Novak Djokovic has denied on the eve of Wimbledon that he and his coach, Boris Becker, are cheating when exchanging glances during play, although the laws of tennis specifically forbid any communication.
Section VIII (i) of the ATP’s rulebook states: “Players shall not receive coaching during a tournament match. Communications of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching.”
When asked on Sunday what he thought of reports that Becker admitted in a recent interview to doing just that, Djokovic, the reigning Wimbledon men’s singles champion, said: “I don’t think that we’re cheating. I don’t think that’s how you can call it.
“I mean, there are special ways of, I would say, communication, as he mentioned: the way you look at each other, the way you ‘feel’ your box, and the box ‘feels’ what you’re going through on the court. I think that’s something that just gives you that reassurance, gives you that confidence.
“It’s not necessary that he tells me where to serve or to which side of the opponent’s court I have to play, because that doesn’t happen. But it’s more of a, you know, encouragement, and more of a support and reassurance, as I said, that’s basically present in those moments.”
Pressed further on whether or not this constituted “a signal”, Djokovic smiled nervously, and replied: “Well, I think with all the cameras pointed out to him and to the box, I think you would already notice if he would just kind of go kick serve, slice, to do the backhand or forehand.
“But again, we can’t pretend like that’s not happening in tennis. Of course, there’s situations when it happens, and not just with the top players, with everybody. This is a very competitive sport. You’re alone on the court. Of course, there’s certain rules.
“But also there are times when the team of the player communicates with the player when he gets to go and take the towel in the corner, which is closer to the box, or, you know, different ways.
“I think it’s all fine as long as it’s not regular. I think it just depends. Also that’s up to the chair umpire or supervisor to decide if somebody’s breaking the rules or not. As long as it’s something that you can tolerate, let’s say, within the ways of communication, I think it’s fine.”
As measured as that sounds, it suggests at the very least a cavalier regard for the game’s protocols. If the umpire caught Becker and Djokovic – or any coach and player – violating this or another code of conduct, they would issue a warning, followed by a point penalty for a second offence, then a game penalty for a further transgression.
It is a rule that you rarely see enforced, however, and whether or not coaching should or should not be allowed is an issue that divides the men’s and women’s Tours.
In WTA events outside the majors, coaches can come on to the court once per set, or when an opponent is receiving a medical time-out, but cannot communicate during play.
Rules, regulations, nods and winks aside, Djokovic was further embarrassed during his champion’s press conference when he strayed into another row ignited by Becker: questioning whether or not the world No1 and Roger Federer “really don’t like each other” – as the forever outspoken Becker suggests in his new book.
When asked about how moved he seemed during a long, standing ovation from the crowd at Roland Garros immediately after he’d lost to Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final earlier this month, Djokovic said: “I felt something I never felt before in any grand slam final with any of my rivals … this connection with Stan.
“The way we greeted each other at the net, then after when he came to my bench, I appreciate it very much. I think that shows his greatness, as well. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
He added that there was “some kind of wrong connotation” at large in the perception of rivalries in the modern game, “where you’re trying to create such a tense atmosphere between the two players, where instead you’re supposed to just, you know, focus on the right values and the fair play and the respect to the opponent and to the game itself”.
Djokovic might have a point on the “coaching” row, but loading the blame for his coach’s remarks about the dislike between him and Federer back on to the media – and it is certain Becker has appreciated the publicity for his book – was less convincing.
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