Rather than celebrating Rafael Nadal's tough victory over Phillip Petzxchner, I am left asking uneasy questions.
Where have I seen this scenario before? Ah yes, Monte Carlo, or was it...Rome?! Yes. Rome. 2006, against Roger Federer. One of the classic matches. Roger is charging; he's got momentum.
Suddenly, Rafa calls for the trainer, and after an extended rub-down, he emerges, running great, and opens up the match in his favor. He wins a heartbreaking, five-set, clay court final against his all-time rival, with a guilty look on his face.
Do I believe that Rafa deliberately called the trainer in order to throw Roger off? Nah. Not really. Besides, I used to say, any competitor who gets thrown off by a few seconds of his rival sitting down probably doesn't have it together in the first place. (I have never played competitive tennis, so I really don't know how much of an effect it truly does have.)
Those were the days when Roger used to mutter about Rafa getting coaching all the time from Uncle Toni Nadal.
But nobody could ever catch him at it. Even when they went back through the tapes.
Rafa was warned for coaching at a 2008 Roger's Cup event after his famous 2008 Wimbledon win, when he was closing in on being number one in the world. Rafa had a meltdown in that match, argued with the chair umpire, and demanded to see the tournament referee if he got another warning.
The commentators went back and looked hard for it, but didn't see it.
Rafa was warned for coaching during the 2010 French Open, and had another meltdown about it (in Spanish).
I've seen courtside coaching—it's very flagrant and very obvious to me, the casual spectator. I've seen it mostly from Fernando Verdasco's box, though also from Andy Murray's box. No warnings, no comment. Everybody does it, say the commentators.
I've also seen Rafa stand in, when injured, and play it out. He did this most notably during the Rotterdam 2009 final, where he evidently first sustained the injury that cost him the defense of his 2008 Wimbledon title. He should have gotten off it, but kept playing on it for weeks and only succeeded in making it worse.
In spite of the condition of the knee, he evidently played successfully through the 2009 clay court season, even practicing with rigor during the run up to Wimbledon before deciding that it was not close to the 100 percent it needed to be for the tournament.
As a spectator, I have no way of knowing if the trainer is out there for a legitimate purpose, or a specious one. These guys play with pain all the time, so presumably they can call upon an ache or pain at any time in order to slow things down and give themselves time to think.
With a high performance athlete, and with a game like tennis that is notoriously hard on the players, as a fan I can't argue with a player taking time out to consider any tweak, real or imagined, to his limbs or joints. Their livelihood depends upon knowing the condition of their limbs and joints, and you can't really second-guess them.
I've never seen Uncle Toni say anything other than "vamos" during Rafa's matches. Stoic, he sometimes has his hand in front of his mouth, but his fingers don't move. I've never heard anyone say that they have seen him "coaching" from the box.
In this match against Petzxchner, Rafa himself said that he changed his strategy in the fourth set, and it got him the victory. This was during the time he received a warning for coaching. Rafa told the chair umpire that Toni Nadal was talking to Carlos Costa, not to Rafa.
Is it possible that Uncle Toni passes coaching tips to Rafa via talking sideways to Carlos Costa, and that Rafa reads lips?
How should I know! But for sure, the ATP tournament officials in the chair who keep calling Rafa for coaching are more adept at spotting it than me.
We know that Serena Williams reads lips, mostly from the faces of her doubles rivals from across the net. But her eyes seemingly never stray to the coaches box in moments of doubt. Her eyes stay on the ground.
Is it possible that whatever Uncle Toni says to Carlos Costa is more innocent than it would seem from the chair umpire's (and Rafa's) demeanor?
Watching the World Cup, we are told that actions of one team deemed "clever" in one country, are deemed "cheating" in another country, and it's all part of the sport.
All I know is that it would be a simple matter for coaches to not be allowed courtside to prevent the question of coaching during matches to sour what might otherwise be considered another fantastic victory. Or when an athlete calls for the trainer, the coach has to step into the hallway.
In the corporate world, we call it the "appearance" of impropriety. Why not make even the "appearance" of coaching be banned? It is certainly preventable.
Or just allow coaching? One or the other. But no in-between. I don't want to have to ask myself these questions.
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