Posted: Friday September 15, 2006 8:04PM; Updated: Saturday September 16, 2006 1:14AM
No. 10 Nicole Vaidisova took time out of her breakout year to work with some children at a clinic in New York.
Photo courtesy of Reebok
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NEW YORK -- Picture yourself at center court, under the lights, three games into a set and 20,000 fans on the edge of their seat. A 2-1 deficit brings the set's first changeover, and you're making that long walk from deuce court to your chair. Your mind is racing, trying to figure out what's wrong with your backhand, why your serve isn't kicking, how to get to net more. Then you look up into the stands to see a familiar face in the player's box holding a mango and waving his fingers as if trying to ward off the beginnings of a seizure.
You think he might be trying to get your attention.
Far-fetched, maybe, but it's a scenario Nicole Vaidisova can nonetheless envision -- and one she hopes she never lives through. Coaching is all well and good, but during matches? "I'm not a fan of it," said Vaidisova, in New York on Thursday to do a little coaching herself.
A cold, rainy afternoon had the 17-year-old Czech (currently 10th in the WTA rankings) seeking shelter inside the Roosevelt Island Racquet Club, or that sooty white bubble tucked underneath the Queensboro Bridge on that tiny island sliver between Manhattan's Upper East Side and Queen's Long Island City. All 6 feet of her bedecked in a white Reebok track suit, she sat at a bench just off of the club's green clay courts awaiting a play date with 17 area kids who would make the trip to this forgotten island for an hour of hitting and instruction at the club as part of a clinic staged by the City Parks Foundation's Urban Youth Tennis Academy and underwritten by Vaidisova's shoe and clothing sponsor, Reebok.
For Vaidisova, the clinic was the perfect diversion between the start of her next event (China Open, which begins on Monday in Beijing) and the end of the U.S. Open. "I feel like I've been given a great opportunity to do something I love for a living and being happy with it," she said, "and they are kids who really don't have the opportunity to have a normal life."
A little more than two weeks ago, Vaidisova saw her run in nearby Queens end in the third round after falling in three sets to Jelena Jankovic of Serbia and Montenegro. It would be the lone letdown (and even that's a strong word) in what's been a strong fourth year as a professional for Vaidisova. She won her sixth singles title in Strasbourg, France, in May, reached the semis at the French Open -- the deepest she's been in a Slam -- and advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon.
It was during the French, where Vaidisova surprised many with successive triumphs over Amelie Mauresmo and Venus Williams, that coaching from the stands became a hot topic off the court. The talk started when Roger Federer claimed that Rafael Nadal was being coached from the stands during the Italian Open in May and reached fever pitch during the U.S. Open women's final that saw Maria Sharapova trading hand (and fruit) signals with hitting partner Michael Joyce.
Not the type to follow a tournament once she's out of it, Vaidisova said she still hasn't seen the sequence in question. (In fact, she confessed to not knowing who had won the Open until going online Monday.) Most players, like Vaidisova, believe the no-coaching rule should remain as is, convinced a change would put players who can't afford to underwrite their coaches' travel at a disadvantage. Even Sharapova thinks introducing on-court coaching would be unfair, telling reporters after the U.S. Open that tennis is sport she has "always played with instinct."
Most players are against changing the rule because they feel it would put lower-tier players who can't afford to travel with their coaches at a disadvantage, but in the end their strength in conviction failed to save tennis' hands-off coaching tradition from some tinkering. Earlier this year the USTA and WTA experimented with on-court coaching at two events leading to this year's Open, the Rogers Cup in Montreal and Pilot Pen in New Haven, Conn. Coaches could be summoned only once per set and during set breaks.
Vaidisova, who played the event in Montreal, couldn't be bothered. "I didn't use it because you have to sign your coach up beforehand," she said. And even if she had, "I wouldn't have used it. I'm sure."
That's not to say it couldn't help. Away from the court, a coach might have a perspective into the game that a player, with her focus so narrowed, might miss. "Maybe he can calm you down," she said, though one of her coaches went further than that. Nick Bollettieri, whose academy helped launch Vaidisova's pro career, admitted to coaching his share of players over the course of a 25-year career tutoring Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Mary Pierce and Tommy Haas, among others. One of his favorite stories is from the French Open in the 1980s. He was coaching Lisa Bonder and had worked out an elaborate scheme with gestures listed on an instruction card (do X if I scratch my nose, Y if I touch my glasses, etc.) that Bonder would consult during changeovers. But when Bollettieri forgot the card in his hotel room, he sat on his hands the entire match to avoid giving the wrong signal. Bonder won the match.
Vaidisova said Bollettieri's never tried anything like that with her, and if he had, "I would be looking at him like, 'What the hell?' "