BY DR. NANCY SPENCER
An interesting dilemma occurred during a second round Men’s Singles match at the Australian Open when the No. 1 ranked American male Mardy Fish was playing Columbia’s Alejandro Falla. After Falla took the first two sets, the Tennis Channel team of commentators Bill McAtee, Martina Navratilova, and Justin Gimelstob observed Falla was beginning to cramp. In sharing that information with the television audience, Gimelstob and Navratilova remarked on their surprise he was cramping — in light of Falla’s fitness and the fact that weather conditions were cooler. As the match wore on, Gimelstob and Navratilova became increasingly critical of Fish’s tactics, as he had failed to utilize a body serve (a point Gimelstob has made repeatedly to his good friend Mardy Fish). Both criticized his reluctance to play more aggressively by going to the net to finish points. At one point, Gimelstob explained his friendship with Fish made it difficult to say these things (i.e., after making critical remarks, he suggested he might “need a new groomsman” for his May wedding after making these comments—thus confirming Fish was going to be in his wedding).
As the third set began, Falla’s cramping became more evident, prompting Fish to ask Gimelstob if he was cramping. After sharing with the other commentators what Fish had asked, Navratilova spun the following scenario: so he asked if Falla was cramping and you said yes… Gimelstob confirmed that this was what happened. If that is what he conveyed, this is clearly unprofessional behavior for a member of the media.
My question is this: was this coaching? Furthermore, when is or should coaching be allowed in tennis? Tennis commentators frequently point to the strict rules of the ATP and WTA (Men’s and Women’s Associations governing conduct in professional tennis), noting cases where one player’s camp may be violating these strict rules. According to the ATP and WTA rules of tennis, coaching is defined as “communication of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach” (Frost, 2011, para. 2). Clearly, communication occurred between Gimelstob and Fish. But is it a violation if the communication includes a commentator instead of a coach?
Admittedly Gimelstob is not Fish’s coach. That role belongs to South African David Nainkin. However, to complicate things, Gimelstob later acknowledged receiving a text from Mardy Fish’s father, who suggested perhaps Fish needed three coaches. He added that Navratilova and Gimelstob were on the mark so much they should be added to the mix. If that eventuality comes to pass, it would be clear communication between Fish, Gimelstob and/or Navratilova would be a violation. In the meantime, why is their communication not the same as “coaching” in this case?