Coaching During a Match

Q. I noticed that Maria Sharapova was instructed when to drink and eat during the US Open semifinal and final matches. What is the rule on coaching, and can she be forced to forfeit the title after the match?

A. Maria Sharapova gets coached during every match, not just semis and finals. In fairness to her, MOST players receive illegal coaching during matches. What is the rule? A player cannot receive coaching during the match.

To my mind, yelling to a player to “fight” or “move to the ball” or to “bear down right here” are ALL examples of coaching. Hand signals are obvious examples. If the chair umpire catches this occurring, then he/she will issue a warning and then a penalty point (etc.) if it continues. Penalties cannot be assessed after the match, although umpires can learn to watch more closely.

The whole controversy with Sharapova could have been handled more gracefully if she chose to answer these direct questions about the illegal coaching in a professional manner. She could have said that she was too nervous to eat prior to the match and needed to be reminded to eat a banana, or whatever, and then the questions would have gone away. Instead, she was being coached illegally, and she got defensive (first) and then aggressive (later) when dealing with these questions from the media.

Something needs to be done about it. Regulate it or eliminate it, but do not tolerate the blatant cheating. Again, Sharapova is NOT the only one. In fact, it may be as widespread as… sitting down on changeovers.

Q. In Junior Tournament Play, we understand that parents and coaches are not allowed to coach from the sidelines. This is easy to catch since most speak in English. What do you do if you perceive there is coaching - but it is in a foreign language? This is happening more and more and without an interpreter - it's hard to tell when the player and coach/parent are interacting... thoughts?

A. I would advocate leaving this to the discretion of the Tournament Referee or, at least, the roving linespeople. Do people try to coach illegally during matches? Absolutely. And that is not right. There is, however, a grey area in this debate. For example, is “C’mon! You can do it!” considered coaching advice? How about: “Hang in there!” or “That’s a good play”… are those comments “coaching”? I believe, in certain contexts, that they are.

In the end, a player is better served by learning how to concentrate on how to win the next point and NOT on what is going on from outside the court’s boundaries. This is easier written than done, I know.

Q. If anybody could coach at any time from the sidelines in a regulation match, what do you think would happen? I think it would make the match more interesting. What is your opinion? I am an 11-year old tournament player.

A. Well, it definitely might make it more interesting. My guess is that there would be a LOT of inexperienced parents and under-qualified coaches offering terrible mid-match advice. I think that all hell might break loose at some tournaments, so it WOULD be interesting.

I think that there is too much rules-bending going on with coaching (signals from parents to their children, hushed comments from coaches to their players, etc.). Our sport is one that demands its players to make, literally, thousands of decisions during matches. If coaching were allowed on an unlimited basis, as you described, then our sport would be the poorer for it.

Q. In a recent boys 14 tournament, my son and his opponent were evenly matched. My son won the first set 7-5 and lost the second 5-7, so the third set would be decisive. The coach of my son’s opponent asked for a ten-minute break after the second set so that he could coach and train his student. The Tournament Director obliged this request. Since this practice provides an opportunity for a coach to identify an opponent's weakness and advise their student how to play, is this officially allowed? It puts the other kid in a difficult spot because not all can afford to bring their coaches.

A. First of all, juniors in the 14 & under division are permitted to take a ten-minute break after they split sets, so this was perfectly legal. I agree that having a coach present may prove to be an advantage but, and this is important, no coach will EVER be permitted to hit a ball for his player. Tennis remains a game for rugged individuals.

It is always easy to find excuses for losing. Instead, concentrate on finding reasons to win. Roger Federer entered two rain delays (where coaching is permitted) during this summer’s Wimbledon final without a coach. His opponent, Andy Roddick, employs one of the sport’s most celebrated strategists in Brad Gilbert. Alas, this “disadvantage” did not hurt Federer, as he made a few crucial adjustments on his own and took his second Wimbledon title.

I understand what you are saying about the obstacles of affordability. Having a professional coach at matches would prove expensive. This seems to be among the biggest stumbling blocks in preventing coaching from occurring on-court on the professional tours. Many players have traveling coaches, some share coaches, while others can’t afford this luxury. Ultimately, it is always up to the player. Learn to think for yourself out there and, ultimately, this will help in your long-term development.

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