To The casual tennis fan probably feels that the US Open has looked and felt different these two weeks compared to previous years. And that impression would be perfectly correct. Aside from the return of full participation at Flushing Meadows following Covid incursion at all live events in 2020 and 2021, several rule changes implemented over the past 13 months have transformed the look, action and rhythm of the competition .
In 2020, Novak Djokovic defaulted in his fourth-round match against Pablo Carreno Busta in the first set when, in a moment of intense frustration, he swiped a ball and hit a lineswoman in the neck. His tournament immediately ground to a halt.
If Djokovic had received his Covid vaccine and was at the Open this year, he wouldn’t have to worry about a re-infringement. The reason: There are no longer any linesmen at the US Open, as all calls are now handled electronically. Leaving aside the not inconsiderable downside of fewer jobs in sport, this is undoubtedly a positive development. The lack of interruptions and lack of player challenges was a welcome change, allowing a game to continue unhindered.
In the same 2020, Dominic Thiem rebounded from two sets down (the first time it had been done in the final since 1949) to defeat Alexander Zverev 9-7 in an extended tiebreaker in the fifth set. But this year that wouldn’t be enough as the US Open has joined the other Slams and now requires a 10-point tiebreak in the deciding sets. Again, this is a smart change in the rules. When a match comes down to a fifth set (or third set for women), a seven-point tiebreak has always felt abrupt. Adding multiple points allows a game to progress to its more organic conclusion and increases the tension in its final moments as it should.
Finally, in the 2018 final against Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams suffered an infamous breach of the code after chair umpire Carlos Ramos, always known as a stickler for the rules, fined the American for being coached in the players’ box by Patrick Mouratoglou. However, in-match coaching is now allowed.
Allowing coaching during a game has been the most talked about change in the sport in a few years. Ahead of the Open, several top players spoke out on the subject and the response was mixed.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has been accused of being coached more than any other current player, was unsurprisingly in full support. He explained: “My coach wasn’t as discreet as other coaches, but it always happened. Trust me, it happens to almost every single player. The fact that it’s legalized now will make tennis a little bit more peaceful, making players focus more on the game and less on different kinds of nonsense.”
Others were just as outspoken against the rule as Taylor Fritz, who said, “I really hate it. It shouldn’t be a part of our sport.” Still others, like current men’s No. 1 Daniil Medvedev, probably spoke for many players when he said: “I’ve never been against coaching, but I know I have with my coach not really going to use it because we know how to work together. ”
Whatever one thinks about it, what should be of some concern is the overly specific – even vague – wording of the new rules, which inevitably opens the door to loopholes. For example:
“Off-field coaching is permitted from the designated player/coach box or courts. If the coach prefers to sit in a different area, coaching is only allowed from the side of the court (not behind the court).”
“If verbal coaching, hand signals or gestures by a coach begin to disrupt play or distract the opponent(s), or if either the player or the coach does not fully comply with procedure, the referee will notify the player of the escalation. Should non-compliance persist, the player may be subject to penalties under the coaching rule.”
To extend an analogy, the issue of in-game coaching was one of those “everyone does it” type of benign infractions where the sport’s powers that be chose to stay clean. Think of it like the legalization of marijuana across much of the United States; Despite pot’s decades of illegality, a societal consensus concluded that the ills caused by the drug didn’t measure up to punishment.
But wouldn’t it have been easier, and more in line with the mentality of tennis, if instead of frequent admonitions or instructions during the game, the players had been allowed to ‘meet’ on the court? of a minute or two with their coach at the end of a sentence?
We’ll know if this new rule really changed the outcome of a game when a player declares something like, “My coach tells me to serve wide on deuce court is why I won today.”
But until we see a direct connection, not much will really change. After all, for any professional athlete, the idea of multitasking is impossible. When a player is fully engaged in a game, all input from their coach is likely to be muted.