To the casual tennis fan, there is probably a sense that the US Open has looked and felt different these two weeks than previous years. And that impression would be absolutely correct. Aside from the return of full Flushing Meadows presence after the Covid break-in to all live events in 2020 and 2021, several rule changes made over the past 13 months have changed the look, action and rhythm of the competition. .
In 2020, Novak Djokovic failed in the first set of his fourth round match against Pablo Carreno Busta when, in a moment of intense frustration, he tossed a ball and hit a linesman in the neck. His tournament immediately came to a halt.
If Djokovic had gotten his Covid vaccine and was at the Open this year, he wouldn’t have to worry about a repeat offense. The reason: There are no more linesmen at the US Open, as all calls are now handled electronically. This has undoubtedly been a positive development, apart from the not insignificant disadvantage of fewer jobs in sport. The lack of interruptions and the absence of challenges for players was a welcome change, allowing a match to run smoothly.
That same year of 2020, Dominic Thiem rallied from two sets behind (the first time that had been reached in the final since 1949) to defeat Alexander Zverev in an extended tiebreak in the fifth set, 9-7. But that wouldn’t be enough this year, as the US Open has joined the other slams and now requires a 10-point tiebreak in the decision sets. Again, this is a sensible rule change. When a match comes down to a fifth set (or third set for the women), a seven-point tiebreak always feels abrupt. Adding multiple points allows a match to move to its more organic conclusion and ramps up the tension in the final moments, as it should.
Finally, in the 2018 final against Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams committed an infamous code violation after chair umpire Carlos Ramos, always known as a proponent of the rules, chastised the American for receiving coaching in the playing field from Patrick Mouratoglou. However, coaching in the game is now allowed.
Allowing coaching during a match has been the most talked about change in the sport in years. Leading up to the Open, several top players weighed in on their opinions and reactions were mixed.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is accused of being coached more than any other current player, unsurprisingly fully supported him. He stated: “My coach has not been as discreet as other coaches, but it has always been that way. Trust me, it happens to almost every player. The fact that it’s now legalized will make tennis a little more peaceful, make players focus more on the game, less on other types of crap.”
Others were equally direct against the rule, such as Taylor Fritz who said, “I really hate it. It’s not part of our sport.” Still others, such as the current men’s No. 1 Daniil Medvedev, probably spoke on behalf of many players when he said: “I was never against coaching, but I know I’m not really going to use it with my coach because we know how we work together.” .”
Whatever you think about it, what should be somewhat worrisome is the all-too-specific – narrowly focused – wording of the new rules that inevitably opens the door for loopholes in the law. For example:
“Off-court coaching is permitted from the designated Player/Coach Box or seats. If the Coach prefers to be in a different room, coaching is only allowed from the side of the field (not behind the field).”
“If a coach’s verbal coaching, hand signals or gestures begin to interrupt play or become a distraction to the opponent(s), or if either the player or coach does not fully adhere to the procedure, the chair umpire shall notify the escalation. If the non-compliance continues, the player may be penalized according to the coaching rule.”
To stretch an analogy, the issue of in-game coaching was one of those, “everybody’s doing it” kind of benign offenses where the powers that be in the sport have decided to get clear. Think of it as the legalization of marijuana in much of the United States; Despite marijuana’s illegality for decades, a built-up societal consensus concluded that the ills caused by the drug outweigh the punishment.
But wouldn’t it have been easier and more in line with the tough-it-yourself mentality of tennis if, instead of frequent prompting or instructions during the match, players had allowed a one-minute “meeting” on the court? or two with their coach at the end of a set?
We’ll know if this new rule will have really changed the outcome of a match when a player says something along the lines of, “My coach calling me to serve wide in the deuce court is the reason I won today.”
But until we see a direct connection, not much will change. After all, for any professional athlete, the idea of multitasking is impossible. If a player is completely locked in a match, all input from their coach is likely to be muted.