AELTC | Wimbledon Chairman considers Commissioner and on-court coaching
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When the likes of Phillip Brook, with the might of Wimbledon behind him, speaks out, the tennis world tends to listen.
There is more unilateral behaviour and discord among the governing bodies than I’ve seen in the sport in 20 years, and I think it would be great if tennis could do a better job of coming together and trying to figure things out, and try to act in the best interests of tennis. Philips Brook
The Chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis Club met with tennis writers in London this week, and proffered concerns over the state of the game these days.
“There is more unilateral behaviour and discord among the governing bodies than I’ve seen in the sport in 20 years, and I think it would be great if tennis could do a better job of coming together and trying to figure things out, and try to act in the best interests of tennis,” he said over lunch.
“We [Wimbledon] are not necessarily the easiest of people to deal with, but if the rest of the sport say we want to do it and there are good reasons, then maybe Wimbledon should fit in.”
Brook was referring to the issues surrounding on-court coaching as well as the ITF voting through plans for a new week-long Davis Cup Finals two months after the ATP announced it was pushing ahead with its World Team Cup starting in January 2020.
The two competitions are scheduled to take place just over a month apart, something even ATP President and CEO Chris Kermode called ‘insane’.
The Davis Cup changes are controversial, leading to a split between Wimbledon, which gave its support to the proposals, and the LTA, who held the voting rights but voted against the changes, the only Grand Slam nation to oppose the revamp.
Brook insisted relations have not been unduly affected, citing the threat to the Davis Cup’s position for backing the reforms.
“We have all seen this great event that has been with us for a hundred years declining and declining in importance,” he said.
“If that vote [at the ITF AGM] had failed, you don’t know whether you’ll have any of these investors in a year’s time. They may well all have gone ‘You know what, this is too difficult, we’re off’. and the consequences could have been, I think, quite dramatic.
“By the vote going through, there is a chance, and I use that word thoughtfully, of the Davis Cup getting its position back in the sport that it deserves to have.”
With tensions over tournaments, ranking points and new events in an already crowded calendar bubbling to the surface in recent weeks, perhaps a global commissioner might prove to be the answer to the many problems facing the game and would help to bring rival governing factions together for the good of the sport.
“There has been growing competition, I would say, in the last few years. Our view would be on the whole it’s been unhelpful,” Brook said.
“People say ‘Oh we need a commissioner of tennis’ and so on… I would be the first to say this is an idea worth exploring.
“And you can start the conversation, I don’t think starting the conversation is difficult, it’s when the conversation gets difficult that it gets difficult. Because nobody wants somebody else telling them what to do.
“If you want to make change… somebody over here says ‘Hang on a minute that doesn’t work for me’. So you need somebody or a few people, who have got the authority, who have been given the authority by the sport, to act on everybody’s behalf.
“It would be a brave step for the sport to take.”
Brook thinks all seven stakeholders would probably agree with his stance for collaboration, but the challenge would be persuading any one of them to release an element of control.
The ATP runs the men’s professional tennis tour and allocates men’s world ranking points, while the WTA performs that function for the women.
The four Grand Slam tournaments, Wimbledon, Roland Garros, the US Open and Australian Open, all offer ATP and WTA ranking points, while the ITF’s showpiece team events, the Davis Cup and Fed Cup, do not.
The conflicting tensions present a considerable challenge, probably too much for one person to solve.
“I don’t know whether a commissioner is the answer… I think giving all of that responsibility to one person is probably too much,” Brook added.
“But I think it’s a very hard problem to solve because seven groupings, everybody has a slightly different agenda… It doesn’t show our sport off in the best light, I think, some of the things that are going on.”
Brook was in New York for the US Open final, when Serena Williams engaged in a heated meltdown with umpire Carlos Ramos after she received a warning for receiving coaching on court.
At the time, the 37-year-old stated that she had not receiving coaching, although her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted to ESPN after the match that he was coaching, while Williams, who never uses the on-court coaching breaks allowed on the WTA Tour, maintained that they had not discussed coaching signals.
