Who calls the shots for top tennis players? Nod and a wink to covert operations

Coaching players from the sidelines is illegal in tennis but the legendary coach Nick Bollettieri broke the rules for 25 years with some of the biggest names. here he reveals how he did it and argues that it is time court-side advice was allowed
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The Independent Online

Coaching players from the stands or sidelines during tournaments is against the rules. It's also a fact of life. It happens all the time and it has happened for years. I was on the road for more than 25 years as a coach and during that time, as I'll explain in detail, I was guilty of coaching during play. It's time this issue was properly debated, and addressed, which is why I'm revealing the extent of the subterfuge.

I don't believe I was alone in giving signals, whether by using my hands, adjusting my sunglasses, rubbing my nose or shouting code words. I've coached a hell of a lot of players, - some of the biggest names, including multiple Grand Slam winners - and at some stage or other I coached many of them during play. Not all, but a lot. And I know I wasn't alone and I know it still goes on. Anyone in tennis who says it doesn't happen should open their eyes and ears.

The subject has returned to prominence because Roger Federer thought that Rafael Nadal's uncle, Toni, was coaching him during the recent final of the Italian Open, which Nadal won. Federer said of that match: "He [Toni] was coaching a little bit too much again today. Yeah, I caught him in the act." Nadal responded by saying that his uncle does the same as "every coach in the world, or at least 90 per cent of them". He added: "Explain to me, what kind of rule is this that coaches can't say anything during a match? In what other sport does that happen?"

Earlier this week at the French Open, where Nadal and Federer are seeded to meet in the dream final, the subject came up again, in relation to Greg Rusedski's first-round defeat against Paul Capdeville.

Rusedski was asked whether he was aware of the coaching that Capdeville "was clearly getting". Rusedski replied: "I'm sure. I'm used to that by now. If you look at a lot of the players, I'm not going to name names, but some of the top guys and some of the less-ranked guys, they don't really have a rule where they enforce it so much ... You know, it's a free-for-all, so you might as well have them sitting on the court beside them if you want because so many coaches do it nowadays. It's not unusual."

I believe a lot of other players also feel supportive of coaching in play. Why now poll them on the subject? The point is that we need some clarity. Either coaching during play is banned (except in team events like the Davis Cup), and the ban should be rigorously enforced and guilty parties should be punished; or we should look at changing the rules.

I cannot imagine for a single second a situation where my good friend Tubby Smith, the head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, would be sitting quietly in a chair during the game. Nor should he. Try telling Pat Riley of the Miami Heat to stop walking up and down the sidelines shouting words of advice. A ridiculous idea.

Look at the ultimate gentlemen's game, golf, and tell me that caddies don't play an active role and give advice on almost every shot. In almost any other sport - football, soccer, boxing, baseball, you name it - the coach has an active role to play, and during play. I'm not a massive soccer aficionado but I know your national game would be diminished by banning your coaches from the technical area at all times and telling them to sit quietly somewhere and keep their mouths shut.

Back to Nadal's uncle, I have no idea what precisely he was doing. The extent is not the issue. What is at stake is making an intelligent decision to either implement some active coaching during play, or levy penalties for breaking the rules far beyond just a slap on the wrist.

I know which camp I'm in. I think it's time we at least trialled coaching during play, perhaps for a year.

My preference would be that a system is introduced similar to the one that is in place for Davis Cup, which allows coaching and tactical advice during changeovers and at other times when the opportunity arises.

Why is this sensible, beyond the fact that it would legitimise something that is widespread anyway? One reason is that it will eradicate the negative effects of a dependency culture between player and coach that is widespread in the game.

I believe the reason we have this culture is often down to tutoring by parents when players are very young. They get heavily involved during play and stay involved later in the career, which is a whole other issue for another time. But when these players are then expected to enter tournament play without coaching during play it unsettles them.

Three examples: Anna Kournikova used to look for tips from her mother in matches so often she actually gave herself neckache; Tommy Haas is always on the lookout for signs, distractedly so at times, but under the current rules the captain of the ship is him, and he needs to take heed; Mary Pierce, when I was her coach, was occasionally so anxious for signs that it got to the stage where I told her if she kept looking for them, I'd actually leave the arena.

If you allow coaching during play, that situation does not arise. I also feel that it's time to add some more excitement to the game.

Tennis needs a few shots in the arm and so does television and all the sponsors who are yelling out for more fans to come back into the game.

Let's fill the empty chair next to the player's chair with a coach and record the instructions given to the players. Try it for a year and then review the results.

When coaching is clandestine, people use any number of ways to give a player instructions. It varies from a simple thumbs-up for a prearranged strategy that's working, to signals to pressure an opponent's particular weakness, to scratching your nose to advise a change of court position.

Of course these strategies have their dangers, especially when a player can't see you properly. Or worse, when you forget what signal is for what advice.

Most memorable - or forgettable - was a time I was coaching a player at the French Open in the 1980s. She was highly ranked at one stage. On this occasion I gave her an instruction card to take on court, listing which gesture - nose scratch, sunglasses touch, etc - meant what action, for example coming to the net, or attacking the backhand. Except I left my own card in the hotel, and only realised during the warm-up, when I also realised I'd forgotten which gesture was which.

I've never sat as still for a whole match in my life, fearful of rubbing my ear at the wrong time and changing the course of the action. So the player, who kept looking, got no signals at all. She won anyway.