Mailbag: Why We Shouldn't Jump Headfirst Into a Future That Includes On-Court Coaching

Coaching has come to the forefront of tennis discourse recently. In his latest mailbag, Jon Wertheim lays out the case against on-court strategy sessions.
Publish date:

Hey, everyone…


• Two sad RIP notes to pass on. Todd Reid, once an Aussie prodigy, passed away.

So did Barry Gimelstob, father to Justin, Russell, and Josh.

• The most recent podcast guest: the excellent, multilingual, Middle East-based journalist Reem Abulleil, who discusses Naomi Osaka, the WTA Finals and Nadal/Djokovic in Saudi Arabia among other topics….

• Next up: a mystery guest from the Next Gen ATP Finals event in Milan

• From the icky self-promotion category, 60 Minutes follows Sunday’s NFL game on CBS.



Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Can anyone say why coaching is illegal, other than a rule that says it is?

• I’m not entirely sure why this issue has bubbled up so much lately, but we had a healthy discussion about coaching on Twitter over the weekend. My take: tennis’ organizing principles include self-reliance, independence and strategy. Coaching is inconsistent with all of those. You’d no sooner have a coach mid-match than chess masters would have a kibitzer whispering in their ears.

I also think we need to differentiate between a coach (or parent) in the stands giving a hand gesture and a full-on, mid-match strategy session. When someone gesticulates from the stands to attack the net or eat a banana, it’s unfortunate. But that’s one thing. When someone—potentially armed with data—steps onto the court to speak in full sentences (presumably) and hold a full-fledged strategy/therapy session, that’s something else entirely. 

I also hate the throw-up-your-hand capitulation. I’ll single out the USTA in particular for essentially saying, “Everyone does it; let’s just make it legal.” That’s not exactly a profile in leadership. And to invoke everyone’s favorite slope—the slippery one—this quickly backs us into corners. If everyone uses PED’s, do we abandon drug testing? There’s also something dishonest about the USTA tacking this on to the list of “innovations” alongside towel racks and serve clocks. 

Occasionally—by which I mean perpetually—I rail against coaching. But I’m no absolutist here. I’m open to the suggestion that the sport is ready to reconsider this. Show me that a majority of players (and fans) want this change and we can discuss the plusses (more jobs, more profile for hard-working coaches) and the minuses (the disadvantage this confers on lower-ranked players). But this is something that gets to the fundamental core of the sport. It should be treated as such.

Umpire's Apparent Pep Talk to Nick Kyrgios Sparks Controversy at U.S. Open

Hello Jon,

This is in response to your ATP awards ballot from a few weeks ago, and others may well have already pointed this out, so apologies if I'm redundant! 

The ATP Player of the Year and Doubles Team of the Year Awards are automatically awarded to the year-end No. 1 and therefore not up for vote.

For the record, I like a vote!  Not just because I agree with you about Djokovic, but because we've certainly seen years in the WTA where a player (Serena Williams) won multiple majors but did not finish the year at No. 1.  It would seem strange to have given the award to Jankovic in 2008 (Williams won two majors to Jankovic's zero) or Wozniacki in 2010 (Clijsters, who had one major to Williams's two, won that year, probably on the strength of 5 titles, including a major and the WTA Finals, while Williams won only the two majors and no other singles titles, and didn't play after Wimbledon)….This scenario hasn't happened in recent memory for the ATP, but it certainly could in the future!  The year-end ranking is an accomplishment unto itself, and while it should play a role in deciding who to vote for, making it the only criterion ignores too much other stuff.  But no one listens to me anyway!
Joshua Gibson

• We listen to you, Joshua Gibson. Here’s a central tension: if the tours depart from the rankings, they are undermining their own product. If you say that the Slams are the four bellwethers*—Slams uber alles—it undercuts the weight of regular tour events. When the tours demand more and more prize money from the Slams, it undercuts the weight of regular events. When the tours depart from the rankings for Slam seedings, it undercuts the weight of regular events. 

The tours have a tough needle to thread: milk maximum value from the wildly profitable majors, but not so much that it makes the other event seem like Hamburger Helper, a bland supplement to the real beef.

* Add “bellwether” to those words that exist solely for metaphorical purposes.

Now I feel really bad for Jack Sock.  Not only will his ranking points get decimated after he loses in Paris (sorry, but this would be more out of nowhere than last year if he wins), he may also not get to play in the year-end doubles finals if Bob Bryan decides to come back, despite winning two doubles Slams alongside Mike Bryan this year. I keep thinking of that song "Bad Day" by Daniel Powter.  

• The good news about Jack Sock: He’s won two majors and over $1 million in prize money. The bad news: That pertains to his doubles. In singles, he’s likely to finish 2018 outside the top 100. Maybe this is a disguised blessing: if, in fact, Mike Bryan goes back to playing with his twin, maybe it’s still more motivation for Sock to get his singles game back in gear.

Hi Jon,

I took a quick look at how 2018 has been a big step in the right direction for Genie Bouchard. She’s taken a lot of flack in recent years but deserves some credit for her resilience, too. If you’ve got room to add this to your Mailbag that would be great!

• Yes, one of those under-the-radar stories—hard to come by when you have 1.8 million Instagram followers—is the improvement of Bouchard. She is back in the top 100. She is enduring the indignity of qualifier rounds and winning matches. She beat Carla Suarez Navarro 6-1, 6-0 the other day. She’s still a long way from a return to the top 10. But credit Bouchard for starting the climb. 


