‘Like a marriage in a lot of ways’

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The large screens at the gargantuan Arthur Ashe stadium at the US Open have been a raucous entertainment medium in their own right during the past two weeks. Often they show spectators rocking back and forth to the music played during change-overs, at other times the footage pays tribute to past champions.

Andy Roddick was blasting his way to a straight-sets win over the Swede Thomas Johansson in New York last week when, in between games, the screens lit up with the last point of Jimmy Connors’ victory over Ivan Lendl in the 1983 US Open final.

The crowd cheered lustily, with many spectators pointing at Connors sitting courtside in his role as Roddick’s coach. Connors’s obvious celebrity aside, the episode underlined how, in the past year or so, coaches in the men’s game have acquired a greater prominence than ever before.

In addition to the resurgent Roddick, who teamed up with Connors after crashing out of Wimbledon last year at a low point in his career, the Chilean Fernando Gonzalez has benefited from the tutelage of Larry Stefanki, and Brad Gilbert guided Andy Murray into the top 10 of the world rankings before a serious wrist injury interrupted the British player’s progress in spring.

Novak Djokovic, whose pole vault to number three in the world has been one of the sport’s most compelling stories this year, had not just one but two coaches from March through to Wimbledon: the Serb continues to work with his regular coach since June 2006, the Slovak Marian Vajda, while the Australian doubles-great Mark Woodforde was hired to help the 20-year-old with his volleying.

Unlike managers of soccer clubs or coaches of American football teams who patrol the sidelines gesticulating wildly and are stars in their own right, the tennis coach usually labours in obscurity, acting as sparring partner, guru and often schedule-planner. And because travelling the globe can be a lonely business, there is an added duty: coach and player must also be compatible dinner companions, says Patrick McEnroe, the US Davis Cup captain: “It’s like a marriage in a lot of ways.” This is an overlooked part of the job, but it explains why so many coaching relationships in tennis quickly go stale.

Stefanki, who began working with Gonzalez last year, stresses the need to build a player’s confidence by putting together three elements: “The ability to repeat a winning stroke, footwork and controlled aggression.”

Gonzalez has always been known for his explosive forehand, but his backhand and volley needed work as did his ability to stay in long rallies. “For a top pro [who is] 25 years old to suddenly want to do the work like Fernando is truly rare,” says Stefanki. “This is what more pros need to do, a bit of looking in the mirror and saying: ‘Why am I not better?’ ”

Stefanki’s work paid rich and early dividends. At the Australian Open in January, Gonzalez reached his first major final, playing some of the most audacious power tennis in recent years. On the way he beat Lleyton Hewitt, James Blake and Rafael Nadal before bowing to world number one Roger Federer.

Gonzalez has since found it difficult to maintain that standard even with Stefanki at his side. He reached the Italian Open final in May but has suffered a dismal summer, culminating with a first-round exit at the US Open. “A lot of this has to do with sorting out in his mind how difficult it is to sustain your competitive spirit every time you step on court,” says Stefanki.

The lesson seems to be that even great coaches can take a player only so far; talent is finite, and discipline and desire are largely down to the player. Just having a legend such as Connors believe in his abilities has done wonders for Roddick’s confidence, however, restoring him to the top five in the world.

The former Wimbledon and US Open champion has also helped Roddick transfer his weight better when hitting from the baseline, which makes for more forceful backhands, and means he is better able to come to the net. “He’s a better player today than he was two years ago,” says Patrick McEnroe. Last week, Roddick, who ran Federer close for two sets before succumbing in the quarter-finals, also used a backhand sliced approach with greater accuracy than ever.

Much to US fans’ dismay, however, there is a yawning deficit of talent separating Roddick from Federer and world number two Nadal, which even a posse of former champions in the American’s camp could not compensate for.

Partly for that reason, the celebrity of a coach is no predictor of success in tennis. The finest coaches today must surely be those in eastern Europe and Russia who are producing waves of top-level players. Among them is Jelena Gencic, who coached both Monica Seles and Djokovic as children, and Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, the elderly Russian coach in Moscow who worked with Anna Kournikova, Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina.

Arguably the best coach in the men’s game at present is Marian Vajda. He started coaching Djokovic in June 2006 when the Serb was in the top 40. A year later, Djokovic was seeded fourth at Wimbledon and despite a tough draw justified that ranking.

I asked Vajda whether he felt overwhelmed by the task of coaching someone who is now being touted as a future number one. He replied with endearing modesty: “He has a goal. I am on a mission to try and help him as much as I am able to. The pressure is more and more. From here, it is about the mental side.”

Overturning all theories about the indispensability of a coach is Federer, who seems to manage just fine whether he has one or not. In late 2003, he split with Peter Lundgren, inspite of having won his first Wimbledon that year. Coachless during 2004, Federer still won three more grand-slam titles.

In December 2004, he started working with Tony Roche and kept winning before the two parted ways this summer. Since then, Federer has won a fifth consecutive Wimbledon title and today in New York will contest a semi-final against Nikolay Davydenko, one step away from a 10th grand-slam final in a row.

The Swiss continues to put himself through gruelling training sessions: a month ago, he had three practice partners with whom he played consecutively in 115°F-degree heat in Dubai as he prepared for late summer in New York. At grand-slam tournaments, meanwhile, Federer is happy to practise with either his Swiss Davis Cup team-mates or pick up a game with one of the other players.

Before his first US Open triumph in 2004, he warmed up by hitting with his girlfriend, Mirka Vavrinec, who had previously played on the women’s tour. Then in one of the most important finals of his career, he thrashed Lleyton Hewitt 6-0 7-6 6-0. With or without a coach, the Swiss makes it look easy.

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