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Thursday, May 23, 2013

It's Time to Stop Rafael Nadal's Cheating

Time to crack down on Rafael Nadal's cheating. That's right, he's cheating. Everyone knows it and no one seems to care.

Now, it's so openly accepted and forgiven that he apparently has even admitted to it. The Spanish newspaper El Pais asked him about looking to his coaches box during the final of the U.S. Open, when he beat Novak Djokovic, and Nadal reportedly said this:

"It was in the last game, when I was serving for the match. ... I didn't know where to serve. Down the center, to the middle or to try the classic play of the wide serve and then try to hit the forehand. They told me to serve wide and that's where I served."

They told him? It is against the rules to receive coaching during a match. Nadal knows it, too.

"The rules are the rules," he said at Wimbledon, when Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach, was fined $2,000 for coaching Rafa in a match. A few years ago, too, Roger Federer grumbled that Uncle Toni was trying to give advice from the stands.

It might not seem like a big deal, but it is. You see players doing it all the time in tennis, as this is its open secret. But it's still wrong.

I don't accept it, and neither should tennis' governing bodies. It is time to suspend Uncle Toni, boot him from a major tournament. And hit Nadal with a big fine.

Plenty of people, even within the game, think the better plan is to simply dump the rule. They are wrong. This is not the jaywalking of tennis rules. It is a basic tenet of the game, the guts of what tennis is about.

In fact, I would say it is the point of tennis: You are standing on a court alone, without help. You make the decisions, execute the shots. You are testing your body, your mind, your nerve.

Not your uncle's.

After completing the career Grand Slam and finally winning the U.S. Open, Nadal enters the "Greatest of All Time" conversation. -- Read Column The coaches have their time, and it's before the match. At some point, the players have to be able to think on their own.

Sure, there is coaching in other sports, but that is about their culture. Tennis is a test of your individuality, a game played without help. In fact, when a player cramps up, in tennis he is not seen as hurt, but as unfit and unprepared physically.

It's about personal responsibility, not asking your uncle where to serve.

The problem is that this cheating has become so commonplace that it has been half-legislated. Players can be coached in the Davis Cup. And the women's tour allows a certain number of coaching visits, mostly as a TV gimmick. A coach puts on a mic and you get to hear him talk with the player.

But when the coaches come out to talk, it makes them look so weak, in need of a coach, usually a man, to hold their hands and explain what they should do.

Yuck. More than any other sport, women's tennis players have a chance to show young girls what a strong and independent woman can do. Yet Justine Henin cannot go two points without looking to her coaches box.

At this year's U.S. Open, I went to a girls junior semifinal match. It was American Sloane Stephens against Russian Daria Gavrilova, who is 16.
If officials make the mistake of dumping the rule, then they need to just do it. If the rule stays, then it has to be enforced. Have the rule or don't, but you can't have it both ways.
Gavrilova, who would win the match and the tournament, kept squinting over at her coach and her dad between points. I happened to be standing right behind them. A line judge would turn each time to see if he could catch any coaching going on. At one point, a tournament official came over and warned the father.

What I saw was this: Gavrilova was about to serve once, and looked over. She raised her fingers off her racquet's grip, her father nodded, and then she served-and-volleyed. A few points later, she stared over again, and a coach pointed his index finger to the sky.

She then hit three straight moonballs, lobs.

Look, Gavrilova cheated Stephens. And if Nadal, the No. 1 player in the world is going to blatantly do the same thing, then it's only going to send the message down the ranks.

"Sometimes in the past," Nadal said at Wimbledon, "Toni talks maybe too much. But not today in my opinion."

See, coaching has become one of those unaccepted, accepted broken rules. And that might be the problem with hitting Nadal too hard now. It's not fair when you suddenly enforce rules you have been winking at all along.

But worst of all is the way tennis handles this. If officials make the mistake of dumping the rule, then they need to just do it. If the rule stays, then it has to be enforced. Have the rule or don't, but you can't have it both ways.

What you have now is tennis' greatest warrior making us close one eye so he doesn't ruin the picture.

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