I watched yesterday and today as Maria Sharapova’s coach, Michael Joyce, tried ably to help her win matches against fellow Russians, newcomer Alisa Kleybanova and the veteran Elena Dementieva, at the 2009 Roger's Open. I must admit that I was particularly interested in looking at Maria because I have been following her comeback fairly closely. I wanted to gauge how motivated she really was to return from injury, surgery, and rehab, to dominate women’s tennis once again.
I did not look at her matches with the intent of writing a piece about courtside coaching. Au contraire, I was going to write something about the psychology of coming back from injury. I was going to say that although a player may know that her shoulder is completely healed because her medical providers have told her so, it can be very difficult mentally to push past the impulse to guard and instinctively protect that part of the body that has experienced severe pain. I was going to write about this psychology of pain and on the mental strength required to believe in one’s full recovery.
But instead I found myself derailed by the bizarre view of courtside coaching in which the coach is attached to a microphone so that the TV audience can hear his every word. And what I saw in Maria Sharapova was a player who seemed utterly humiliated by the experience.
The humiliation started yesterday in the match against Kleybanova. The coach mentioned to Maria that he knew that her arm was tired but that he wanted her to hit more slice serves down the line. She interrupted him snappily to retort, “I’m not tired!” Except that she did not seem to be talking to him so much as to me. It looked for all the world as if Maria was upset not at being told the truth – I know this because she promptly went out and executed every single aspect of her coach’s suggested game plan – but by the idea of being publicly overheard in the process.
And then today, the coach seemed to lose his patience as he tried once again to guide Sharapova to a win. She however seemed to be too aware that their conversation was not private. Again he commented on the fatigue of her arm. And again she became defensive, this time telling him that he was talking too loud. He retorted that she was talking louder than he was. He then tried to focus on what she could do against Dementieva. Finally in frustration he walked off telling her: “Everybody knows that you're tired. Either give in to yourself and get out of here or play hard.”
And he was right. There was nothing that he was saying to her that needed absolute privacy. He was simply commenting on the obvious. But to me, Maria seemed embarrassed by it all.
I know that this clip will eventually end up on YouTube and I promise to update this entry when it does. I think that it is an important exchange that highlighted how uncomfortable Sharapova was with the experience of courtside coaching. And again my impression is that her discomfort was not with being coached per se – she clearly needed the help what with being a power player who does not seem especially given to analysis – but with us the viewers looking on and overhearing as her coach literally told her what to do.
It is kind of ironic that Sharapova of all people would seem so uncomfortable with everyone knowing that she can’t think her way out of a paper bag. After all, this is a player who in 2005 was fined for receiving illegal coaching, and who in 2006 was accused of continuing to engage in this practice.
The introduction of courtside coaching was intended to improve the audience’s participation in tennis. It was supposed to add excitement to the game by enhancing TV viewership. I’ve commented before that all of the recent innovations in tennis seem to be done with the TV camera in mind. I suspect that this is one innovation that Sharapova could live without.
UPDATE: Here's the clip. Thanks Onur!