The Quiet Coaching Revolution in Tennis That Can Feel Like ‘Cheating’

MELBOURNE, Australia — It has been an Australian Open full of progress and positive energy for Dean Goldfine, the traveling coach of the fast-rising American Ben Shelton, a surprise quarterfinalist in his first trip abroad.

But Goldfine has also felt pangs of guilt. This is the first Australian Open, and only the second Grand Slam tournament, in which coaches have been allowed to communicate with players during matches from the stands, and that has made him uncomfortable.

“Sometimes when I’m out there, when it’s happening, when I’m saying stuff, it’s like I want to look around and over my shoulder, because I feel like I’m cheating,” he said last week.

Goldfine, 57, has been coaching on tour for more than 30 years. But in-match coaching had until recently been banned at all men’s tournaments, and at all four major tournaments for both women and men.

The game is now in the midst of a quiet revolution. The women’s tour, outside of the Grand Slams, has allowed various forms of in-match coaching since 2008, and the men’s tour began allowing it last July from the stands for a trial period that included the 2022 U.S. Open, which was the first Grand Slam tournament to permit the practice.

The Australian Open has followed that lead, and the other two major tournaments — the French Open and Wimbledon — are set to take part in the trial this year.

Wimbledon’s leadership has long been the most vehement opponent of in-match coaching. Richard Lewis, the former chief executive of the All England Club, which runs the event, argued for the virtues of a “gladiatorial” contest in which players were required to problem-solve under pressure on their own.

That remains an appealing concept to many players, spectators and even some coaches.

“I’m against the coaching,” Goldfine said. “Just because for me that’s one of the unique things about our sport. It just takes away a big part of our game, which is the player out there, dealing with what’s going on and understanding it and being able to make adjustments and being able to deal with their emotions also.”

Goldfine brought up Goran Ivanisevic, the mercurial Croatian star with the huge serve who did finally win Wimbledon in 2001 but had long struggled to bear down, block out distractions and play his best in big moments.

“Imagine if Goran would have had someone that really could get him to calm down during matches,” Goldfine said.

The 2023 Australian Open

The year’s first Grand Slam event runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.

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The rule has been a point of difference for tennis, which has been the rare major sport to forbid coaching during play (consider all those soccer and basketball coaches hollering instructions and all those caddies chattering in golfers’ ears).

But the tide appears to have turned in earnest. Roger Federer, the Swiss superstar long opposed to the concept, has retired. Wimbledon has new leadership and has joined the experiment, which is feeling less and less like a trial and more and more like policy.

Stefano Vukov, Elena Rybakina’s coach, shouted from the player’s box during her women’s singles semifinal match against Victoria Azarenka.Credit…Martin Keep/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The main arguments in favor are that the interaction between coaches and players provides entertainment value, improves the quality of play and reflects the pro game’s shift to more of a team concept. Singles stars are relying on larger staffs, including physiotherapists, trainers, performance psychologists and, in the case of Rafael Nadal, sometimes as many as three coaches.

Perhaps the most crucial argument is that allowing in-match coaching eliminates hypocrisy, because many coaches were already breaking the no-coaching rule on the sly.

“I was at different times doing it, and I’m sure everyone’s done it at some stage,” said Nicole Pratt, a retired Australian player who is now a leading coach. “I guess probably being English-speaking and because most of the umpires understood English, I felt like that was somewhat a disadvantage sometimes. So now it’s an even, level playing field, and to be honest, I love it. Because I do think it can be influential on a match, the information a player is given, although not always.”

In the past, in-match coaching has often been delivered illegally through code words or hand signals, like the one used by Serena Williams’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou during the uproarious 2018 U.S. Open final against Naomi Osaka that led to Williams being penalized by the chair umpire. Williams argued that she was not being coached during play and did not “cheat to win.”

The language barrier has not always been protective. Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Greek star who will face Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final on Sunday, has long supported in-match coaching and has received numerous code violations for being coached by his father, Apostolos. Tournament officials have sometimes deployed Greek-speaking personnel to sit close to his father in the player’s box.

