SBJ/July 17 - 23, 2006/This Weeks News

WTA hopes court time for coaches entertains

The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour will allow players’ coaches on court next month at two events, long a taboo in the tradition-bound sport but the latest initiative to bring more intrigue and entertainment to the game.

Coaches and players mix at international events
like the Fed Cup but not on the pro tours.
Instant replay will be used at WTA events starting next week when its summer hardcourt season commences, with challenges to be seen on video screens in-stadium at all but one event. And the WTA has tried to jazz up its presentation with music, technology offerings and personality-driven stars.

Now coaches, often outsized personas in team sports, could be stepping out of the shadows in tennis, where they are largely non-entities to the average fan.

“The overarching strategy is we are actively introducing things over the next few months designed to enhance the entertainment quotient,” said Larry Scott, the WTA’s chief executive. “We are working hand in glove with TV to make the coaches more a focal point of interest to TV commentators and viewers.”

Indeed, ESPN, which this year will broadcast more than 600 hours of tennis, proposed on-court coaches at a WTA player meeting in January, along with a host of other initiatives that would give TV cameras more access to players, said Jason Bernstein, the channel’s director of programming and acquisition. ESPN has not decided how it will cover the coaches but this year has already been interviewing some of them in the stands.

Currently coaches are restricted to their seats and are banned from offering advice during the match. Insiders say, however, that the prohibition is widely ignored and that hand signals from coaches are the norm.

Critics counter that what makes tennis unique, other than in the infrequent World TeamTennis format, which allows coaches, is having two competitors on court without a lifeline to any advice or help. By allowing players access to their coaches, the WTA also could be helping those players with more resources to hire a high-quality coach.

The WTA’s initial experiment will be limited to the Rogers Cup in Montreal (Aug. 14-20) and the Pilot Pen Tennis in New Haven, Conn. (Aug. 21-26), though coaching also might be considered at the season-ending championship in Madrid. Players will be allowed one coaching break per set, as well as between sets, and if the other competitor takes an injury or rest-room break.

The ATP briefly experimented with on-court coaches several years ago but shelved the idea after fans and players didn’t take to it, said David Higdon, a spokesman for the men’s tennis governing body. The group, which has become far more open to change under its new leadership, will closely monitor the WTA results, he said.

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