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Coaching Is Now Allowed During Tennis Matches, but How Useful Is It?

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At the brand new United Cup tournament that began the 2023 season in Australia, Cam Norrie and Taylor Fritz split the primary two sets and were locked in a detailed battle for the ultimate set.

But Norrie’s coach, Facundo Lugones, had some alternative information to pass on: Norrie wasn’t getting enough of Fritz’s serves on the deuce (or right) side back in play and needed to back up, Lugones recalled. And when Norrie was serving, Lugones saw Norrie was winning all his on the deuce side when he served the ball wide to Fritz’s forehand, so he urged him to try this more.

The Thirteenth-ranked Norrie won 6-4 within the third set. It’s unattainable to call coaching the decisive factor — the players needed to make their shots — nevertheless it added an additional wrinkle for the players and the fans.

The WTA began allowing coaching during matches in 2020, while the ATP debuted coaching last summer, making this French Open just the third Grand Slam tournament to permit it for men’s tennis.

Exchanges are limited: While hand signals at the moment are permitted, players and coaches may only talk through the 25 seconds between points when the player is on the side where the coach is sitting. (Outside of Grand Slams, the WTA allows female players one longer conversation per set during a changeover.)

Still, many players, including the ninth-ranked Fritz, criticized the change, calling it a “dumb rule” that violated the concept of a person sport. Lugones said Norrie was also “not an enormous fan of on-court coaching — most players love the one-on-one battle.” When things are going well, he said, he doesn’t say much.

Zhang Zhizhen climbed from 99th to 69th in Madrid this month by beating Denis Shapovalov, Norrie and Fritz in per week when he left his coach back home. “I don’t like when my coach talks to me. It makes me feel confused and makes things complicated,” Zhizhen said. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Stop, you might be talking an excessive amount of.’”

Many players want not less than some outside advice and encouragement.

“Watching from the surface you may see more, so a coach can really help with the small changes. If I’m missing forehand returns, he’ll tell me whether I want to step back or stay low, which may make a difference,” said Rohan Bopanna, who’s ranked eleventh in doubles.

While the forced brevity is limiting, live coaching might be effective, said the third-ranked Jessica Pegula. “You possibly can change your game plan a bit quicker now.” Each she and Jan-Lennard Struff, who’s ranked twenty eighth, said that in tough matches, a psychological push was just as necessary. “Then it’s in regards to the positive energy and good vibes,” Struff said.

Fifteenth-ranked Hubert Hurkacz agreed that “big-picture strategy” and a psychological boost could really help, but he added that occasionally, he’ll shut down communication. “Sometimes I can say, ‘I got this,’ and deal with myself,” he said.

Even Fritz communicates commonly during matches. His coach, Michael Russell, said 70 percent of their exchanges were in regards to the mental game — “stay positive, one point at a time, keep your feet moving” — and 30 percent was more tactical and strategic.

“A player might be so hyper focused, they will’t see the larger picture,” Russell said, adding that his suggestions often reinforced their pregame planning while responding to trends Russell had noticed. “There are matches where Taylor gets too comfortable hitting the backhand crosscourt and just extending the rally. If he’s not being aggressive enough and using the backhand down the road, I’ll tell him to try this to harm his opponent more.”

But Russell said his advice was in broad strokes, not telling Fritz where to serve on the subsequent point.

“It’s higher to not be specific because if it doesn’t work on that next point, you’re setting him up for negativity,” Russell said. He also won’t make technical adjustments, like saying his toss is just too low, unless it’s a blatant issue because he doesn’t want Fritz overthinking things.

Lugones said that being limited to perhaps five words — often at a distance in a stadium full of screaming fans — restricted the quantity of actual coaching possible. While Norrie will seek more advice during certain matches, the consultations are quite temporary.

“You possibly can’t fully explain a change of patterns, and if the player doesn’t hear you or understand you, it will probably backfire,” he said. “That’s why the coaching during matches is usually more mental than tactical.”

That’s very true for the boys at Grand Slams, where matches can go five sets and last 4 or five hours.

“The Slams are like a roller coaster — you’ve gotten to remind your player there are plenty of momentum shifts and whoever handles that higher will win the match,” Lugones said. “Stay patient and remember you’ve gotten time to alter things.”

Russell added that because the match grinds on, he’ll remind Fritz about dietary and caloric intake and never rushing through points when fatigue sets in. But sometimes when a player is tiring, the perfect move is to growl encouragement like Mickey, the trainer within the movie “Rocky.”

“Ensure he can see the sunshine at end of the tunnel,” Russell said.

In that Norrie-Fritz match on the United Cup, the coaches had access to livestreaming data, which Lugones said was helpful in confirming the patterns he had picked up along with his eyes. “It’s especially good to have through the long matches,” he said.

He would really like to see data used more during matches, but he would also prefer to see the boys’s tour amend the rule that enables one real conversation a set during a changeover. “You’ll have more time to elucidate your tactics and ensure that the player hears,” he said.

Lugones would even be open to letting the TV audiences listen in, the way in which other sports often attach microphones to coaches. “If it’s higher for the game and can attract more fans,” he said, “that’s positive.”

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