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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: Jan 7, 2009

1/7/2009 5:14:00 PM

LaRosa's Sweet Spot Main Page

Jan 7, 2009

Elena Dementieva is getting a major thrashing in her first match of the year, at the hands of Chan Yung-jan in Auckland. Chan is up 4-0 and Dementieva isn't even in the match. True to form, Elena ramps it up, thanks to Y-J suddenly realizing what she's doing, and Russia's equivalent of Jason Voorhees snatches the first set. Spiraling in a mental breakdown in the second, Chan is down 0-3 and needs to do something, fast. What's she gonna do?

Out comes the coach.

I can't do it. I know I said I'd try, but I just can't get behind it. On court coaching must. be. destroyed.

Am I a traditionalist? Yes. And no. I was all over Hawk-Eye. And I'm all for joining the two tours into one mighty behemoth that will attack the city and eat your children. But trotting out help in the middle of a match? Somebody send a robot from the future, stat. Someone who's seen the word Champion become a mockery of its former glory. Someone who's witnessed Grand Slams won at the side of an Eastern European tactician who knows how to inspire his ballbasher to "hit to other corner." To that robot from the future I say, bring a bazooka and a splatter vest.

Let me get all the noble reasons for my opposition out of the way. Not all players can afford to travel with a coach, some share coaches and that creates conflicts, blah blah blah. But what's my problem, really?

Is on-court coaching cheating?
It's this: I have a hard enough time defending tennis to my beer guzzling friends forever camped in their recliners on Sunday afternoons. The braininess of the sport is all I had left to deflect the scoffs. Because lets face it, tennis has a bad rep. It's continuously, sometimes broadly, sometimes sneakily slammed for being a fey sport. Okay, if not fey, then not a grueling testosterone-laden God-loving endeavor like football or soccer. Thankfully players like Rafael Nadal are showing that you can be a chiseled slab of man meat hurling aggression all over a stadium. But in the end, we'll still find a way to throw a cardigan on him. 

The get out of jail free card tennis has always had is what a mental game it is. You need the maaaaagical powers of a Chevy-sized brain to play the chess game that is tennis. You need to be able to read the emotions on the court, control your own and manipulate those of the other player. An 11-year-old girl from South Boston could kick Martina Hingis' butt on any given day but Hingis is Hannibal Lecter on the court because of that crafty, evil little noggin of hers. Take the mental side away from tennis and what do we have left? One beat up Swiss Miss. No fava beans. No Chianti.

That crossroads moment in the Dementieva/Chan match is what I watch tennis for. Chan had at least the first set in the bag before she got tight and let her opponent in. She had to slam on the breaks, both in the match and in her mind. Whatever she did would make a big statement about the kind of player she was. But we were denied that moment, and now I know as much about her as I did before the match.

The idea is, on court coaching is going to yield better tennis. On that I call what the French term "BS." What it did was let the air out of the balloon. Sure, it let Chan back in the match by reminding her that someone else out there thinks she might know how to hit a groundstroke. But she still lost the match. And we lost the chess game.

Besides supposedly better tennis, another reason for OCC is, hey, players get coached anyway from the stands so we might as well legalize it. That's an argument? How about policing the stands? Or better yet, if a player is able to get two full minutes of game-changing tactical advice with a glance or a hand gesture, how about we just give them the match as they're clearly going to win it with their sorcery anyway.

And the ridiculousness of the coach running out there, conferring with their player, encouraging them on like they're prizefighters. What's next, massaging their shoulders and squirting water in their mouths? Nathalie Dechy works hard in a match but she ain't exactly Ali. 

And I've said this before: on court coaching makes the women look mentally weak. I know, I'm a little hyper-political when it comes to women players. I get worked up when commentators use the fact that women are athletes as an excuse to take pot shots at their pot bellies. But the simple fact is, men don't get on court coaching, and since the women do then people who don't know the sport are only led to believe the women need it.

According to the WTA press release, "the decision to implement on-court coaching follows...strong support from broadcasters, sponsors and tournaments and majority support from the Tour's Players' Council.' According to Venus Williams "I'll probably call the coach if my opponent calls the coach." Sounds like strong support to me.

Sure, these player/coach conferences can be entertaining, like when Michael Joyce was caught on camera nearly referring to his charge Maria Sharapova's opponent Serena Williams as a witch with a captail B. (youtube it people). But as far as entertainment value, that's about the extent of it for me.

Maybe my stance is purely dictated by the kind of a player I am. Anything outside of my head is a distraction. I don't want to chat with my opponent in the middle of a point. I don't want to share a punchline between games. And I don't want someone giving me (or my opponent) tips during a changeover. That's what I call cheating. Yup, on court coaching is legalized cheating.

Tennis is an individual sport. Let's keep it that way. Or we're going to have nothing left to distinguish winners from Champions. And nothing left to defend our sport with. And then that 11-year-old girl from South Boston is gonna take us all out.