Phone A Friend: In-Match Coaching On Trial In Milan
Fans will see a middle ground of sorts at the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals, to be held 7-11 November at the Fiera Milano (Rho), Italy, where in-match coaching will make its ATP World Tour debut.
Players will get to talk with their coach at the end of each set, which could mean up to four times a match as the 21-and-under tournament will be best-of-five set contests.
But there will be no official coaching during any other moment in the match, save for one exception: If one player takes a medical timeout or bathroom break, the opposing player will get to talk with his coach while the other player receives treatment or uses the toilet.
The medical timeouts, however, won't be often, either. In another new innovation to be featured in Milan, players are limited to one three-minute medical timeout per match. If they've exhausted their medical timeout, the player can receive medical treatment for the same injury during up to two changeovers.
“You're out there competing by yourself. You have to do it yourself so it's still a one-on-one sport,” said Ross Hutchins, Chief Player Officer, ATP.
The player will communicate with his coach through a headset. The coach will not come on court, and players and coaches will be encouraged to speak in English. The coaching session will be shown during the broadcast of the match, Hutchins said, but the in-stadium video boards will not show the interview.
“I think it's a good thing,” said former World No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt. “I think it's a good thing for the audience as well to be able to see that and hear it and see if it's having any impact on the match.”
The reduction of medical timeouts might speed up the match ever so slightly. On average, there's less than one per match, said Gayle David Bradshaw, Executive Vice President, Rules and Competition, ATP.
But officials are implementing the new rule for a different reason.
“The medical timeout rule is to avoid some cases of gamesmanship or remove the perception of some gamesmanship,” Bradshaw said. “Maybe they have an injury that doesn't really require them to take a medical timeout although it may be warranted or legitimate... They might just get treatment on the changeover because they know that if it's not really as bad as they are making it seem, they know that maybe later on in the match they might really need one so they don't want to waste it early.”
The one-medical timeout rule is also supported by the ATP World Tour's medical committee. “Conceptually, we like the idea of limiting it to one medical timeout per match. The hope is that it will eliminate unnecessary delays in the match,” Bradshaw said.
Hewitt was known for being one of the toughest competitors on tour and expending every ounce of energy during his playing career. But the Aussie still supports the change.
“I think you should be out there. Conditioning is a one big part of our sport, to be able to get your body in such good nick that you can out there and compete,” Hewitt said. “I understand that it's a really tough sport, though, and it's a one-on-one battle and there's nowhere to hide out there. But I think it's a good thing to try to cut that down as much as possible.”
American Jared Donaldson views the coaching change, and the other innovations, in a more practical way. “It will be interesting. If I win the tournament or if I do really well, I'll love the rules. If I don't, the rules will be just awful, the worst thing that ever happened to tennis,” he said.
One day, the innovations might make their way to the ATP World Tour. But they might not, either, Hutchins said. To him, the eventual migration of the changes will have little bearing on how he judges the success of the inaugural tournament.
“We're not saying any of these things are going to be game changers. We're not saying we're necessarily going to implement these innovations at Tour-level. But we believe it’s important to at least take a look at some changes,” Hutchins said.
“We’ve conducted extensive consumer research relating to what new tennis markets and new tennis fans would like to see in the sport, and this is a perfect platform to test these things, in a one-off big, global stage at the end of a season.”