Seeking cutting edge

Tennis

Seeking cutting edge

Current superstars are relying on past masters to stay a step or two ahead of their opponents

 Tennis royalty has coached tennis royalty before. Bill Tilden, the American who was the game’s biggest star in the 1920s, coached Gottfried von Cramm and the German Davis Cup team. Billie Jean King coached Martina Navratilova. Mats Wilander coached Marat Safin. Jimmy Connors coached Andy Roddick and then, for an embarrassingly short stretch last year, Maria Sharapova.

Ivan Lendl is still coaching Andy Murray after helping him make the leap from Grand Slam pretender to US Open and Wimbledon champion. But there has never been a rush into the coaching ranks quite like the one that has just occurred. Men’s professional tennis has a brief six-week off-season, but that was more than enough time for today’s stars to hire plenty of yesterday’s stars.

The marquee moves were the entourage-inclined Novak Djokovic’s hiring of the former No 1 Boris Becker as head coach and Roger Federer’s decision to bring in the former No 1 Stefan Edberg, his boyhood idol, as assistant coach and inspiration-in-chief.

On a slightly lower rung, ninth-ranked Richard Gasquet joined forces with the former French Open champion Sergi Bruguera, and the Japanese star Kei Nishikori hired the former French Open champion Michael Chang.

With the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open, set to begin on Monday in Melbourne, there is a fresh sense of possibility and curiosity enveloping the men’s game, which has been remarkably stable at the top in recent years, with the same four men hoarding the major titles. How might this infusion of big-name talent reshuffle the golden-age deck?

“I think some are a great fit, but I’m not sure about the others,” Chang said of the new coaches. "The one thing these past champions have that a lot of coaches don’t, though, is the experience that comes from playing on the biggest stages in tennis. We’ve been there. We know what it takes, and we know from experience what has worked and what has not.

“At this point, everyone is looking for an edge, and that edge can sometimes mean the difference between winning a Grand Slam or coming up just short, as Andy Murray has shown very clearly the past couple of years. If hiring a former champion will help a player get to the next level or two, why not take advantage of it?”

For years, the consensus has been that the best coaches are savvy, still-hungry former players who never achieved or quite achieved greatness. That would include men like Larry Stefanki, who had a losing record as a professional; Paul Annacone, who peaked at No 12 in the singles rankings; Darren Cahill, who peaked at No 22; and Brad Gilbert, who rose as high as No 4 but never made it past the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam tournament in singles.

“Some of the best coaches, in my opinion, are the ones who had less and made the most of it,” said Jim Courier, the American Davis Cup captain and a former No 1. “That’s why I think Brad Gilbert has been so effective as a coach, because he was a guy who had a limited skill set on the court but maximized every bit of it, and I think he’s been able to help his players see that benefit.”

Lendl, for one, has done it quite successfully.

“All of these relationships are so personality-driven that each case is different,” Lendl said. “But I think everyone has to be in it for the right reason or it won’t work. In my case, I like Andy a lot. We shared certain things, like a sense of humor, and I wanted to help him try to achieve his goals, which has been fun.”

In the men’s game, retired superstars have generally been content with being Davis Cup captains, television commentators or intermittent senior-tour players. But several new forces appear to be at work. There is the Lendl effect, as well as the desire to play a direct role in this remarkable, history-making era in the men’s game. 

What Lendl has made clear to former greats is that a coach can play a decisive role on a part-time basis. Lendl has not traveled every week of the season with Murray, and none of his illustrious imitators are taking on a full travel load, either.

Becker, 46, is sharing road duties with Djokovic’s longtime coach, Marian Vajda. Bruguera, 42, is doing the same with Gasquet’s other coach, Sébastien Grosjean, another former top-5 player. Chang said he would not travel full time with Nishikori but planned to bring his family when he did. Edberg, 47, has committed to approximately 10 weeks this season with Federer.

“Much less than what other coaches have done in the past who have joined me,” Federer said recently in Brisbane, Australia. “I don’t see him as much in a coaching role, more as an inspiration, a legend joining my team.”

The pleasant, measured Edberg, with his attacking bent, seems a fine temperamental and stylistic fit for Federer, who has won the tour’s Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award on nine occasions. Still, at 32, Federer looks to be in need of more grit than congeniality.

“Of all the jobs, Edberg is going in with the toughest one,” Gilbert said. “He’s coaching a guy that’s going to be 33 this year, chasing some guys who are younger and playing phenomenal. And the thing is, you are held to the standard of a .375 hitter. It’s not like, 'OK, you can hit .330 and feel great.'”

Djokovic and Becker form an unlikely pairing. Some pundits are predicting a short relationship while others sense good timing and chemistry.

“I just think Boris walks into, or jumps into, the best situation,” Gilbert said. “Just because Djokovic is 26 and he was playing brilliant tennis at the end of the year, you don’t think anything technically is going to change, maybe some strategy a little bit.

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