Do you have to be coached by a legend of the game?

Sep 13, 2022, 6:00:00 AM | by Steven Oliveira

Novak Djokovic et Goran Ivanisevic
Juan Carlos Ferrero with Carlos Alcaraz, Conchita Martínez with Garbiñe Muguruza, Carlos Moya with Rafael Nadal or Goran Ivanišević with Novak Djokovic : many of best players on the circuit have surrounded themselves with a former tennis legend as coach. But is this a prerequisite for the reign of world tennis? Nothing is less certain.

Carlos Alcaraz is the new face of tennis. At 19 years, 4 months and 6 days old, the Spaniard became the youngest world number 1 in history after his recent victory in the US Open final over Casper Ruud. The Spaniard celebrated his first Grand Slam by climbing into his box as soon as he won match point. In the box were his family, friends and of course his coach : Juan Carlos Ferrero, who had also become world number one in September 2003 after a US Open final. Coach of the Spanish prodigy since he was 15 years old, the former French Open winner moved to the other side of the court once his sporting retirement was announced. As others have done before him. 

Tony Roche as a precursor

Carlos Alcaraz did not revolutionise tennis by relying on a former tennis legend as a coach. Among the best players in the world are Thomas Enqvist with Stéfanos Tsitsipás, Conchita Martínez with Garbiñe Muguruza, Carlos Moya with Rafael Nadal or Goran Ivanišević with Novak Djokovic, who has already had Boris Becker and Andre Agassi as a coach in the past. A fashion that is not new since the Australian Tony Roche, winner of the French Open in 1966, had in the past under his orders Ivan Lendl with whom he won seven Grand Slams, Patrick Rafter (two US Opens during their collaboration) or Roger Federer (six Grand Slams). If we add the success of Michael Chang with Kei Nishikori or Ivan Lendl with Andy Murray, who then won his first two Grand Slam titles, one might think that surrounding oneself with a former legend is the key to shine on the tennis courts. For Julien Boutter, former world number 46 and winner of Gustavo Kuerten's first Grand Slam title at the time, surrounding himself with former legends is a significant plus: "There are specificities that the player has made his own, tricks that he could give. In the management of a Grand Slam for example. We can take the example of Davydenko who has won Masters 1000s, 500s and 250s in spades but whose management of Grand Slams has been a bit more problematic. It's the same with Nalbandian. It's true that having the experience of seniors, of people who have won Grand Slams, of course that makes sense." But it also comes at a cost that only the world's best can afford, as tennis is one of the only sports where the player pays his coach himself. This explains why not everyone is in the same boat. Especially since it is far from being a miracle recipe. 

Connors and Wilander chess

Winners of 8, 7 and 6 Grand Slam tournaments respectively, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg have not necessarily succeeded in taking Marat Safin, Andy Roddick (and Maria Sharapova) and Roger Federer to the next level. Moreover, their collaborations with them did not last long and were not necessarily followed by other coaching experiences. Because yes, having been a tennis legend does not necessarily make you a good coach. This is obvious for Julien Boutter, who made his career with "a teacher who was 15/1 and a physical trainer who came from boxing and who didn't know which way to hold the racket": "Ask a player the invariants for a good serve or a good forehand, I don't know if they will be able to give them. It's not because you've been number one in the world that you're able to know them and master them. Being able to do it doesn't mean you can teach it. It's totally different. When I was at university, I was struggling in one or two areas of maths and I had a brilliant cousin who had done maths sup, maths speciale. Well, he was never able to explain anything to me. He would say: 'You do this, you put that', but that was monkey business to me. He was able to solve the equation but unable to teach it to me."

For the current director of the Moselle Open, a coach who has not been part of the world's best even has an advantage over the others: "I played for an hour and a half with my kid just now and it's true that sometimes we explain things that are obvious to us and we can therefore have less understanding or patience to explain them because they are obvious. And then at a given moment, the former player will reason in relation to himself, his past, his level of play. Whereas someone who hasn't had a career, he has learned his knowledge, he has examined it from several players, several situations. This is not the case for a former top-level champion." And it is not Toni Nadal or Patrick Mouratoglou, who did not need to be at the top of world tennis to make their proteges win Grand Slams, who will say the opposite. 

What if the solution was in the middle? 

Daniil Medvedev, coached by Frenchman Gilles Cervara who has never been a professional tennis player, has also proved that you don't need a legend as a coach to win a Grand Slam and become world number one. However, the right solution might be a mixture of the two. Either a classic coach who follows his player on a daily basis like a manager, and a former star of the small yellow ball who comes from time to time to add his expertise. This is the opinion of Julien Boutter: "I am convinced that in the world of tennis, a coach cannot have all the expertise. It is impossible. On the other hand, some have a specific approach to clay court technique, grass court technique, forehand technique, volley technique, whatever. I think it could be the future to say: 'I have expertise in this or that and I'll make my expertise available.' So my vision would be to have a general manager and then to go and find the expertise for each difficulty encountered. That's what I did, for example, by going to Laurent Raymond to explain to me how to play on grass." So, in the future we could see a player winning a Grand Slam with his life-long coach in the box, sitting next to Rafael Nadal, his clay court expert, Roger Federer, his one-handed backhand expert, Novak Djokovic, his return of serve expert, Andy Murray, his mental expert, and John Isner, his service expert.