TOrdinary tennis fan, there’s probably a sense that the US Open looked and felt differently this two weeks than in previous years. And this impression will be quite accurate. Aside from the return of full attendance at Flushing Meadows after Covid broke into all live events in 2020 and 2021, several rule changes implemented over the past 13 months have altered the look, functioning and tempo of the competition.
In 2020, Novak Djokovic missed the first set in his fourth round match against Pablo Carreno Busta when he hit her neck in a moment of extreme frustration. His heroism stopped immediately.
If Djokovic had his Covid vaccine and was in this year’s tournament, he would not need to worry about a repeat offense. Reason: There are no longer line personnel at the US Open, as all calls are now handled electronically. This was undoubtedly a positive development, save for the insignificant downside of fewer jobs in the sport. The lack of interruptions with no player challenges was a welcome change, allowing the match to continue unhindered.
In the same year of 2020, Dominic Thiem recovered in two sets (the first time achieved in a final since 1949) to defeat Alexander Zverev in an extended fifth-set tiebreak 9-7. But this year it will not be enough, as the US Open has joined the other tournaments, and now requires a 10-point playoff in the decisive sets. Again, this is a wise change of rules. When the game drops to the fifth set (or the women’s third set), a seven-point tiebreak almost always feels surprising. Adding several points allows the match to go to its more organic ending and heightens the tension in its final moments, as it should.
Finally, in the 2018 final against Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams committed a disgraceful rule-breaking after Chief Justice Carlos Ramos, who has always been known to stick to the rules, penalized the American for taking coaching in the players’ box from Patrick Muratoglu. Despite this, in-match training is now allowed.
Allowing in-game training has been the most popular change in the sport in some years. In the lead-up to the World Open, many top players were weighing their opinions on the matter and the reaction was mixed.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has been accused of taking more coaching than any other current player, was no surprise at full support. He said: “My coach has not been as conservative as other coaches, but this has always happened. Believe me, it happens with almost every player. The fact that it is legalized now will make tennis calmer, make the players focus more on the game, and less on different kinds of bullshit” .
There were others who were direct opponents of the rule, such as Taylor Fritz who said, “I really hate it. It’s not something that should be part of our sport.” Still others, such as Daniil Medvedev, who is currently ranked number one in the men’s ranks, are still probably talking about several players when he said, “I’ve never been against training but I know I wouldn’t use it with my coach because we know how to work together.”
Regardless of how one feels about it, what should be somewhat troubling is the overly specific wording – specific to the degree of ambiguity – of the new rules which inevitably opens the door to loopholes. For example:
“Off-court training from the player/coach’s box or designated seats is permitted. In the event the coach prefers to sit in a different area, training is only permitted from the side of the pitch (not behind the pitch).”
“If the coach’s verbal training, hand signals, or gestures begin to interrupt play or become a distraction to the opponent(s), or if either player or coach does not fully comply with the measure, the referee will notify the player of the escalation. In the event Continued non-compliance, the player may be subject to penalties under the coaching rule.”
To extend the analogy, the issue of in-match training was one of those “everyone does” offenses that the powers that be in the sport decided to eliminate. Think of it like marijuana legalization in most parts of the United States; Despite the illegality of fate for decades, an accumulating societal consensus has concluded that the ills caused by the drug are no match for punishment.
But wouldn’t it have been easier and more in line with the hard-core tennis mindset if players were allowed to “meet” on the court rather than allowing repeated directions or instructions in the match a minute or two with their coach at the conclusion of the set?
We’ll know if this new rule actually changes the outcome of the match when the player announces something about his impact, “My coach calls me to serve widely on the diabolical pitch is the reason I won today.”
But until we see a direct connection, nothing really much changes. After all, for any professional athlete, the idea of multitasking is impossible. If a player is completely locked out in a match, any input from their coach will likely be muted.