final like it’s a real competition.
@benkenjack

• This is a holdover from the French Open. But I do think it’s worthy of revisiting. And I reject this premise. Tennis players play back-to-back days all the time; in this way it’s not akin to pitchers taking the mound on successive days. Yes, Thiem was done no favors by the schedulers. But erratic (and sometimes unfair) scheduling is part of the drill. He handled it admirably. And it was not the reason he lost.

Reading your latest mailbag…maybe I'm biased as a Fed fan (love Rafa too) but I would argue that Fed's 23 consecutive major semis record belongs in the unbreakable record list.
@adilasheer

I would not disagree. (This is obviously a continuation of last week’s discussion about unbreakable tennis records.) Others:

@balaji_srini: Federer's underappreciated record of reaching 36 consecutive men's Grand Slam quarterfinals should be on the list. Other records in the list can be bettered; this one is very tough to beat. Imagine nine years of no injury and no early losses.

— A few of you rightly mentioned the Williams sisters haul of Olympic medals. (Consider: Venus won gold in Sydney in 2000!)

— Steffi’s Golden Slam. (h/t her 50th birthday.)

Q: Before Barty, who was the last player named Ashley to win a Grand Slam singles championship?

A: In 1958, Ashley Cooper of Australia won three of the four Grand Slams.  At Roland Garros, he lost in the semis.
Mark Flannery, Fullerton, Calif.

• My trivia: what are the two main rivers bracketing Charleston, S.C.?

SHOTS, MISCELLANY

• Mackie McDonald goes under the knife.

• New York Junior Tennis & Learning will host the NYJTL Bronx Open, a WTA International level women’s professional tournament offering $250,000 in prize money at the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning in the Bronx from August 16-24, 2019.

LONG-LOST SIBLINGS

Rocky has our LLS this week: Jackass’ Steve-O and Laslo Djere

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