Tim Henman leads backlash against plans to experiment with on-court coaching at US Open

Simon Briggs
The Telegraph
Last month, the US Open put forward plans to experiment with coaching from the stands  - Getty Images Europe
Last month, the US Open put forward plans to experiment with coaching from the stands  - Getty Images Europe

Fury is building at the All England Club over the growing threat to one of tennis’s oldest and most fundamental principles: the need for players to make their own decisions on court.

Last month, the US Open put forward plans to experiment with coaching from the stands – in which players can ask for advice between points as many times as they want – in main-draw matches at Flushing Meadows in August.

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Meanwhile, the International Tennis Federation has quietly introduced a trial of on-court coaching at under-18 and under-16 junior events this season. This move was criticised yesterday by Dave Miley, the Irishman who will be challenging the ITF’s president, David Haggerty, at the elections in September.

“I totally disagree with on-court coaching at junior level,” Miley told The Sunday Telegraph. “You are building life skills when you teach young players to be independent and resilient and resourceful. Plus, there are all sorts of inequalities that come into play when some people can afford coaches and others can’t. You’ll have parents getting involved and the whole thing will have significant downsides.”

Different forms of mid-match coaching have been used in professional tennis since 2008, but the rejection of traditional values is gathering pace. In the view of Tim Henman – the former British No 1 who is now an All England Lawn Tennis Club committee member – the sport is experiencing a “slow creep” of a regrettable idea.

According to Henman, the time for coaches is before and after the players go on court, but never during. “I have spoken to 30 past players about the use of coaches during matches and none of them support it,” he told The Sunday Telegraph.

<span>Henman believes it should be up to the player to problem-solve during a match</span> <span>Credit: YURI KADOBNOV </span>
Henman believes it should be up to the player to problem-solve during a match Credit: YURI KADOBNOV

“One thing that alarms me is the changes at junior level,” Henman added. “To me, that is the tail wagging the dog. The ITF should be the custodians of the game but they are ingraining bad habits in these kids before they have even made it to tour level. It ought to be up to the player to problem solve during a match. One of tennis’s most important points of difference is that it is a one-to-one, gladiatorial sport.”

When the Women’s Tennis Association introduced on-court coaching as a “trial” in 2008, the intention was to illustrate the variety of characters and tactics in the game. Whether this has happened remains a moot point. Some coaching visits can be dramatic and enlightening, but the majority are forgettable and many of the conversations take place in a language that viewers or spectators cannot understand.

Proponents of coaching from the stands offer an additional rationale: the argument that players are already receiving signals from their player’s boxes in any case, which are almost impossible to police. Chair umpires rarely hand out warnings, but when Carlos Ramos penalised Serena Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, during September’s US Open final, he triggered an international controversy.

Hardliners say that the solution to this problem is not to relax the rules, but to strengthen defences by placing an official in the player’s box to monitor the coach’s behaviour.

When the grand slam board discussed the US Open’s proposal at Roland Garros 10 days ago, the two European majors did not block it, even though they are both fundamentally opposed to the principle. Coaching from the stands has already been trialled in qualifying matches at both the US Open and the Australian Open since August 2017, so this could be seen as a logical progression.

<span>Serena Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou was warned during the US Open last September</span> <span>Credit: REUTERS </span>
Serena Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou was warned during the US Open last September Credit: REUTERS

Yet September’s experiment will be much more high-profile than anything we have seen before. In some matches, if a player asks for guidance after almost every point, the dynamic could be similar to that between a golfer and their caddie.

The Australian Open is expected to follow suit by staging a main-draw trial in January, although a spokesman said yesterday that they planned to “canvas the player group after the US Open before making a call on it”.

The game’s seven stakeholders are heading for a collision in early next year. The term “trials” will then have to be put to bed while administrators make a final decision on what their stance will be.

At the moment, though, there seems little prospect of a compromise between their entrenched positions. In all probability, we will end up with Wimbledon and the French Open banning any mid-match communication while their New World counterparts permit it.

“I don’t think it reflects well on the game when everybody does their own thing,” said Henman. “We have got to make sure we don’t become even more disjointed.”

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