In the 2018 US Open final, Serena Williams had a well-publicized disagreement with umpire Carlos Ramos.
The dispute happened midway through her defeat to Naomi Osaka. During the match, the umpire penalized Williams several times, leading to an argument with the frustrated player.
The first of the penalties occurred after Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was spotted gesturing from the sideline. He was allegedly making hand gestures to encourage Serena to attack the net more often.
This was considered ‘coaching’ by the umpire, which is not allowed under the official Grand Slam rules.
It was a controversial decision, largely because the ‘coaching’ involved was a simple hand gesture.
Williams also believed that Naomi Osaka’s coach was coaching his player verbally throughout the game.
The International Tennis Federation defines coaching as ‘communication, advice or instruction of any kind and by any means to a player.’
They include the use of hand gestures from a coach to the player in this definition.
The ITF states that sanctioning bodies can apply to have on-court coaching allowed.
In events where it is allowed, designated coaches may enter the court and coaching their players according to the rules specified by the sanctioning body.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) allows coaches to speak with players during changeovers. In fact, they have made it an interesting tournament feature, with court-side microphones picking up coaching instructions.
Serena was penalized for coaching because she was playing in the US Open, and coaching is prohibited in all Grand Slam matches.
The rules regarding coaching in Grand Slams are laid out in The 2019 Official Grand Slam Rule Book, within Section L on Coaches and Coaching:
Coaches and Coaching
Players shall not receive coaching during a match (including the warm-up). Communications of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching.
Players shall also prohibit their coaches
- from using audible obscenity within the precincts of the tournament site,
- from making obscene gestures of any kind within the precincts of the tournament site
- from verbally abusing any official, opponent, spectator or other person within the precincts of the tournament site,
- from physically abusing any official, opponent, spectator or other person within the precincts of the tournament site and
- from giving, making, issuing, authorising or endorsing any public statement within the precincts of the tournament site having, or designed to have, an effect prejudicial or detrimental to the best interests of the tournament and/or of the officiating thereof.
Violation of this Section shall subject a player to a fine up to $20,000 for each violation. In addition, if such violation occurs during a match (including the warmup), the player shall be penalised in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule hereinafter set forth. In circumstances that are flagrant and particularly injurious to the success of a tournament, or are singularly egregious, the Referee may order the Coach to be removed from the site of a match or the precincts of the tournament site and upon his failure to comply with such order may declare an immediate default of such player.
The no-coaching rule is used in an effort to make tennis tours fairer for new and lowly-ranked players.
These players may not have the resources necessary to employ a full-time coach who is present at all games. So, while a player like Serena could receive assistance from a large coaching team, other players would be on the court alone.
The no-coaching rules have been criticized over the years, particularly after the Serena Williams incident.
The main problem with the rule is that enforcing it is highly subjective. Some umpires are very lenient with courtside coaching while others will declare small hand gestures to be a violation of the rule.
There is also some debate about what actions constitute coaching. If a coach yells out “Come on!” to a player during the game, is it coaching? It might just encouragement, but it could be a code that tells the player to take a certain action.
In the case of Serena William’s coach, he later admitted that he was coaching with his hand gesture.
However, he also said
“[Osaka’s] coach was coaching the whole time, too. Everyone is doing it, 100 percent of the time.”
If coaches are doing it all of the time, is the rule really being enforced fairly?
Some players suggest that coaching should be allowed during matches. Former World No 1 Novak Djokovic recently said that wireless headphones could be used so all players can listen to direction from their coach.
This solution would also make it possible for new and lower-ranked players to receive direction from a coach who is watching a live feed of the game.
As Djokovic put it:
“I mean, we’re probably one of the only, maybe only global sport that doesn’t use coaching during the play. Even golf, individual sport, you have caddies that you communicate with throughout the entire course. So why not here as well?”
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