Daniil Medvedev won the ATP Finals in his own unique style last week, and in doing so highlighted the flaws of the on-court coaching debate.
There are several arguments in tennis that just won’t go away. Five sets or three sets? Serve clock or no serve clock? Just who is the GOAT?
We also have the question of on-court coaching, although surely Daniil Medvedev has definitively put an end to that one now. Well, he should have at least.
Currently, the ATP Tour does not allow on-court coaching. The theory is simple enough: once you walk onto the court, you are on your own. Tennis is a one-v-one sport and that’s how it must remain. Being able to afford a better coach should not be an advantage once the match has started.
There are those who disagree. Tennis is quite unique in that it is a game played over a prolonged period of time whilst also remaining a singles game. Coaching during matches to affect the individual games are a huge part of other long-form sports, so why should tennis be different?
Both arguments have both their supporters and merits, and that is why it has perpetuated so long.
The problem is, as far as advocates of on-court coaching are concerned, that Daniil Medvedev has shown precisely why the rule as it is right now is absolutely necessary.
Medvedev is not some newcomer, of course. 2019 was his breakout year, meaning his ATP Finals performances and success merely confirmed what we already knew rather than coming as any real surprise to anyone.
It was the final against Dominic Thiem that should settle the on-court coaching debate once and for all, though.
For much of the match, Medvedev was getting overpowered by Thiem. There is nothing wrong with that. Thiem is probably the cleanest hitter of a tennis ball in the world now. That power, aligned with the control he has also developed, is what makes him special.
Medvedev can’t outhit Thiem and I am sure he would admit to that himself. However, tennis is not just about hitting.
As the match wore on, the thing that makes Medvedev special began to take a hold on the match too – his intellect. That’s not as flashy or obvious as Thiem’s power-hitting, but it is just as special.
It was the same for Medvedev when he lost the opening set against Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals. The longer the game wore on, the more Medvedev figured out how to beat him.
In both matches he adjusted his return position with trial and error, he scouted the replies he might get from a variety of shots, he changed when and how he came into the net. He experimented with angles and pace. And, eventually, he was able to construct a strategy on the fly that was able forge a path to victory.
In short, he did everything that a coach would have attempted to do for him during the match had he been allowed to hear it.
How, then, would it be fair if his opponents who, brilliant as they are, don’t possess that talent were able to essentially import it from someone else during matches?
It’s not like Medvedev could have brought someone out to hit the ball harder for him to take away Thiem’s advantage, so why should Thiem be allowed use someone else to negate Medvedev’s.
Admittedly, the example has been simplified down here. Medvedev is not just a thinker – far from it – and Thiem certainly is not just a hitter. But the point still stands.
Tennis’ joy is in its endless capacity for variation. There are infinite ways to play the game and infinite ways to win – and lose – a match. The fact it is played out inside an arena one-on-one is what gives it almost its gladiatorial quality.
You can look at every top player in the world and see something different to appreciate about them. Every player, past and present, is like a recipe of numerous different elements in numerous different quantities all combining to produce something unique.
It’s what makes every match different and, when you add in the variety of surfaces the game is played on to, it makes every tournament different.
Tennis should be incredibly wary of doing anything that impacts upon that – and on-court coaching would unquestionably do it.
Can’t out-hit Dominic Thiem? Tough. Figure it out. Can’t pin Roger Federer to his baseline? Tough. Figure it out. Can’t deal with Rafael Nadal’s top spin or Novak Djokovic’s relentless precision? Tough. Figure them out. Daniil Medvedev has figured you out and you can’t out-think him fast enough? Okay, go ask your coach what to do.
That doesn’t seem all that fair, or even remotely sporting, to us.
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