Laura Perrins wrote on TCW on Monday about the appalling behaviour of Serena Williams while she was losing the final of US Open tennis championships to a much younger opponent. Later Williams and her allies tried to defend the indefensible by claiming that the umpire was ‘sexist’ to penalise her. This is obvious rubbish, but the problem is that you can’t run a control experiment to prove that an umpire called a liar and a thief by a male player would have laughed it off.
The row started when umpire Carlos Ramos issued a warning to Williams after he spotted her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, signalling to her from the players’ box in the grandstand. Williams went ballistic, saying that she would rather lose the match than cheat.
However this show of glowing integrity was undermined after the match when Mouratoglou immediately admitted that indeed he was coaching his player. Furthermore, he said, the opponent’s coach was doing the same. ‘Like 100 per cent of the coaches, 100 per cent of the matches,’ he added.
This is an extraordinary admission. Tennis is the only sport where players are (supposedly) on their own throughout the whole match, making all their own decisions. It is all about self-reliance: no help from team-mates, no help from a coach. As a one-time tennis mum, I can tell you that it is hard watching your eight-year-old daughter playing a match that can easily, even at that age, last a couple of hours, with absolutely no help or advice. But that is the essence of tennis, and that is why it is such a hard game. That is why there are many players with enormous talent who do not get to the very top, because mental strength and clarity are equally important. It is up to the player alone to work out the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to exploit them given their own strengths and weaknesses. This may mean realising that the opponent is less confident on the backhand, so serving to the backhand is a good tactic, or that the other player does not like coming into the net, so a drop shot might work.
It is very simple for a coach to give pre-arranged signals which are more or less invisible to anyone else – leaning forward or back, head on one side, a hand to the face. If a player has failed to spot a weakness the coach can point it out in some subtle way, and the result can hinge on it. This destroys the Corinthian battle between two highly trained and talented individuals. Tennis is meaningless if there is coaching during matches.
(The Women’s Tennis Association – which backed Williams’s ludicrous claims that her treatment by the umpire was ‘sexist’ – allows a limited amount of on-court coaching at its tournaments, but this is not universally popular.)
Perhaps the most striking thing about Mouratoglou’s admission, however, is that it has not been met with shock or condemnation. It seems that this form of cheating is completely accepted at the top of tennis, and maybe further down the game for all I know.
What sort of message do Williams and her coach send to young players? I can tell you from experience that they absorb the ethics of the leading players like sponges. When the younger Sharapova started turning her back on the court ‘to compose herself’ many of the children copied her (not mine, I’m glad to say). ‘Grunting’, or more realistically shrieking, is another horrible habit which has been taken up by younger players. This is a form of cheating, because it is off-putting for the opponent and it masks the sound of the ball hitting the strings, which is a vital source of information. Some years ago the WTA promised to address the problem and its rulebook says:
Any continual distraction of regular play, such as grunting, shall be dealt with in accordance with the Hindrance Rule.
In other words, it is a breach of the rules. But last year WTA chief executive Steve Simon said he had no plans to outlaw grunting.
‘The mics on court are picking it up,’ he said. ‘I don’t think it’s as strong as a few years ago – there are fewer players grunting.’
Anyone who goes to watch tennis will tell you that the noise you hear on TV is as nothing compared with the ghastly racket you hear in the flesh (no pun intended).
So young players are being given the message that being rude and disrespectful to the umpire is OK, that shrieking to put off your opponent is OK, and that cheating is OK.
To me tennis is the most heroic of sports – two gladiators battling it out until only one is left standing. What is the point if it is a team sport with the coaches playing along in the stands?