There was so much absurdity and sadness in the U.S. Open final on Saturday. It wasn’t right. A chair umpire who apparently forgot his insignificant place in the grand scheme of things shamefully overshadowed one of the greatest tennis performances we’ve ever seen. That was pretty rotten.
Naomi Osaka is a superstar. For two weeks, she played the sort of dominant tennis that we’ve only seen the greatest play — it was Martina-like, it was Steffi-like, it was Venus-like, it was, yes, Serena-like. She lost one set the whole tournament, and that was in a wild match against another evolving powerhouse named Aryna Sabalenka. In the final, Osaka thoroughly outplayed Serena Williams, something almost no one has ever done. Williams has lost big matches, yes, but mostly those were on off days against uniquely inspired opponents. This one felt different. This one felt more like the changing of the seasons, a student beating the teacher, the future swooping in to gently but firmly succeed the past.
It should be said that Serena Williams didn’t cover herself in glory, not until after the match was over. Williams and her coach engaged in some sort of coaching, which is sort of against the rules — we’ll get back to this one. Williams smashed her racket in anger. She called the aforementioned chair umpire a thief for penalizing the previous two. None of this is admirable behavior.
But this was the U.S. Open final, probably the most pressure-packed tennis match played in the world all year, and these are human beings at their most clenched, and it’s almost impossible to imagine a chair umpire with so little empathy. Much has been said about this only happening because Williams is a woman of color, and it is indeed hard, almost impossible, to imagine the same thing happening in a men’s final. But, realistically, it’s hard to believe that it happened here, to the greatest women’s tennis player of all time, to the greatest American tennis player ever, in the U.S. Open Final.
Williams somewhat redeemed the moment by standing with Osaka as the New York crowd rained boos on the scene. But being put in that position wasn’t fair to Williams; it was even less fair to the ascendant Osaka. Some years ago, I came up with a phrase: “Indy 500 parking power.” It refers to a parking lot attendant at the Indianapolis 500 who screamed like a madman again and again as he forced people to slightly straighten up their cars, made them go all the way around because they entered one gate too early or — nothing made the guy happier — booted those whose passes were the wrong color. Years later, Jim Halpert from The Office summed it up: “God, this is so sad, this is the smallest amount of power I’ve ever seen go to someone’s head.”
This chair umpire had a historic case of Indy 500 parking power. He and his supporters can and will defend what he did by saying that he officiated the match by the letter of the law. That argument will be boring and entirely beside the point. He really is a thief. He stole some of the joy of Naomi Osaka, stole authenticity from the U.S. Open final and, not incidentally, stole the opportunity for all of us to see one more game played by the incomparable Serena Williams. And he didn’t have to do any of that.
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OK, let’s talk the coaching rule for a minute, because there’s something I’m not seeing in much of the coverage, something essential to professional tennis in 2018.
The rule is as follows: “Players shall not receive coaching during a match (including the warm-up). Communication of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching.”
You really don’t want the word “may” in a rule, but that’s another point. Let’s begin by saying that Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was definitely coaching. We know this because he said he was coaching. Mouratoglou shouted for Williams to get to the net more. He said Osaka’s coach was also coaching. He said everybody’s coach coaches.
First, think of the comedy of this: They’re called COACHES. They sit in a special place close to the court that’s called THE COACHES’ BOX. They’re placed there because, you know, they COACH. They’re paid a lot of money to COACH and all during the week they COACH, and before the match begins they COACH and after the match ends they COACH … but for the time on court, suddenly, they’re not allowed to COACH, and it’s all so stupid.
There’s a sound reason for this, believe it or not, outdated as it might be. In a perfect world, you want a match to be one vs. one, a personal match of physical and emotional and mental. You want it to be a true duel — the sport is sometimes called bloodless boxing for that reason. The ideal is … well, the ideal in ALL sports as far as I’m concerned would be to get the coaches out as much as possible. I wish all quarterbacks had to call their own plays. I wish all catchers got to call all the pitches. I wish coaches were not allowed to call timeouts to draw up the final plays of games. It would be wonderful to give sports back to the players.
That’s not the world that we live in. It’s not right to say that tennis hasn’t gotten the memo — they’ve got it. They just keep refusing to open the envelope.
And this is the point that I think people are missing: Tennis players in 2018 use their coach’s box in ways that to a casual tennis fan probably seem a bit insane. Novak Djokovic is the great example, though it’s true of just about every elite player. A number of times during every match — sometimes it’s 20, sometimes it’s 100, sometimes more than that — Djokovic will look up to his coach’s box. He will yell at them. He will berate them. He will smile at them. He will pump his fist at them. He will ask them to all stand up and cheer.
It’s quite logical to ask: Why is he doing that? What can they do up there? How is this their fault? There was a point during the Kei Nishikori match — a match Djokovic won convincingly and with relative ease — when Nishikori hit a good shot that caught the line, and Djokovic couldn’t quite get it back. Djoker turned to the box and began screaming angrily. I don’t think he was screaming about missing his shot; I think he was screaming about how lucky Nishikori had been on that point. That’s weird, right?
But it isn’t weird. Djokovic (and basically everyone else) often screams at his box when his opponent is playing better than the scouting report or when the opponent is getting too many good breaks or when the wind picks up at the wrong moment or when someone in the crowd shouts at the wrong time or for any other number of reasons that seemingly have nothing at all to do with coaches. Sometimes, he even screams at them when he thinks they’re not being supportive enough. How could they just be sitting there like statues? COME ON, who are you rooting for anyway?
None of this is coaching in the technical sense of the word. There’s no “go more to the backhand,” or “start serving wide,” advice, not ever. Best I can tell from the hundreds of hours of Djoker tennis I’ve watched, the coaches in his ever-changing box wear poker faces all the time. They reveal little. They seem to be there to offer silent support (they will cheer now and again) and, even more, to endure the volatile emotions that inspire Novak Djokovic to play heavenly tennis.
Is this coaching? OF COURSE it’s coaching.
Think now about the absurdity of penalizing Mouratoglou for telling Serena Williams — SERENA BLEEPIN’ WILLIAMS, the best to ever play — to go to the net more. You think she doesn’t know that? You think she can’t figure that out for herself? She probably didn’t even see him do it, which is why she took the penalty so personally. “I don’t cheat to win!” she shouted. “I’d rather lose.” And I think that’s right.
But this whole coaching thing is a charade in the first place. We tend to think of coaching as some sort of technical, strategic, calculated thing — Shooter telling the boys to run the picket fence — but that’s like 1% of coaching. To coach a player is mostly to offer gentle (and not-so-gentle) reminders about basic things, It’s to motivate through tough times. And, it’s to coax and push and help an athlete through the frustrations, exhaustion, defeatism, panic and general madness of sport at the extremes.
There’s high-level coaching going on at every high-level tennis match, and everybody knows it. If you watch the men’s final, watch how many times Djokovic looks to his coaches for support. No, they won’t tell him to go to the net. They won’t say anything at all. But they will be coaching just the same.