This is what 'coaching' means in tennis - and why Serena Williams was penalised for it

Serena Williams argues with an umpirePhoto by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

  • Serena Williams crashed out of the 2018 US Open final on Saturday.
  • During the Flushing Meadows match in Queens, New York, Williams received coaching, smashed her racket, and called the chair umpire a "thief."
  • She eventually lost in straight sets to Naomi Osaka, and was slapped with a $17,000 fine for her three violations.
  • Here's what "coaching" really means - and why Williams was penalised for it.

Serena Williams crashed out of the 2018 US Open women's final on Saturday, losing to Naomi Osaka.

The result could have been hailed as a potential passing-of-the-torch moment as the 23-time Grand Slam champion - arguably the best women's tennis player ever - was defeated in straight sets by an up-and-coming 20-year-old.

However, that storyline has not been read as, instead, the behaviour of Williams has been thrust into the spotlight - and even controversially lampooned by a cartoonist in the Australian newspaper The Herald Sun.

Williams was given three code violations during the loss at Flushing Meadows in Queens, New York, on Saturday. She was fined $17,000, according to the Associated Press, because she received coaching, which Williams denied. She smashed her racket, costing her a point, and she called the umpire Carlos Ramos a "thief," which cost her a game.

Smashing a racket and verbally abusing an umpire may seem like straight-forward sanctions, but the term "coaching" has caused some confusion.

So what does 'coaching' actually mean?

Tennis is an individual sport, rather than a team game, and may well be one of the loneliest sports to play as it is only you on the court. In boxing, fighters have "seconds" (up to three) who offer advice and treat cuts and swellings in between rounds. But in tennis, it is only the individual athlete, his or her thoughts, and his or her opponent - nobody else.

Athletes obviously benefit from coaching and day-to-day training sessions, but at Grand Slam events - and there are four of them in the calendar - they are strictly prohibited from receiving advice from their coaches during warm-ups and during matches.

"Players shall not receive coaching during a match (including the warm-up). Communications of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching," says Section L in "Article III -- Player On-Site Offense" in the Grand Slam Rulebook, according to ESPN.

What qualifies as coaching could be a matter of interpretation for the match umpire. It could involve explicit instructions or even coded gestures, as was the case with Williams and her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, in the 2018 US Open women's final.

Patrick Mouratoglou at the 2018 US OpenGetty Images

Mouratoglou was recorded on camera making a gesture with his hands, which may have been a code for Williams to move closer to the net. Chair umpire Carlos Ramos recognised this and slapped Williams with a code violation in the second game of the second set.

But doesn't everybody do that?

That depends on who you ask - and if you asked Mouratoglou, he would say absolutely. After all, Williams' coach admitted he was guilty of coaching Williams. "I am honest," he said, according to Eurosport, after the match against Osaka. "I was coaching."

Mouratoglou held his own hands up - and even claimed other coaches do the same. He said Naomi Osaka's coach Sascha Bajin also offered instruction during the US Open final. "Sascha was coaching every point too," he said. "Everyone is doing it 100 percent of the time."

So why was Serena Williams penalised for it?

Serena Williams and Carlos RamosGetty Images

Williams was penalised because Ramos believed he had identified coaching and wanted to reprimand the player.

Ramos is a strict enforcer of the rules and has had various run-ins with other blue-chip athletes like Venus Williams (he believed she had been communicating with her coach during the 2016 French Open), Andy Murray (he apparantly used insulting language at the 2016 Summer Olympics), and Rafa Nadal (Ramos slapped Nadal with a point deduction for taking too long to serve at the 2017 French Open).

Shouldn't the coach be penalised instead of the athlete?

Maybe. But the rules state that it is the player who is responsible for his or her coach, so the player therefore takes the punishment.

The rules may need to be addressed in the very near future as there is currently no consistency - not even in the same tournament.

Earlier in the US Open, Nick Kyrgios was seemingly coached by an actual umpire.

Mohamed Lahyani got down from his umpire's chair to seemingly give Kyrgios a pep talk in the second round of the competition. Kyrgios went on to win that match. This was against convention at the time, and clearly at odds with the treatment Williams received in her final.

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