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Coaches Don’t Matter, But We’re Getting Them Anyway

By Giri Nathan

Some players still hold on to the romantic vision of tennis as a duel between two combatants in a vacuum—it’s about “how much can he remember, how much can he deal with in the moment, figure it out yourself a little bit,” as Roger Federer said last year in his case against on-court coaching—but it would be hard to argue that it is still anything like that in practice. The lonely game has become a little less lonely. They’re muttering and staring at their people, all the time. This has basically no bearing on my enjoyment as a fan, except that sometimes, sometimes, I wish a player would direct their emotions at the audience—or even their opponent—instead of a tiny section of seats that lie all the way on the other side of the court 50 percent of the time, which has always felt like a stilted way to vent. That would be fun.

In any case, eye contact between player and box will only get fiercer this year. The WTA announced that it will permit coaching from the stands at non-Slam events for the rest of the season. “The premise around this trial is that we feel coaching is taking place already from the box,” WTA spokeswoman Amy Binder said. “This allows for consistency in rules across all matches.” Binder said coaches are allowed a “few words when their player is on the same side of the court.” This is progress. You watch tennis. You can see this chatter already in almost every game, on both tours, under current rules. There is constant interplay between player and box—for validation, for commiseration, for a second opinion on a challenge, whatever. It’s already happening!

It’s for the best that it’s finally out in the open. The umpire is freed from weirdly having to police something that is common practice; the players can feel a little less alone; the coaches get to do…whatever they do. What exactly is it that a coach does from the box? The relationship between a coach and a player’s results has always seemed, in my mind, more tenuous in tennis than in any other sport. Which is not to say that match prep isn’t important. It’s just that there’s so little that can actually be done once the thing is underway: no late-game plays to draw up, no roster substitutions, no clock management. You just kind of have to sit there and let your player execute. (Or not.)

Sam Sumyk and Conchita Martinez at Roland-Garros 2016

The most infamous instance of coaching from the box, of course, was a totally banal two-hand signal to move forward, something that a GOAT probably could (and had) come up with on her own. Surveying recent history for interesting examples of mid-match coaching, they all tend to involve lots of expletives or wild digressions about cappuccino. The best observation about tennis-as-tennis? That Caroline Wozniacki has the most predictable serve pattern, which Laura Siegemund’s coach pointed out during an on-court session in Charleston. That’s so cool. High-level tennis is rarely so cut-and-dried, so amenable to a precise insight. Mostly you get the old platitudes about holding the baseline and controlling the point with the forehand. (If I’m missing out on an especially neat bit of coaching, please let me know.)

In all, the value of a coach during a match probably has far less to do with tactics than with morale, which is nice to have in the crucible of a tennis tournament. And fortunes can change with the coaches, sometimes radically. Garbine Muguruza, stuck in a rut for two seasons, is back in a major final after swapping out Sam Sumyk for Conchita Martinez. Sometimes coaches seem incidental to the action. Dominic Thiem split with Thomas Muster halfway through the damn Australian Open, and still came within a few games of the title. Novak Djokovic, who has tried “shock therapy” with his coaching setup, is probably just going to be Novak Djokovic regardless, whether he’s supported by Marian Vajda, Goran Ivanisevic, or both, in some convoluted arrangement. Then there are the coaches you’re born to, and stuck with: Sofia Kenin is riding high, but maybe she’d elevate her game to new levels of productive anger if she ditched Dad and teamed up with Dinara Safina, who was in her box for much of her title run. And sometimes, from the outside, it’s hard to make out any inner logic at all: Rewind exactly one year, and Sascha Bajin had just coached Naomi Osaka to two straight majors; he lost the job soon after and lost his next one a few months later. Let the coaches say whatever they want from the box. I’m not sure how much any of it matters.

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