It's been refreshing to watch Justine Henin win round after round at the Australian Open. She's got the most complete game in women's tennis, and yet she's still not content to play the same-old. Henin is trying to change her style of play, hitting more aggressive serves and finishing more points at net, among other things. But while we're all marveling at the new-and-improving Henin, one thing hasn't changed with the Belgian: Her reliance on her coach, Carlos Rodriguez.
The two have always had an exceptionally strong bond, much like a father-daughter relationship. Before she left the game, Henin made a habit of looking over to Rodriguez after virtually every point as if a psychic current ran directly between them. Sometimes she would flash a fist pump, other times she would glance his way in an attempt to find moral support.
As her run Down Under has demonstrated, Henin still relies on Rodriguez. If anything, she appears to be depending on him more than ever. And Rodriguez has been none-too-shy about helping her out. In tennis, of course, on-court coaching is illegal at the Grand Slams. But that hasn't stopped Rodriguez from blatantly signaling and communicating with his charge. He doesn't even attempt to disguise his gestures.
In Henin's quarterfinal match against Nadia Petrova, Rodriguez was shown on television motioning a toss, and then moving his other hand as if to say, "move your feet," when Henin prepared to return the ball. On the next point, Petrova tossed the ball for a slice serve while Henin moved to her right to cut off the ball.
The signaling was so conspicuous that commentator Martina Navratilova had no choice but to call out Henin for receiving illegal coaching. But the chair umpire either didn't notice or didn't care. A similar scene played out in a previous Henin match, when it appeared that Rodriguez was trying to help Henin with her wayward service toss.
Coaching from the stands is nothing new. Back in the day, Ion Tiriac and one of his players, Guillermo Vilas, developed a set of signals so Tiriac could dispense advise without being noticed. More recently, at the 2006 U.S. Open, who could forget when Maria Sharapova's father, Yuri, infamously held up a banana on two occasions in an apparent reminder to eat. Her hitting partner, Michael Joyce, was also caught on camera during the tournament flashing a four-finger signal. There are countless other examples; Henin is just the most recent.
Henin's behavior does illuminate how tennis can make its practitioners feel completely isolated, alone, lost. You won't find a more driven and talented player than the pint-sized Belgian, yet even she feels compelled to seek continual support during a match.
Problem is, while the women's tour has experimented with on-court coaching, it's still prohibited at the majors (and on the men's tour). In fact, it's one of the game's most distinguishing features, one that separates it from other sports—players must figure out how to win on their own terms without outside help—and thus it's one of the game's most cherished rules, at least among traditionalists. But the rule is clearly not being enforced. (Neither is the time taken between points, but that's another point for another column.) Perhaps it's too much to ask the chair umpire to watch each player's box for hand signals and blatant communication between coach and player. If so, an extra official is needed to keep an eye on each coach, and to alert the chair when a coach crosses the line between exhorting his or her player and mapping out Xs and Os. At that point, the chair can first warn the player, then follow up with a point penalty and default. Illegal coaching would be snuffed out in a hurry.
But to continue to turn a blind eye to such blatant coaching makes a mockery of the rule and chips away at the game's integrity.
Watching Henin Down Under has made me all the more appreciative of a recent comment by Serena and Venus Williams' mother and coach, Oracene. She says she'll be giving up her spot in the player's box for good before her daughters retire, citing boredom as the chief reason. "I go to sleep [watching Serena and Venus play] that's why I wear the sunglasses."
There's someone who's got the right view of on-court coaching.
James Martin is the editor-in-chief of TENNIS. Follow him on Twitter.
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