Rafael Nadal’s lifetime coach, his Uncle Toni, recently admitted that he has talked to his nephew during matches.
The problem is that on-court coaching is not allowed on the ATP tour. Coach Nadal said, via Matt Cronin for Tennis.com, “I talk to Rafa during matches. I know that it’s not allowed but I think that at my age I have nothing to hide.”
The ATP response? Well, it’s been more than a week and the crickets are quietly chirping.
Will this embolden all coaches to test the boundaries of a rule that has rarely been enforced or punished?
The issue is heating up and the ATP cannot afford to look away. Eventually, a Grand Slam title or big match will be decided when one superstar blatantly benefits from on-court coaching.
It could generate very negative publicity and cause the sports world to question the integrity of ATP tennis.
The rule against on-court coaching is a crumbling facade that may no longer protect its peaceful existence upon middle ground. It’s time for the ATP to either enforce the ban on coaching with severe fines and suspensions, or to eliminate the coaching ban altogether.
Why Coaches and Players Circumvent the Rule
Tennis is high stakes business and features competitive rivalries like never before. The rewards are so great that cheating has become an accepted risk.
Coaching and strategy has evolved with the rapid increase of global information and competitive sports. No stone will be left unturned for players to gain an edge in their training with collaborations of coaches, video study and programmed strategies.
It spills out onto matches in all sorts of forms that all but dance around the chair umpire.
The players no longer isolate themselves and focus on the task at hand. How often do they glance at their box, pump their fist, and direct their eyes and ears to all manners of support?
How much can one chair umpire monitor when there are other forms of gamesmanship?
There are plenty of ways for players to change momentum, including trainers and medical timeouts, bathroom breaks, signals with coaches, speaking in foreign languages and deciding on replay challenges. If weather delays the match, the coaches and players huddle up.
The Traditionalist View
We are proud that our sport requires its athletes to coach themselves during the heat of their matches.
Players must make adjustments and think through their difficulties without outside coaching. This requires greater on-court intelligence and mental strength, qualities that have long been trademarks of its greatest champions.
Young Roger Federer won three Grand Slams in 2004 without a coach.
Talented players like Tomas Berdych often suffer meltdowns late in big matches. Why should he receive extra support to reinforce his strategy and find confidence in his mental game?
If tennis continues to ignore this rule, what’s to stop it from becoming like boxing or any other team sport? Should it sacrifice artistry and intelligence for sabermetrics and therapists?
Do we open the aisles for coaches to march down to the sidelines with iPads, clipboards, towels and encouraging relaxation tips from Zen philosophers?
Undoubtedly, there would be another coach in the video room, studying and directing the adjustments that are relayed back to the player.
If the wall comes down, men’s tennis will lose some of its connection to prior generations of great champions. It could prove as disastrous as dyeing red clay in Madrid.
The Progressivist View
Look, if the WTA, Davis Cup and just about every other sport on the planet allow on-site coaching, why should tennis still peck away with typewriters and listen to phonographs?
There’s no way to stop the increasing new ways to signal to players or relay supportive information. Why fight progress?
Information is everywhere, and ultimately the best player should be able to gather and use every available resource. They are already doing it for the other 99% of their lives anyway.
Besides, it seems a shame to watch talented players like Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga waste away their potential when they could have received a career boost.
How many other players could turn around crushing defeats into true competitive matches? Would this not bring about greater parity in the ATP? This should be a test of tennis athletes, not chess.
Really, this doesn’t have to be a wholesale change. Few people notice or care about hand signals or players looking up at their box. It’s not going to overturn the complexities of strategy and match execution.
Legalize on-court coaching and all players can derive its advantages without the distractions of pretending to uphold a rule that the chair umpire is reluctant to monitor.
In the end, we can agree on one thing: If the ATP does not address this one way or the other, the controversy will continue to seethe under the surface of men’s tennis.
Silence can be a loud answer.