NEW YORK -- Well, that didn't take long. On Day 2 of the US Open, the issue of on-court coaching -- the controversy at the heart of the 2018 US Open women's final -- reared its ugly head.
In the third set between No. 8 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and 21-year-old Russian Andrey Rublev, chair umpire Damien Dumusois hit Tsitsipas with a code violation for coaching, based on the behavior of Tsitsipas' father/coach, Apostolos, and India's doubles star Leander Paes, an adviser. Tsitsipas' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, whose hand gesture sparked the conflict between Serena Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos in last year's infamous final against Naomi Osaka, was also in the box.
Tsitsipas was surprised by the censure, and the penalty became a major distraction in the match, which he went on to lose 6-4, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (7), 7-5. As Tsitsipas said afterward: "[The penalty] can affect your thinking. It can affect your decision-making. And I sometimes believe there is nothing [no penalty] to give there."
The comment was a painful echo of Williams' outrage last year at being penalized for a supposed coaching violation. She said she never even saw Mouratoglou's gesture. Likewise, Tsitsipas argued that in the heat of competition, he isn't even aware of what coaching might be directed his way.
"I can tell my honest truth of what I feel," he explained. "I'm so concentrated in that match there is no way I'm going to think of what my dad tells me from the outside. I just hear a buzz in my head. I can't hear anything. I'm not trying to concentrate on what my team is telling me from the outside because this is going to affect my game. And I try not to pay too much attention to it."
That's no excuse for coaches, fathers, clever labradoodles, voices from beyond or anyone else to be coaching from the box. But perhaps, as this issue keeps arising, officials should be a little more tolerant of natural reactions in the heat of battle. Is a cry of, "Come on, move!" really coaching? As John Isner pointed out in an interview recently, the kinds of things his team might shout ("Stay down," in the case of 6-foot-10 Isner) are the things he's telling himself anyway.
During his postmatch news conference, Tsitsipas accused Dumusois of having "something against me" and added: "I wish that all the chair umpires were like Mohamed Lahyani, because I believe he's the best in the game, and we need more like him in tennis because he's fair to everyone."
But wait. Loads of players had exactly the opposite reaction last year, when Lahyani took it upon himself to climb out of his umpire's chair to give despondent, tanking Nick Kyrgios a pep talk. The veteran official was widely criticized for acting more as coach and morale booster than impartial official, and was ultimately subject to a "soft warning" of his own: Lahyani spent the rest of the tournament officiating minor matches on the outside courts.
It's tempting to capitulate and throw open the door and allow in-match coaching. But there are serious pitfalls to that approach, including the advantage it would give players who can afford elite, traveling coaches. All sports navigate officiating controversies -- often with no resolution that satisfies everyone. Should the NFL have compulsory instant-replay after every down to ensure nobody is getting away with anything?
The current rules and punitive system seem fair. Nobody has charged that tennis is awash in corrupt or incompetent officials -- at least not at the tour or Grand Slam levels. Players have complained about officiating, but that's what players do. How often have any of them accused their opponents of reaping benefits from illegal coaching? Rarely, if ever.
There is room for improvement in the logistics, if not the rules governing coaching. Why not seat a player's coaches much farther back from the court? Or seat coaches in boxes next to each other? Those who would cheat could certainly devise signals, as some have done in the past -- and still might do. But that is a policing challenge.
The only way to eliminate coaching would be to allow it. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.