At the new United Cup tournament that began the 2023 season in Australia, Cam Norrie and Taylor Fritz split the first two sets and were locked in a close battle for the final set.
But Norrie’s coach, Facundo Lugones, had some choice information to pass on: Norrie wasn’t getting enough of Fritz’s serves on the deuce (or right) side back in play and needed to back up, Lugones recalled. And when Norrie was serving, Lugones saw Norrie was winning all his on the deuce side when he served the ball wide to Fritz’s forehand, so he urged him to do that more.
The 13th-ranked Norrie won 6-4 in the third set. It’s impossible to call coaching the decisive factor — the players had to make their shots — but it added an extra wrinkle for the players and the fans.
The WTA began allowing coaching during matches in 2020, while the ATP debuted coaching last summer, making this French Open just the third Grand Slam tournament to allow it for men’s tennis.
Exchanges are limited: While hand signals are now permitted, players and coaches may only talk during the 25 seconds between points when the player is on the side where the coach is sitting. (Outside of Grand Slams, the WTA allows female players one longer conversation per set during a changeover.)
Still, many players, including the ninth-ranked Fritz, criticized the change, calling it a “dumb rule” that violated the idea of an individual sport. Lugones said Norrie was also “not a big fan of on-court coaching — most players love the one-on-one battle.” When things are going well, he said, he doesn’t say much.
Zhang Zhizhen climbed from 99th to 69th in Madrid this month by beating Denis Shapovalov, Norrie and Fritz in a week when he left his coach back home. “I don’t like when my coach talks to me. It makes me feel confused and makes things complicated,” Zhizhen said. “Sometimes I will say, ‘Stop, you are talking too much.’”
Many players want at least some outside advice and encouragement.
“Watching from the outside you can see more, so a coach can really help with the small changes. If I’m missing forehand returns, he’ll tell me whether I need to step back or stay low, which can make a difference,” said Rohan Bopanna, who is ranked 11th in doubles.
While the forced brevity is limiting, live coaching can be effective, said the third-ranked Jessica Pegula. “You can change your game plan a little quicker now.” Both she and Jan-Lennard Struff, who is ranked 28th, said that in tough matches, a psychological push was just as important. “Then it’s about the positive energy and good vibes,” Struff said.
Fifteenth-ranked Hubert Hurkacz agreed that “big-picture strategy” and a psychological boost could really help, but he added that occasionally, he will shut down communication. “Sometimes I can say, ‘I got this,’ and focus on myself,” he said.
Even Fritz communicates regularly during matches. His coach, Michael Russell, said 70 percent of their exchanges were about the mental game — “stay positive, one point at a time, keep your feet moving” — and 30 percent was more tactical and strategic.
“A player can be so hyper focused, they can’t see the bigger picture,” Russell said, adding that his suggestions often reinforced their pregame planning while responding to trends Russell had noticed. “There are matches where Taylor gets too comfortable hitting the backhand crosscourt and just extending the rally. If he’s not being aggressive enough and using the backhand down the line, I’ll tell him to do that to hurt his opponent more.”
But Russell said his advice was in broad strokes, not telling Fritz where to serve on the next point.
“It’s better not to be specific because if it doesn’t work on that next point, you’re setting him up for negativity,” Russell said. He also won’t make technical adjustments, like saying his toss is too low, unless it’s a blatant issue because he doesn’t want Fritz overthinking things.
Lugones said that being limited to perhaps five words — often at a distance in a stadium filled with screaming fans — restricted the amount of actual coaching possible. While Norrie will seek more advice during certain matches, the consultations are quite brief.
“You can’t fully explain a change of patterns, and if the player doesn’t hear you or understand you, it can backfire,” he said. “That’s why the coaching during matches is often more mental than tactical.”
That’s especially true for the men at Grand Slams, where matches can go five sets and last four or five hours.
“The Slams are like a roller coaster — you have to remind your player there are lots of momentum shifts and whoever handles that better will win the match,” Lugones said. “Stay patient and remember you have time to change things.”
Russell added that as the match grinds on, he’ll remind Fritz about nutritional and caloric intake and not rushing through points when fatigue sets in. But sometimes when a player is tiring, the best move is to growl encouragement like Mickey, the trainer in the movie “Rocky.”
“Make sure he can see the light at end of the tunnel,” Russell said.
In that Norrie-Fritz match at the United Cup, the coaches had access to livestreaming data, which Lugones said was helpful in confirming the patterns he had picked up with his eyes. “It’s especially good to have during the long matches,” he said.
He would like to see data used more during matches, but he would also like to see the men’s tour amend the rule that allows one real conversation a set during a changeover. “You would have more time to explain your tactics and make sure the player hears,” he said.
Lugones would even be open to letting the TV audiences listen in, the way other sports often attach microphones to coaches. “If it’s better for the sport and will attract more fans,” he said, “that’s fine.”