Serena Williams’s US Open meltdown and why on-court coaching should not be allowed

EPA-EFE/Brian Hirschfield

Serena Williams’s US Open meltdown and why on-court coaching should not be allowed

Naomi Osaka won her maiden grand slam title at the 2018 US Open in what was the most controversial tennis final in living memory. She outplayed Serena Williams with a stunning display of athleticism and powerful shot-making. But the match will be remembered not for its tennis but for the altercation between Williams and the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, which culminated in Williams receiving a game penalty late in the second set.

Williams received three code violations from Ramos during the match: one for verbally abusing him, another for abusing her racket, and – crucially – one for receiving coaching from her coach Patrick Mouratoglou who was sitting in the stands.

The episode raises two important questions about coaching: should Williams have been penalised for being coached during the match and – more fundamentally – should coaching during a match be an offence in the first place?

To receive coaching while on court is categorically forbidden in the rules of grand slam tennis. So, on the face of it, Serena should have no complaint about the code violation. But tennis umpiring is not simply a matter of interpreting the rules and applying them to the facts of the match. Conventions can override the rulebook so that rules are ignored or followed only in a subset of cases in which they apply.

After the match, Mouratoglou admitted: “I was coaching … [but Osaka’s] coach was coaching the whole time, too. Everyone is doing it 100% of the time.” If coaching during matches is endemic and rarely punished, it might be suggested that, by convention, coaching is tolerated. This would be similar, for example, to the way that rules regarding the time allowed between points are routinely overlooked by umpires, especially after long points.

In occasions when the umpire does raise concerns about coaching, players normally receive an informal warning that, if the coaching continues, they will be penalised formally. Again, this approach is a matter of convention rather than following rules – and again, the convention was not followed during this final.

So, Williams might feel aggrieved about the crucial first code violation, because she had a legitimate expectation that anything short of overt coaching would be ignored by the umpire – and even if it were not ignored, she might have expected to receive an informal warning first.

On-court controversies

But this match brings into sharp relief a fundamental issue that tennis authorities must settle: should the ban on coaching exist at all? This is not the first incident at the 2018 US Open in which coaching was the centre of controversy. The first concerned the match between Andy Murray and Fernando Verdasco, where Murray complained to officials that Verdasco had illegitimately conversed with his coach during an “extreme heat” break.

While this US Open has been something of a lightning rod for coaching controversy, the legitimacy of on-court coaching has been an issue that tennis authorities have grappled with for some time. On the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour, players are entitled to call their coach to the court once a set and, for example, during an opponent’s medical timeouts.

Meanwhile, the US Open is experimenting with on-court coaching in the qualifying and junior events. At a time when other major sports such as football and rugby have allowed heightened involvement from coaches during competition, shouldn’t tennis follow suit and involve coaches more rather than less?

Aside from consistency in the rules, perhaps the strongest argument for allowing on-court coaching in grand slams is the problem of enforcement. On-court coaching is notoriously difficult to identify: who can really distinguish encouragement, which is permitted, from coaching, which is not? And it’s just one more thing for an umpire to have to monitor.

But I believe there is a compelling reason against coaching during matches: the introduction of on-court coaching runs counter to one of the fundamental purposes of the sport.

Naomi Osaka’s first grand slam win was overshadowed by Serena William’s behaviour. EPA-EFE/Jason Szenes

Keep your head

Sporting competition is designed to challenge competitors’ skills and capacities. Different sports challenge different sets of both. In tennis, one of the capacities most valued is self-reliance – the ability to direct one’s performance in competition unaided by others. Once a player steps on to the match court, she takes sole charge for executing her shots, for adjusting her strategy, for retaining her mental equilibrium, and for pushing herself to her physical limits. The player is her own analyst, psychologist, strategist and drill sergeant.

The emphasis on self-reliance is one of the sport’s defining values. Instead of relaxing the ban, measures need to be taken to ensure that it is enforced. At a minimum, officials need to be placed next to coaches to ensure that no advice is communicated.

The final also raised the issue of gender equality in tennis. Williams accused the umpire of sexism during the match – and she has received considerable support for this claim, including from the WTA. The charge of sexism has centred around a game penalty that was imposed on Williams for labelling the umpire a “liar” and a “cheat”. To openly accuse the umpire of dishonesty is a straightforward instance of verbal abuse, and it brings the game into disrepute.

As yet, neither Williams nor the WTA have brought forward any examples of male players repeatedly accusing an umpire of dishonesty and avoiding a code violation, although fans have taken to social media with examples of what appears to be inconsistency in Ramos’s awarding of penalties in similar situations. This includes one incident in which Novak Djokovic accused Ramos of “double standards” in his application of penalties at Wimbledon 2018.

But, in my view, if Ramos is guilty of anything, it is of applying the rules too rigorously and not taking account of prevailing conventions.

Tennis authorities must protect the virtue of self-reliance, but this cannot be achieved by ignoring the rules that exist to protect it. The convention of tolerance towards coaching is a bad convention – it undermines one of the sport’s central tests and, in so doing, it blurs the distinction between those who possess the virtue and those who do not.

Had Mouratoglou been allowed to counsel Williams during the match, her meltdown could have been avoided. But that’s the point. Tennis at its best showcases athletes who possess that rare capacity to keep their head when all about them are losing theirs.

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