I'm writing this hours after he won Basel, so the timing might be strange, but it seems to me that Federer just isn't playing very well. In his last couple of tournaments—maybe even since Wimbledon—he's been grinding through matches, often going three sets against decent-but-not-fearsome opponents. (The one recent exception might be his straight-set win over Nishikori in Shanghai.) I haven't seen that much of him since Wimbledon, but when I have seen him, two things stand out: His first serve is off, and he seems to lack thump on his serve and groundstrokes (which he had, noticeably, during his 2017 renaissance, after he changed rackets). Instead of taking it to opponents, he's retrieving, rallying and waiting for errors. Is there any indication something is wrong with him physically?
Srikanth, Richmond, Va. 

• What’s wrong with him physically? He’s 37 years old! Cut the guy some slack. Srikanth has alluded to an inconvenient truth about Federer. He was darn good—perhaps not peak-of-powers good, but he didn’t have to be—in winning this year’s Australian Open, his 20th Major. He was good in Rotterdam (though he only had to beat one top-30 player, Grigor Dimitrov.) And he was good in Indian Wells (though he couldn’t close Juan Martin del Potro in the finals.)

After that? No clay matches. Some wins but some tough losses on grass, most notably a 13-11 defeat to Kevin Anderson at Wimbledon. And some iffy results on hard courts. Is this Federer in decline? Who knows. With all great athletes, the first thing to go is the consistency.

But several commentators—including Reem on the podcast—make this fair point: when players curtail their schedule, it creates an awful lot of pressure to make the most of those tournaments they do enter. I wish this were quantifiable but I suspect some of Federer’s losses trace to this.


How is it possible in this day and age for the WTA finals to go completely unnoticed and not broadcast on a wide-scale forum like Tennis Channel?  I think it is a sad, sad reflection on the WTA leadership to let this happen. Your thoughts?
Allan Colpitts

• It will be better next year, that we can promise. I am also reminded of baseball fans complaining about the World Series starting times. “I’m bleary-eyed staying up past midnight,” bleat the fans on the East Coast. “Not us,” say the West Coast counterparts. Tennis is a global sport. By definition, some markets will be better-served than others.


While I understand the outrage, please explain to me why this exhibition wouldn’t have been so widely objected to when it was only thousands of children in Yemen being starved by a Saudi blockade, however one journalist's murder (though horrible) suddenly means it should be cancelled? 
Bob Richter

• This is the issue here. Your terrorist is my freedom fighter, etc. Country A may be a murderous dictatorship, but at least they don’t pollute the environment like Country B. You chastise a player for playing in an event put on by a murderous dictatorship but don’t care that he’s wearing clothes made in a sweatshop.

Again, I would caution against the equivalencies. Not all governments are created equal. You are entitled to consider Saudi Arabia on the extreme end—the highest level of government is sanctioning the murder of a journalist, dismembering him while he is still alive. Sorry, you can’t tell me that other countries are comparably bad actors.

But, again, as it pertains to Nadal and Djokovic—I just don’t understand this as a practical matter. A highly sensitive and highly unpleasant situation is unfolding in real time. You don’t need to the money. You’re not playing for ranking points. You, presumably, have ambitions after tennis that will hinge on your moral authority. Why even put yourself in this position? Again, I point to John McEnroe: decades later he is lauded for declining to play Apartheid in South Africa. Why risk being remembered for the opposite? 

Dearest Jon,

Another chair umpire question: Is there a sliding pay scale for chair umpires based on who they are presiding over? As in...

Any-Given-Umpire: “Hey! Today’s match is Fognini/Serena/Kyrgios! Well shoot! This will earn me a trip to San Luca!” vs. “Today I’m doing the Goffin match, so Avengers: Infinity War is on me!”
Jeremy (repeat-questioner-from-Calgary) Thomas

• Welcome back.  Interesting idea. Fognini-Kyrgios entitles you to combat pay, drink vouchers, and an extra night at the hotel of your choice. On the other hand: “I umpired a Petra Kvitova/Goffin match. And all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”


Fine fodder, as always, but bummed to see the plague of "moving forward" and “absolutely” that has broken out at SI and infiltrated way too many stories. Those three worthless, superfluous words that for some reason have bubbled up like sewage in sports pieces the past five years or so have got to be eradicated. Perhaps bonuses are issued for their usage or some crazed copy editor is slipping them in. No other explanation makes sense. Cheers.
Michael T.

• Absolutely. Moving forward, we need to keep a list of banned phrases.

Long-lost siblings

Courtesy of James Busby, who pointed out the similarities in this picture of Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi


and Mr. Roger Federer


Shots, Miscellany

• Albert Costa, a former Davis Cup champion with extensive experience as director of tennis tournaments and development projects, has joined Kosmos Tennis’s team as Competition Director and Davis Cup finals Tournament Director.

 • Amanda Peet learns to play tennis.

• Long as we’re here, crowd-sourcing: should WE give The Romanoffs a chance?

• Mike Arsenault interviewed Daniel Nestor.

• USTA Player Development today revealed its expanded system of allocating merit-based wild cards for American players to better aid the development of America’s top juniors, collegians and professionals as the new global tennis structure takes effect in 2019.

The new system for merit-based wild card allocations, which takes effect with events beginning on or after December 31, 2018, can be found by clicking here. Approximately 150 wild card entries into various professional and junior events will be directly awarded to Americans who produce successful results in select junior, collegiate and professional tournaments.

• Former world No. 19 Varvara Lepchenko won her first singles title since 2011 on Sunday to take a big first step toward her 10th-straight main draw appearance at the Australian Open this January. The 32-year old Lepchenko defeated Paraguayan Veronica Cepede Royg on Sunday to win the $80,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Macon, Ga.—her 12th career pro circuit singles title and first since 2011, the year before she broke into the Top 20 following the 2012 US Open. Her 115 Challenge points earned for the title well outpaces second-place Allie Kiick, who earned 42 for a semifinal finish in Macon. 

• More on Kourts.

•  Lisa Stone wrote about the impact of the transition tour.