The situation escalated into Williams receiving a code violation for breaking her racket, resulting in a point penalty, and then a further violation for verbal abuse of an official that awarded a game to her opponent and eventual winner, Naomi Osaka.
It all ended with both players in tears, the stadium reverberating to the sound of booing from the crowd, and Williams being fined $17,000 for the infringements.
Brook’s sympathies lay mainly with Ramos, but he noted that the pressure of the situation on Williams, who was trying to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles, led her to lose her cool.
“People said to me, ‘Would that happen at Wimbledon’? My first reaction is maybe it could, but actually I do wonder whether [it was] the uniqueness of the circumstances in New York.
“Being in the stadium, it was really partisan. You have a very partisan crowd [in New York] who really wanted Serena to win.
“There is a huge amount resting on this because she is one match away from equalling Margaret Court’s record [of 24 grand-slam singles titles]. It is a bit cauldron-like. When they walk on court, it’s not like a Wimbledon final.
“The final of Wimbledon [this year] was similar in some senses [Williams also had a chance to equal Court’s record but lost to Angelique Kerber] but it wasn’t her home crowd in her home country.
“I could imagine the pressure on her being even greater than ever because of those circumstances and we all saw what happened. I think she was under a lot of pressure, [Ramos] was doing his job and what unfolded, unfolded.
“It was not a good look for tennis.”
Regarding calls by the USTA and WTA for coaching to be permitted during matches, Brook acknowledged there is a conversation to be had, but added: “We philosophically are in a place where we think tennis singles is a gladiatorial sport [in which] you figure it out for yourself.
“We think it would be a very sad day for tennis if that were to change.”
Brook added that, nevertheless, Wimbledon is willing to look into the subject of on-court coaching following the controversy.
On-court coaching has been used on the WTA Tour since 2009, but remains prohibited on the ATP Tour and in the main draws of all the four Grand Slams, the only exception being the US Open, which allows coaching from the stands during their qualifying tournament.
“What we would like to learn from those who have conducted trials is: ‘Persuade us why it is a good idea’,” Brook said. “The [current] situation is very confusing for everybody.
“Wimbledon and others think the time has come for an adult conversation across the sport to see where it goes.”
Former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko has said that there needs to be consistency, calling for the rule to be applied at all tournaments or not at all.
“I don’t know if there is any point of using it on the WTA Tour if you can’t use it in Grand Slams because in Grand Slams you have to play on your own,” the Latvian told reporters at the Korean Open.
“I think they need to do same in all the tournaments. Either allow [on-court] coaching at all tournaments or no coaching at all.”
Wimbledon has the reputation of being the most traditional of the Grand Slams, and change only comes slowly after heavy scrutiny.
Earlier this year, the AELTC Committee said they would look into using a fifth set tiebreaker for the first time but, as yet, no announcement has been made.
“We [Wimbledon] are not necessarily the easiest of people to deal with,” Brook admitted.
“People might say, ‘Shall we all vote for coaching, it’s good for the sport’, we will say no, but if the rest of the sport say ‘we want to do it’ and there are good reasons, then maybe Wimbledon should fit in.”
The momentum seems to be moving towards allowing some form of coaching during matches, with everyone accepting coaches and players frequently abuse the current rules and that there is a lack of consistency with how sanctions are enforced.
The US Open allowed players to talk to their coaches during qualifying and junior matches for a second year, while the Australian Open and French Open are believed to be open to at least experimenting.
In fact, even before the US Open final meltdown, the USTA had started campaigning in favour of coaching from the sidelines, insisting this adds entertainment value and that the rules against it are unenforceable.
Any move to allow it during main draw matches would need to be unilateral among the Grand Slams, and Wimbledon so far has been totally against it.
Now Brook seems keen to have a meeting before the end of the year between tennis’s various stakeholders to thrash out a unified stance on the coaching issue, although Wimbledon remains philosophically opposed.
Perhaps, finally, some common ground can be found to unify the game.