Jon Wertheim examines mid-match coaching and communication in regards to Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker at Wimbledon.
LONDON – Novak Djokovic kicked off Centre Court play here for the second time in three days. In the television compound, the network overlords encouraged camerafolk to pay close attention to Djokovic’s coach Boris Becker. In particular, there is curiosity about Becker’s apparent penchant for sending various signals and telepathic messages toward his charge.
There’s a little-known British ordinance stating that Wimbledon must generate at least a dozen breathless faux scandals per tournament. A prominent one this year: Becker admitted that he sometimes communicates with Djokovic, a de facto violation of the rule against mid-match coaching. Day after day, Djokovic has been asked about this “travesty.” We have sensational headlines like “Fed: I’ve Seen the Cheaters.”
It’s a bit silly. But it does, though, give rise to an interesting discussion about cheating versus gamesmanship. What is illegal and unethical, a dishonorable subverting of competition? What is merely clever?
I was thinking about this watching World Cup, witnessing players subtly grab and elbow and dive in an effort to gain a slight advantage. Not only is it permissible, but we would question the players’ the effort if they didn't undertake the effort. Likewise, there are rules against fouling in basketball. Yet we complain that teams “don’t use their fouls” and we applaud intentionally fouling a player to prevent a basket. This is willful violation of a rule. Why is this not considered cheating?
The great Frank Deford recently subdivided sports in into three classes:
“To my mind there are, in ascending order, three kinds of transgressions. The first is the most simple: transgressions committed in the heat of the action, instinctively, because of frustration, failure or anger. There are referees to tend to that misconduct.
The second type of violation falls more in the realm of regulation. For example, who is eligible to play? There are age restrictions in youth sport and academic requirements in college. Also, as with any civil enterprise, sport can deny entrance to the garden to anyone who misbehaves in the public sphere. For instance: Thou shalt not batter women or children. Alas, that is famously more honored in the breach.
And then there is the third type: violations against the very nature of the game. These are invariably premeditated. In any sport, once the lines are drawn, what we have on the field are, in toto, athletes and the proper equipment.”
What do we think of mid-match “communicating”? First, we need specifics. A fist pump or a furrowed brow is a form of communication. So, of course, is gesticulating like a third base coach to indicate a serve into the body. One is acceptable, the other not.
Second, we ought to consider whether the communication is being sought by the player, or simply issued by an overeager coach. We also ought to decide if this is a serious problem that has a material impact on the match. If so, why not give review tape and give post-facto violations and fines, rather than rely on the chair umpire to monitor during the match?
Whatever, Becker may have communicated with Djokovic today; but none of it was picked up by the cameras. And Djokovic— a winner in straight sets over Jarkko Nieminen—hardly needed outside help. Then again, does he ever?
Five thoughts from Day 3
• After the upsets of yesterday, some order was restored—sort of. Kei Nishikori was treated for a calf injury both in Halle and in his first round match. Today, he withdrew from the event. And Ana Ivanovic, a former No. 1, fell to qualifier Bethanie Mattek Sands.
• It’s hardly an upset given the way grass accentuates a serve, but what a fine win for CoCo Vandeweghe, the Californian who knocked out 11th-seeded Karolina Pliskova in straight sets. Vandeweghe gets Sam Stosur in round three, the player she took out in Australia. Now working with Craig Cardon, Vandeweghe is a player to watch.
• Early this session on Court Four, Nicholas Monroe played a doubles match. Who, you rightfully ask, is Nicholas Monroe? A 33-year-old from Oklahoma more than a decade removed from starring for UNC who has done his hard time traversing the tennis desert.
• Partnered with Artem Sitak— a Russian-born New Zealand—Monroe won his match 10-8 in the fifth set. Just a reminder that for all the stars playing on the big courts (replete with their entourages and watch deals), there is an entire subculture of players— occasionally having some of the best days of their lives.
• Long as we’re giving love to doubles….Francesca Schiavone (age 35) and Kimiko Date Krumm (almost 45) won their match today and didn't even lose serve. The partnership—nickname: Antiques Roadshow—get the top seeds, Hingis and Mirza, next.
A little Q/A:
Is Wimbledon not the worst offender in terms of focusing on hometown talent at the expense of actual stars? You would think that Laura Robson and Heather Watson are major players, given that they are scheduled on the show courts and their games are featured on Wimbledon Live (while Nadal and Federer are playing no less). You would think they could just run with Murray-mania and be fine, but instead they write and wonder about the chances of players who are never seeded and have never made anywhere near deep runs in the majors.
• Your point is well-taken. All the majors go overboard promoting the homegrown players. (Underlying message: those hundreds of millions our two-week event brings in? Here are the dividends!) But I wouldn’t single out Wimbledon. If anything the restraint they show in disbursing wild cards and rejecting the cartel-like “reciprocal wild cards” makes them better than the others. Also, I wouldn’t pick on Robson and Watson. Robson is a former junior champion, making a much-anticipated comeback. Watson has abundant game, too. (She showed it today reaching the third round.) Neither played the big courts.
Simple question, Jon. You’re Genie Bouchard’s coach. What do you tell her?
• For one, I consider resigning. Not out of shame or anything like that. But simply because some coach-player relationships work and others don’t. When my charge was a top five player ago and now can't win matches, it might be best for both of us if we parted amiably.
Short of that, I tell her to forget the sponsors and the rankings drop and the external pressures and take time off until I am physically and emotionally ready to play my best tennis. Bouchard isn't just losing. She is losing to players ranked outside the top 100. This is a full-blown crisis.
Finally, I give my player the mother of all pep talks, emphasizing past achievements. “This year is a fluke. The previous 15 years were not. Go back and watch yourself—not just last year but even your junior career. You will see a feisty, resourceful player who knew how to compete and how to win matches. How are we going to reconnect with her?”
What do you think of Stan Wawrinka’s Hall of Fame bona fides?
• I think they’re both bona and fide. Two majors + Davis Cup/Olympic success + long residence in the top five in age of Federer/Nadal/Djokovic + longevity = IN.
• A tennis book with all proceeds going to charity? Check it out.