- Serena Williams crashed out of the 2018 US Open final on Saturday.
- During the match in Queens, New York, Williams received violations for coaching, smashing her racket, and calling the chair umpire a “thief.”
- She eventually lost in straight sets to Naomi Osaka and was slapped with a $US17,000 fine for the three violations.
- Here’s what “coaching” means in tennis – and why Williams was penalised for it.
Serena Williams crashed out of the 2018 US Open women’s final on Saturday, losing to Naomi Osaka.
The result might have been hailed as a passing-of-the-torch moment as Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam champion – and arguably the best women’s tennis player ever – was defeated in straight sets by an up-and-coming 20-year-old.
But instead, Williams’ behaviour during the match has been thrust into the spotlight – and even controversially lampooned by a cartoonist in the Australian newspaper the Herald Sun.
Williams was given three code violations during the match at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York, on Saturday and fined $US17,000, according to The Associated Press. One was for receiving coaching, which Williams denied. She also smashed her racket, costing her a point, and called the umpire Carlos Ramos a “thief,” which cost her a game.
Sanctions for smashing a racket and verbally criticising an umpire may seem straightforward, but the term “coaching” has caused some confusion.
So what does ‘coaching’ actually mean?
Singles tennis is an individual sport rather than a team game, and it may well be one of the loneliest sports to play. In boxing, for example, fighters have up to three “seconds” who offer advice and treat cuts and swellings in between rounds. But in tennis, it is only the athlete, their thoughts, and their opponent on the court.
Athletes benefit from coaching at daily training sessions, but at Grand Slam events – there are four a year – they are strictly prohibited from receiving advice from their coaches during warm-ups and matches.
According to ESPN, Section L in “Article III – Player On-Site Offence” of the Grand Slam Rulebook says: “Players shall not receive coaching during a match (including the warm-up). Communications of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching.”
What qualifies as coaching could be up to the match umpire’s interpretation. It could involve explicit instructions or even coded gestures, as appeared to be the case with Williams and her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, on Saturday.
Mouratoglou was recorded on camera making a gesture with his hands that appeared to have been a code for Williams to move closer to the net. For that, the chair umpire Carlos Ramos slapped Williams with a violation in the second game of the second set.
But doesn’t everybody do that?
That depends who you ask – and if you asked Mouratoglou, he would say absolutely.
After all, Williams’ coach has acknowledged that he was in fact coaching Williams on Saturday.
“I am honest: I was coaching,” he said after the final, according to Eurosport.
Mouratoglou also said other coaches do the same – including Osaka’s coach, Sascha Bajin, who Mouratoglou said was also offering instructions during the US Open final.
“Sascha was coaching every point too,” he said, per Eurosport. “Everyone is doing it 100% of the time.”
So why was Williams penalised for it?
Williams was penalised because Ramos believed he had identified coaching and wanted to reprimand the player.
Ramos has appeared to be a strict enforcer of the rules, and he has had various run-ins with other blue-chip athletes like Venus Williams (who Ramos believed was communicating with her coach during the 2016 French Open), Andy Murray (who apparently used insulting language at the 2016 Summer Olympics), and Rafa Nadal (who got slapped with a point deduction for taking too long to serve at the 2017 French Open).
Shouldn’t the coach be penalised instead of the athlete?
Maybe. But the rules state that it is the player who is responsible for their coach and therefore takes any punishment.
The existing rules may need to be addressed soon though, as there seems to be a lack of consistency in applying them – even at the same tournament.
Earlier in the US Open, Nick Kyrgios was accused of receiving coaching from an umpire who spoke to him during a match in the second round of the competition. That umpire, Mohamed Lahyani, got down from his chair and gave Kyrgios what was described as a pep talk, against convention and directly at odds with Ramos’ treatment of Williams. Kyrgios went on to win that match.
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