A new rule that has been introduced at the Australian Open will help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, according to tennis great Todd Woodbridge.
For the first time at a grand slam tournament, in-match coaching is allowed, giving players the opportunity to refine their strategy on the run, with input from their support staff in the player’s box.
Adding to that, the coaches on the stadium courts have access to instant data that breaks down how each point is being won and lost.
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Perhaps the best example of that information being used to change a match at the Australian Open came in Stefanos Tsitsipas’ epic five set win over Jannik Sinner.
The Greek world No.4 was in total control of the opening two sets, taking them 6-4, 6-4, before Sinner’s coach Darren Cahill, arguably the best coach in tennis, advised Sinner to change his service return position, completely changing the complexion of the match.
Sinner won the next two sets to drag Tsitsipas into a decider, before eventually prevailing thanks to a near-flawless serving performance in the fifth set, when he landed over 90 per cent of his first serves.
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According to Woodbridge, that illustrated the point that makes in-match coaching so contentious. Sinner, as one of the top players in the world, even at a very young age, can afford to hire the best coaches and support staff to travel with him. A lesser player on the other hand, would not have the benefit of someone like Cahill to help them change the momentum while they’re out on court.
Asked specifically if the rule had created an unfair advantage, Woodbridge told Wide World of Sports’ The Morning Serve: »I think that’s a very good point because there are up and coming players who don’t have the entourage.
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« They might have a friend helping out or it’s a family member, and they don’t have the pool. But that’s the way of the world isn’t it, that is what it is, but I for that reason don’t like it as well … if you play better, you get richer, you can do more, but you know… I guess the ultimate thing is as a player, go play better. »
While that view makes sense, the results in the 2023 Australian Open in some ways undermine it.
Rarely, if ever, has their been a slam with so many top players eliminated so early. The top two seeds in both the men’s and the women’s draw had lost by the middle Sunday, marking the first time in the open era that had occurred.
The beauty of sport is no matter how stacked the odds are, upsets happen, and the bloodbath in the early rounds in Melbourne can most likely be put down to a freak one-off.
Yet Woodbridge also observed that the players aren’t yet experienced enough with the coaching rule to fully capitalise on it, with many of them staying in their bubble on the court more often than not.
Sinner receives in-game coaching
»[They’re not using it] as much as I would have expected to be honest with you, because it’s all sitting there, but it’s actually sometimes interesting, if you change your habits in a big way it can be a little detrimental until you get used to using it, » Woodbridge said.
« So this is new, and I think some of the coaches are filtering it through at times and there’s a signal here and there but they’re not changing it dramatically.
« I think we’ll see behavioural patterns change as the slams tend to all agree that they’re going to allow it over the next couple of years. »
Ultimately, according to Woodbridge, that will lead to players who are less instinctive and less capable of problem solving their way out of trouble on the court.
»The biggest thing about our sport is you have to do it yourself and you have to problem solve, » he said.
« We watch the great players problem solve in these big, long, hard matches, the way Andy Murray did his couple of matches that he won. I think I’m fighting a losing battle, I think I’m going to get overtaken with my opinion eventually, but for now I’m going to hold firm. »
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