My coach is a former champion: fad or sustainable trend?

Jan 15, 2014, 12:00:00 AM

My coach is a former champion: fad or sustainable trend?
Edberg, Becker, Chang, Bruguera: Is hiring a former champion as a coach actually a good idea? The Mag has examined the off-season’s phenomenon in an attempt to answer the Question of the Week.

Edberg against Becker, Lendl against Chang, Bruguera against Ivanisevic. With players increasingly turning to yesterday’s stars as coaches, there will at times be as many Grand Slam winners in the players’ boxes as on the courts in 2014. Decryption of a trend, with this question in mind: is it as good than it looks?


The outbreak has caught everyone by surprise, during the winter torpor: the Top 10's boxes are now filled by stars of the 80s and 90s. And there’s no way around it: Novak Djokovic now works with Boris Becker, Roger Federer is advised by Stefan Edberg, Richard Gasquet by Sergi Bruguera and Kei Nishikori by Michael Chang. If you add Ivan Lendl, who has been working with Andy Murray for two years, Goran Ivanisevic with Marin Cilic since 2010, not to mention Tony Roche, 68 years old and coach of Lleyton Hewitt, they are no less than seven former champions to act as coaches simultaneously in the beginning of 2014. Unheard of. Seven, it’s more than there's ever been in the whole Open era.


But why such a phenomenon?


Quite simply the success of best of them: Ivan Lendl, who helped Andy Murray defeat the jinx in Grand Slams. After four defeats in his first four finals - a slap in the face that Lendl also experienced in his time - the Scot won the Olympics, the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. So now, everybody wants to replicate this winning formula. The reaction of Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams' coach, who has never been a high level player, may well be that of a man who preaches to his parish and has the merit of being clear: “Tennis is definitely a sport where fashion is raging. Each year, there's a new fashion phenomenon, it's a big hit, followed by a large majority of players. These trends almost always prevail over reflection, even if everyone tries to make sense of his actions.” And the French to make his point: “In 2011 and 2012, it was the gluten-free diet which was all over the tour after the success of Djokovic... You had to be thin in 2013, while only a few years before, everybody wanted to be muscular and powerful. At the time, Verdasco was at the origin of this tendency to consume protein and abuse the gym, propelled in the spotlight after his great Australian Open where he bowed in five sets in the semis against Rafa. This year, after the success of Andy Murray, the new cool thing to do is to work with a former champion.”


What is certain, is that this outbreak of beginners in the art of coaching also addresses a need: the renowned coaches are not easy to find. Life comfort has became a priority in a sport where money is flowing at the top (think 6000 to 13 000 USD salary per week for the best of them), and the coaches who have already proved their value are much less inclined to travel to the frenzied pace of ATP caravan. This settling process has thus hit Darren Cahill, Brad Gilbert or Sven Groeneveld, major figures of the 90s and 2000. For them, it’s now out of the question to move: it's the players who have to come see them, in brand new structures implemented by sponsors, such as "Team Adidas." There were therefore places on offer, benefiting former players in their thirties such as Nicolas Escudé, Ivan Ljubicic... or former glories missing the courts' spotlights and eager for new challenges.


For what results?


A trend. Patrick Mouratoglou said it. But if you look closer, a few precedents don’t encourage optimism regarding the validity of the argument 'grand champion = great coach.' Mats Wilander gave it a try several times in the 2000s, but the experiment didn't proved successful neither with Marat Safin, nor with Paul-Henri Mathieu, and even less with Tatiana Golovin. Meanwhile, Jimmy Connors won the Cincinnati Masters 1000 and reached the U.S. Open final with Andy Roddick (2006), but it is reasonable to think that this was a minimum given the Pedigree of his protégé, who had already won in New York once and had already been World No. 1. Jimbo did it again last year with Maria Sharapova.... in a sort of Las Vegas wedding, annulled as soon as the concerned parties had regained their minds.


In truth, the only convincing example of a Grand Slam's winner turned successful coach goes back to the beginnings of professional tennis. Specifically in 1966. That year, Tony Roche won Roland Garros, his only major title in six finals played. A record that he will enhance by proxy as coach of three world numbers 1: Ivan Lendl in the 80s, Patrick Rafter in the 90s and Roger Federer in the 2000s. This proliferation of former glories in current players' entourages also sounds as a recognition for the patriarch: “It's because it brought me so much that I felt that I had to pass on my knowledge” said Ivan Lendl.


Having a star coach, what benefits for which disadvantages?


As it was the case with for Andy Murray and the Czech, the celebrity coach is supposed to help with some specific problems. He's the one who has the ability to reassure thanks to his intimate knowledge of all the ordeals that his protégé can ever go through. Vicious spiral or trembling arm before serving for a Grand Slam victory, he’s seen all this before. Or as Michael Chang said: "We have what most conventional coaches don't: we know what it's like to be on top. We've been there. We know how it works and how to react in a given situation." That's the strong point. In contrast, the former star often lack experience in terms of transmission and is sometimes disconnected from the technical evolutions... Not to mention the fact that it’s not given to everyone to be a good teacher. There’s also the possible war of egos between a player and a coach braced with certitudes conferred by his track record... "For me, it can be fantastic to have a coach that was a great players, but it’s even better to look into those who were able to do great things with limited skills, tempers Jim Courier. Players like Brad Gilbert, José Higueras... who didn't have a tremendous talent at first but who maximized their potential. In my opinion, they have the best profile to lead a player to the top."


Nevertheless, each of these new collaborations has its own peculiarities and its own... issues. If the relationship - and filiation - between Chang and Nishikori for example seems logical, some marriages are intriguing and remind us that this new coach, as famous as he is, is still an extra coach. In the case of Roger Federer, Stefan Edberg is clearly acting as a consultant, one that will bring a new light during some specific weeks of the year. Severin Lüthi will continue to accompany his compatriot on a daily basis, like he's been doing since 2007. The Boris Becker Case, named "#1 coach" of Novak Djokovic at the expense of the historical Marian Vajda, demoted "#2 coach" is a more interesting case... Is modern tennis played from the baseline? Because the Serb has called one of the finest examples of attacking tennis. He dreams of winning Roland Garros, only Grand Slam missing from his prize list? Then he shall perform this quest with one of the greatest cursed of the Parisian tournament. Strange? It seems so… Unless if the primary objective of the association is a way to make diversion, to bring calm and serenity to the rest of the team. While the media focus on the big name, transformed for the occasion into a projectors magnet, they leave the player and his (other) coach in peace. Focused on Ivan Lendl, how many journalists in recent years have examined the contribution of Daniel Vallverdu in Andy Murray's staff, both long-time friend, sparring partner but also coach of the Scots?


So, will it stay or will it go?


Above all, this emergence of legends of the past alongside current star players is an extra excitement for the fans and an unparalleled publicity stunt for the ATP: the show won't be only on the courts, it will also be in the stands in 2014. And unless Rafael Nadal decides to settle everything by completing the calendar Grand Slam, this trend of former champion turned coach will inevitably result in winners and victims. There won't be enough big trophies for everyone: some will earn their talented coach medals while others will be doomed to fail. Boris, Stefan, Michael Sergi and others: a quarter century later, the match resumes with a vengeance.


By Guillaume Willecoq