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On-Court Coaching: Good For Tennis?

By Tom Kosinski

The experiment is three quarters over, and the preliminary results are in. On-court coaching during Sony Ericsson WTA Tournaments was a success. Well, at least a success in the way it was implemented and there were no major issues that came from it. The statistics just arrived yesterday on the early effects of coaching. Overall, in matches where only one player used the on-court coaching privilege, those players actually won only five matches, or 24% of the matches, that pitted coached players versus non-coached players.

Now it is still in its infancy, but the early results seem to say that on court coaching really doesn't make a difference. I did a quick look at the draw, and overall, the better player won the match most of the time. It would also be reasonable to expect a lower-ranked player or younger player on the tour would benefit most by the coaching and use the coaches more. This seemed to be the case, as well.

The singles and doubles draws all allowed coaching, and while coaching was used in about the same amount of matches (71% for singles and 77% for doubles), the success rate for doubles was twice that for singles. Yep, doubles players who chose to use a coach won 50% of the matches where they played teams that did not exercise the option. Better, but still not earth-shattering. Looking at the doubles draw, I don't think that you would have seen any difference in match winners, either. The teams in the draw had quite a bit of parity in ability.

Right about now is where I normally would insert a quote or two from the players that showed the pro and con side of the issue. Instead, I'll add my personal experience as a high school and college coach to really dig into the issue. High school and college team tennis allow on-court coaching all the time. In some leagues, you can even coach between points as long as it doesn't interfere with the flow of the match. Great idea, but if you took statistics, I bet you would find the same success rate as the WTA players did.

The coach can only do so much, especially during a match. A coach can inspire a player or motivate them when the player loses focus — worth about a game a match with rare exception. A coach can also provide an objective view of how the player is playing — worth about a negative game, as most players either don't want to believe what the coach is saying or they immediately go out and try to prove the coach wrong.

A coach can give the player an evaluation of how his or her opponent is playing, and some suggested tactics that might turn the match in his or her favor. This is worth a game, maybe a set if the player actually listens and executes, but usually, players have a hard time changing their game or style of play and in short order, fall back into the old habit(s) that had them in a hole in the first place. I'll admit I've tried everything from discussing match tactics to bribing players with chocolate on court. Truly, there is not much a coach can do.

It's no surprise to me that in the early stages the coaching hasn't made much of a difference. Over time, it may begin to have a greater effect, but for now, it won't yield more than one or two matches where a player of a lower rank or ability pulls some sort of upset. I don't really think that was the true motivation of the WTA tour and this experiment was really aimed at some other purpose.

Anyone who watches a match, especially live, can easily tell that there is already a lot of coaching going on during matches. Television cameras often catch coaches giving signals to the players, and if you watch any Maria Sharapova match, you can probably hear Yuri Sharapov yelling code or signals to his daughter. I wish I understood Russian better. Then I'd know for sure. Television cameras also find players looking to the stands after almost every point. Now, if you aren't being coached in any way, why would you continually look to the same spot in the stands after every point? I think you all see what I see.

I have spoken over the past couple of years with many WTA Tour players. None of them were ever willing to go on the record about the coaching from the stands, but several did let me know about their displeasure with what they feel is coaching from the stands, from not only Maria's dad, but also several other foreign players' coaches. I can't blame them, but fortunately as the experiment shows, the overall effect is probably negligible. That is negligible if you can focus on the match and silence the voices from the stands between your ears.

Which brings me to the point of the story. The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour embarked on this little journey not to enhance the game for the fan, nor to bring a new element to the court. The move to on-court coaching was solely to try to silence the Sharapovas in the stands and get some control over what both the tour and the players already know is happening illegally.

Make coaching legal and limit it to certain times and you will hear less from the stands. Make coaching legal and allow it on court and you keep the coaches close to the officials who can monitor them better. Bring coaching to the court and you now even the playing field, especially for lower-ranked and younger players who don't have the sponsorship dollars nor prize money winnings available to have a full-time traveling coach. Basically, if you make coaching legal, you silence everyone, and hopefully for good.

I was able to see one match that was coached in Montreal. I don't think it really brought much more to the game other than a slightly longer delay for start of play after a coach was called. The tennis was just as great from the WTA players, as it always is.

Don't get me wrong. I think coaching has a great chance to really bring some excitement to the court and for the fan. I can't wait until Damir Dokic gets to coach his daughter in a match with Maria Sharapova and daddy Sharapova. I'll put my money on Damir in the second round by TKO...