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You want change? The US Open has it

Matt Zemek

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Jimmie 48 Photography

WE NEED CHANGE! WE NEED REFORM! THERE HAS TO BE A BETTER WAY!

The U.S. Open is definitely changing tennis, all right, but as I noted the other day here at Tennis With An Accent, change is not inherently good (or bad). The value of change depends on what is being changed, and how, and why.

Tennis fans are rightly suspicious of change, but if it becomes very clear that change is needed, they won’t oppose change. Consider the final-set tiebreaker procedure after the Kevin Anderson-John Isner Wimbledon semifinal last year. Everyone knew — and most people in the sport accepted — that it was time for a change. That example offers a positive iteration of change, how it occurs, and why it improves the sport of tennis.

It is worth noting that the U.S. Open’s use of a final-set tiebreaker seems enlightened in a larger historical context today. Jimmy Van Alen’s creation of the tiebreaker was not universally accepted or embraced after its emergence in the early 1970s, but the larger march of time has generally validated and vindicated that adjustment to tennis scoring. Reforms which might seem threatening can be ahead of their time and valuable for a sport… but it remains that change must always be connected to basic questions:

Question No. 1: Is this a substantial alteration of the sport, something which is highly disruptive to the experience or action of tennis as we have known it, or is this a small-scale adjustment which preserves everything which is attractive about tennis while making life appropriately easier on the central participants?

Question No. 2: Is there widespread agreement on the need for this specific change, or at the very least, is it reasonable to apply a form or variation of this change at all the major tournaments (minimum) or the broader tours (maximum)?

Remember that while the tiebreaker at the U.S. Open wasn’t immediately embraced throughout tennis, variations of the tiebreaker were used within a few years. Wimbledon used a tiebreaker at 8-8 for a few years in the 1970s before moving to a 6-6 breaker (not in final sets, but it still acknowledged the device and incorporated it into The Championships).

Question No. 3: Is this change compatible with other reforms also happening in the sport? Phrased differently, does this change complement or augment other changes, or does it cut against recent/current changes?

Judge this U.S. Open change for yourself:

The question of allowable coaching is thorny, tangled and contentious, no matter how you try to enter into that particular conversation. Everyone would agree about that point, flowing from question No. 1. This is obviously a large-scale disruption of tennis’s identity. It is not a small-scale tweak to allow this at a major tournament.

That point aside, if the sport IS going to consider on-court coaching at the majors, allowing “coaching from stands” is the worst possible iteration of allowable coaching.

Think of the matter this way: Coaching is most centrally a product and manifestation of direct communication. The process of coaching most centrally occurs when the coach speaks directly to a player and interacts verbally with that player.

This is another way of saying that while I might personally HATE coaching during a tennis match, I would much rather have direct on-court coaching than coaching from the stands. If you are going to allow any coaching at all, might as well make it direct, not indirect or coded.

I prefer no coaching at all. I more specifically think coaches should not be visible at matches. They should watch from a press box behind tinted (dark) glass or in another sealed, set-aside area players can’t see.

HOWEVER: If you ARE going to make in-match coaching allowable, then ALLOW it. Give the coach the ability to talk to players face to face.

Allowing coaching from the stands tries to keep coaching in a match, but it reduces coaching to signals and nonverbal aspects of communication, which is not a complete manifestation of coaching. This is a half-measure.

It DOES represent change, but how does it represent meaningful or positive change which would gain widespread support?

Let’s deal with the third and final question I offered when examining whether change is good or not: Is this compatible with other reforms?

Allowing coaching from the stands is a bad idea for reasons previously discussed — especially in relationship to question No. 2 — but its worst aspect relates to question No. 3.

This is in NO WAY compatible with other reforms in the sport, chiefly the one the U.S. Open ushered in last year: the serve clock.

What is the whole BROTHER-TRUCKING POINT of the serve clock? To reduce match times.

Set aside for a moment the claim that the serve clock is reducing match times. Many people in the sport aren’t noticing a meaningful difference, but let’s say for the sake of argument that the serve clock HAD in fact achieved progress in reducing match times.

If you WERE going to advocate for a series of continuous reforms which would ALL — TOGETHER, IN CONCERT WITH EACH OTHER! — reduce match times, this business about allowing players to consult coaches BETWEEN POINTS would certainly NOT be considered.

Statement A: “I think players should take 25 seconds between points, not 35.”

Statement B: “I think players should be able to consult coaches between points.”

The U.S. Open made Statement A in 2018. It is now making Statement B in 2019.

John McEnroe would say, “You CANNOT be serious!”

The pathetic part is that for the second straight year, the USTA is very serious, chasing a non-problem with something it thinks is a solution.

Change isn’t bad.

BAD CHANGE is bad.

A lack of consistency isn’t necessarily bad. Tennis plays four major tournaments and the year-end championships in four (if not five) different environments: clay, grass, hardcourt, and indoors. “Inconsistency” can mean “healthy variety.”

A lack of consistency is bad, however, when a tournament creates invasive, disruptive measures one year apart which directly contradict the other’s purpose.

Change and consistency. Tennis can’t seem to understand when those two things are really important, and when they’re trivial and peripheral. Sigh.

Sigh, sigh, sigh.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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