Can Serena Williams' outburst help sort out the coaching rule?

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Can Serena Williams' outburst help sort out the coaching rule?

She may be wrong, she may be right, but she ruined Osaka's night. Serena Williams “completely had the right message about women’s inequality, but it wasn’t the right time to bring it up,” Martina Navratilova said.

Does sexism exist in tennis? Yes, ask Alize Cornet for the most recent confirmation. “When a woman is emotional, she’s “hysterical” and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s “outspoken” and there are no repercussions.

Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same” wrote Billie Jean King via Twitter. But, has sexism anything to do with Carlos Ramos and his decision to warn her for coaching? Absolutely not.

“In multiple sports, it is said that no individual is bigger than the game itself, but tennis challenges this truism more than any other” Mike Dickson wrote on The Daily Mail. “At this year's Wimbledon, it was instructive to talk to Jill Smoller, Williams' long-standing agent, who spoke thoughtfully about how many causes Serena was taking on and standing up for.

Her player is an incredibly impressive and inspirational person in so many ways, albeit one not above the rules. Perhaps everything on her shoulders was too much, resulting in Saturday's implosion”. It must be hard, agreed Ney York Times' Juliet Macur, “to carry that burden as a role model for so many.

(…) Williams’s tirade wasn’t a pretty moment for a woman who is an icon for women, female athletes, African-Americans and working mothers. She’s so much better than the Serena Williams who showed up on Saturday”. The tirade raised the hype during the intriguing final because few expected the epic meltdown that earned her a $17,000 fine.

Thanks to the big controversy and Osaka's stunning performance the final posted a 2.5 rating for the match itself and a 2.4 for the full three-hour telecast and tied for the second-highest in 225 telecasts since 2009 on ESPN with the 2015 Men’s singles final.

Williams confessed she felt bad for Osaka. "I was like, 'Wow, this is not how I felt when I won my first Grand Slam.' I definitely don't want her to feel like that," she said. In the meantime, she added, “I’m here to fight for women’s rights and women’s equality.

The fact that I have to go through this is an example. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.” She may be right, it's going to produce a change, but not in the direction she was hoping for.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley, Reuters reported, has urged global tennis to affirm its position on coaching. “It all centred around coaching,” Tiley told reporters in Melbourne on Monday. “The sport has to really get itself sorted out on what it does with coaching...

Are we going to have coaching? Are we not going to have coaching? What is it going to look like? The sport needs to get together and sort it out. Once that’s sorted out, we don’t have the issue.” The matter, in the US Open final, was not sexism, but the rule.

Both Patrick Mouratoglou, who admitted to having made signals to Serena apparently suggesting she should put his feet further up near the baseline, and Sascha Bajin, who signalled Osaka the importance of maintaining the focus, offered some kind of help.

Ramos gave two different interpretations of similar situations, created by male coaches and directed to female players: from a logical point of view, sexism can't be used as a mitigating circumstance for Serena's outburst or as an explanation for Ramos' strict interpretation of the rule against coaching.

According to the Grand Slam rulebook, “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”. The first controversial point regards the communication in itself: should the message be received to certify a violation? As Paul Newman wrote for the Independent, “there was no evidence whatsoever that (Serena) had seen what he was doing.

The anger in Williams’ denials certainly suggested that she had not seen it. As she also pointed out, she is one of those players who never take advantage of the rule on the women’s tour which allows coaches to come on the court and talk to their players during matches”. From a wider perspective, the rule is based on the principle that players must find the way out on-court without any help from their coaches.

So, one could assume that a penalty should be given when the player has received the message, has seen the signal, has effectively benefitted from that intended help beyond any doubt. As Joel Drucker summarized on Tennis Channel in 2017, “one of tennis’ greatest assets is its emphasis on self-reliance.

This code is in place from the minute a player picks up a racquet. Unlike team sports, (…) instructors and coaches serve at the behest (and chequebook) of the player. The tennis player is a singular individual, who builds a playing style, arranges practice matches, enters tournaments—and, most of all competes as a singular entity.

One major reason to play tennis is that you don’t have someone telling you what to do”. However, many coaches tried to say what to do to their players. Even in the opposite and stricter interpretation that punishes the intention independently from the effectiveness of such behaviour, the coaching rule maintained its aleatory character.

Besides, “many coaches use private codes to pass on advice to their players – “When I touch my cap, it means you should be coming to the net more” – and the rule is very difficult to enforce fairly” added Newman.

The same debate happened years ago when the team orders were banned in Formula 1 to respect the rule that stated: “the driver must drive the car alone and unaided”. But, during the clampdown and after the successive deregulation, coded messages were exchanged to give instructions, often asking a driver to let his team-mate pass him.

At least in Formula 1, the federation monitored every radio message between the drivers and their team. In tennis, the enforcement of the coaching rule is almost exclusively arbitrary. And it seriously questioned the validity of the rule.