It is axiomatic in sports that athletes and teams always will seek an "edge" -- legal and otherwise -- against their opponents. Football teams scout each other. Golfers have been accused of mismarking their balls on the green. A National Hockey League coach recently threw pennies on the ice to give his team a few extra minutes of rest. Now professional tennis players have joined the controversy because some are said to be helped by coaching through hand signals from the stands.
Article V Section M of the Men's International Professional Tennis Council (MIPTC) Code of Conduct says, "Players shall not receive coaching during a tournament match." The women's tour also forbids coaching. Consequently, players and their coaches have devised elaborate systems of hand signals as a substitute.
The entire issue of hand signals begs the larger question of coaching. Tennis stands virtually alone among sports in forbidding its use except in team events such as the Davis Cup and Federation Cup. Staunch defenders of the status quo say on-court coaching would give players who can afford it an advantage leading to a deemphasis in self reliance.
Advocates of coaching simply believe it would improve the product; there would be better tennis matches.
Hand signals have been an issue since the professional era began in 1968. Before then they were considered bad form and a breach of the sport's code of ethics. But as money became the overriding issue, fewer players had reservations about using them. The first coach to gain attention for supposedly employing signals -- and still the focus of debate today -- was Ion Tiriac, who shepherded Ilie Nastase, Guillermo Vilas, Henri Leconte, and now Boris Becker to stardom.
Tiriac is a wily character from Romania who played for his country's Davis Cup and ice hockey teams and is one of the shrewdest minds in the sport. He claims to be nonplussed about hand signals, although he has been shown on television in the midst of subtle gestures worthy of a third base coach. Vilas, his second star pupil, constantly made eye contact with Tiriac during matches and developed an admitted overdependence on his coach.
I hardly consider myself a purist since I fought for many rule changes during my playing days, but I favor the current rule -- even in Davis Cup. Two years ago, Davis Cup organizers thought of taking captains off court during matches and asked my opinion as U.S. captain at the time. I unhesitatingly said yes because I believed U.S. players could outthink our opponents. The change never was made, but members of the MIPTC voted recently in Monte Carlo to keep the rule as is for tournament play.
There is a limit to what can be communicated through hand signals and it is virtually impossible to differentiate between natural body movement and signaling. At last summer's Davis Cup match with West Germany, I was told that Tiriac had broken the code that Robert Seguso and Ken Flach used for serving and was passing it to the German doubles team of Becker and Andreas Maurer at the other end of the court.
Although I told Seguso and Flach to change their signals, I did not think it mattered too much. At one stage I even looked up at Tiriac and smiled as if to say "You naughty boy!" And he grinned. We won the doubles match.
Hand signals usually convey the obvious: calm down, come to the net, toss the serve higher.
Coaches associated with top players include Dennis Ralston with Chris Evert Lloyd, Betty Stove with Hana Mandlikova, Mike Estep with Martina Navratilova, and Tony Roche with Ivan Lendl. They are seldom involved in overt hand signaling controversies. Ralston said, "It's impossible to police and since most players speak three or four languages you can never be sure. But it did annoy Chris sometimes."
Ralston has a suggestion that he used with Evert: a playbook. Before each match, he handed her a small square of paper with instructions and pertinent thoughts. Computer software firms offer standardized sheets for match and player analysis that also can assist with strategy.
I recall my 1975 Wimbledon final against Jimmy Connors, who came on the court for the match with a piece of paper stuck in his sock. Before the match, he pulled out the paper and on it were instructions from his mother and grandmother on how to play me.