Tsitsipas is delighted to see an end to the fines, at least for now. But above all, he is content to see the player-coach dialogue officially integrated into matches.

“In my case, it has always been part of how I do things when I’m on the court,” Tsitsipas said on Friday. “I’m glad it’s not penalized now. That’s how it should be. I see no reason to have a coach with you if they can’t share some of their view and knowledge with you when you’re competing. I feel like it’s something very natural in our sport.”

But in-match coaching is not necessarily a leveler. Top players can, in general, afford top coaches. Those lower down in the food chain usually cannot.

“I worry about richer players getting richer,” said Jim Courier, the former No. 1 player who won the Australian Open twice. “I think about players who come down and play qualifying and cannot even travel with a coach and get in and go up against someone with four coaches.”

Perhaps a data analyst would be a good hire at this stage. Many players now make use of analytics for scouting, paying for private services or using those provided by a national federation, like the United States Tennis Association. But for the coaching trial, the Australian Open is providing access to detailed in-match data, which is available on tablets in the player’s boxes at Rod Laver Arena and elsewhere on coaches’ smartphones or other devices.

The data is compiled from information provided by Hawk-Eye Live, the electronic line-calling system, and tracks seemingly everything: players’ serve locations on routine points and pressure points; their ball-contact locations on the stroke following the serve; the percentage of balls they are hitting on the rise.

“We knew we were going to have in-match coaching, which is great, but the question was how can we provide some support in an intuitive way,” said Machar Reid, the head of innovation at Tennis Australia.

Stefanos Tsitsipas’s coaches — Mark Philippoussis, center, and his father, Apostolos Tsitsipas, right — watching his second-round match.Credit…Hannah Mckay/Reuters

It is quite a package and, for now, provides data only from matches in progress, not from an opponent’s prior matches. “This is all about in-match, and not so it can be used from a scouting point of view,” Reid said.

Goldfine said the Tennis Australia package was “a lot to process” in real time, but he did pick out some data points to share with Shelton, a left-hander, during his quarterfinal defeat to Tommy Paul, a fellow American.

“I did watch some of Tommy’s matches on Tennis TV, and in a couple of the lefty matches I watched, he served a fair amount of second serves to the forehand,” Goldfine said. “But against Ben, I noticed it was pretty much all backhand on the second serve. So that was one thing I did look at on the screen was serve locations, because for me, that’s big. So, I told Ben about halfway through the second set to sit on the backhand.”

Goldfine offered much more advice to Shelton based on his own observations and instincts. The rules for the coaching trial allow for “a few words and/or short phrases,” but “no conversations are permitted.”

How exactly do you define a conversation?

“It’s a little ridiculous, just from that standpoint,” Goldfine said. “Just a big gray area.”

What was clear to Goldfine and Shelton was that the coaching helped, perhaps all the more because Shelton, 20, is an inexperienced professional fresh out of college tennis, where in-match coaching is always permitted.

“It’s been huge for Ben,” Goldfine said.

It also provided entertainment when Paul, befuddled by Shelton’s big serve, turned to his coach, Brad Stine, to ask him which way Shelton might serve on the next point. Stine made a T with his fingers to indicate down the middle. Shelton, who had noticed their interaction, served wide instead, and everyone ended up grinning.

The surprise is that the coaching trial has not changed the flow of the game much for spectators. It has provided some unsettling viewing — such as Elena Rybakina’s emotive coach Stefano Vukov admonishing her during matches — but it has generally gone unnoticed.

The question remains whether in-match coaching provides enough payoff to justify changing a fundamental aspect of an individual sport. For now, tennis is leaning heavily toward the affirmative.

“What I’m afraid of is that these young players will become dependent on their coaches,” Goldfine said. “And coaching for me is teaching, but having Ben experience it so he learns for himself, so he’s able to do these things on his own and figure things out. The last thing I want is my player to be dependent on me.”

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