When a number 1 from yesterday meets a number 1 from today, what do they talk about? Stories of number 1 of course!
But what can these legends bring to champions whose achievements have nothing to envy theirs? That’s the question… One thing is for sure: the 80′s and 90′s are trendier than ever. In fact, the courts took a very vintage look lately.
Two legends, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, but also Michael Chang, Sergi Bruguera and Goran Ivanisevic, have made their return to the circuit at the Australian Open, alongside their peers.
Ivan Lendl was a pionneer, as he started working with Andy Murray two years ago. But the trend took momentum in the off-season, with associations between Cilic and Ivanisevic (November), Gasquet and Bruguera (end of November), Nishikori and Chang (mid-December), and at last but not at least, two partnerships who had some kind of a bomb effect, Djokovic with Becker and Federer with Edberg (end of December).
What can these former great players add compared to a conventional coach? And why have the glories of yesterday chosen to come back to the Tour? With interviews of players and coaches, Tennis Magazine updates on these duos.
«Without a doubt, to have Ivan Lendl by my side was a real bonus,» readily acknowledged Andy Murray after his first Grand Slam victory at the US Open in 2012, nine months after the beginning of his collaboration with the Czech.
The pair, intriguing at first, was conclusive. Their two parallel respective experiences were obvious: like his coach, Andy Murray finally captured his maiden Grand Slam title after four defeats in the finals.
«I knew what he was going through and the frustration that he could feel,» explained Ivan Lendl.
Former champions turning to coaching is nothing new. Some have not left a great memory in this role. Mats Wilander with Paul-Henri Mathieu and Marat Safin, Jimmy Connors with Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova were not really successful. But what’s surprising today is the high number of these collaborations that almost occurred at the same time. So, simple coincidence or new trend?
«Tennis has always followed trends. Two years ago you had to eat like Djokovic, and 3 players out of 4 found out they were “allergic” to gluten. Now your coach must be a former number 1 or 2 when you are a top 10 player.» Critic, Patrick Mouratoglou distrusts the new trend. So, what can be the actual contribution of these former legends of yesterday to today’s great players?
Their experience is of course their first quality. The top players are seeking some sort of alter ego, someone who, like them, has experienced the stress of tennis at the highest level.
«I was looking for someone who had experienced similar situations, and I thought of Boris,» explained Novak Djokovic. Same speech for Marin Cilic, who saw in his compatriot Goran Ivanisevic the ideal person to take him in the top 10.
«It is important to have the support from someone like him. He brings me all his experience, and all the things he experienced in his career.»
Just like Richard Gasquet who found in Sergi Bruguera a champion who has experienced a very high level with two Grand Slam victories (Roland Garros 1993 and '94), Andy Murray explains how working with someone who has been there can be benefical: «All of these players know the state of mind you must have when you play for major finals. And maybe, knowing the situation themselves, they better understand certain decisions taken on the court, under pressure, while it is more difficult to grasp for someone who has never known it.»
For Sam Sumyk, Victoria Azarenka’s coach, the experience of high level is an undeniable asset: «They have a greater background than mine, for example. They have an asset that normal coaches do not have: the anticipation. They understand better what is going to happen, they have more instinct to know how the player will react on different situations.»
For Patrick Mouratoglou, despite his reserves, there is a special relationship between all these legends: «They can talk the same language and shed a different light, or alternatively strengthen positions.»
For Patrice Hagelauer, Yannick Noah’s coach when he won Roland Garros in 1983: «Former champions see things and analyze them with more objectivity. They are not in emotions like a coach who lives these situations for the first time can be.»
If one can understand this process for players looking to access to the highest level like Gasquet, Cilic and Nishikori, it is less evident for Federer or Djokovic, who have at least as much, if not more, experience at the high level as their own coach and already an outstanding record.
«Even though he already has a beautiful trophy case, Novak is not satisfied with his six Grand Slam titles. He wants more and he wants the best team around him to improve,» said Boris Becker in Melbourne.
Novak Djokovic's choice has surprised. How to interpret the world number two's decision to shake up his stability with his historic coach, Marian Vajda, while he was on the rise after a fantastic year-end? Novak Djokovic wants to see further: «When you change something in your life, it is always risky, but I do not want to think like that. I chose not to be in fear of change.»
Novak Djokovic, who has not won a Grand Slam since the Australian Open in 2013, or Roger Federer, seeking his former glory, want to see in these new collaborations a way to improve again, or return to the top.
«Even champions of the caliber of Federer or Djokovic can still improve and change things in their game,» says Sam Sumyk. «This is the advantage of high level, this is not just the technique of a forehand or backhand, there are lots of parameters that come into play. The help Edberg can bring to Federer or Becker to Djokovic is on details. It can be in all areas: technical, way of thinking, or state of mind.»
Former champion and coach of Lendl, the Pole Wojtek Fibak is more direct : «What they bring is their presence. That’s all, but it is not nothing».
Stefan Edberg also thinks his help will be in the details: «I think I can really bring a small something. And maybe that little something can bring back Roger to where he was some time ago.» A statement pronounced before the Dubai tournament, where Federer beat Djokovic for the first time in almost two years.
At this level, the difference is therefore on sometimes insignificant things, although difficult to define: «The higher you go, the more you have to unlock things that are difficult to perceive, to feel», said Arnaud Di Pasquale.
Everyone agrees on this, Roger Federer will not revolutionize his game and play serve and volley constantly to “please” Stefan Edberg, the same goes for Novak Djokovic.
But, according to the Serbian, Boris Becker's contributions can be numerous: «He can help me progress on a lot of aspects of my game: serve, return, volley. But his most important help is on the mental part».
Roger Federer, like Wojtek Fibak, prefers to talk about inspiration rather than mental, concerning the presence of Stefan Edberg, his childhood idol, at his side.
«I did not hire Edberg to explain me how to come to the net. For me, it is something else, a global thing. I don’t see him in the role of a coach, but more as an inspiration, a legend spending time with me».
«Beyond the technical, tactical or physical aspect, the help would be, in general, psychological. Basically it comes from a need to be reassured,» explains Patrice Hagelauer. «They seek confidence and serenity they sometimes lost and need to confide in a champion, who is somehow their equal. I don’t see that as a work of a coach, it is more psychology.»
Here we are far away from the role of the coach, in the strict sense, but more in the role of an advisor.
«It is a bonus to surround themselves with someone who has experienced the highest level, but the contribution of the great champion does not replace the role of the coach,» explains Di Pasquale.
«We must not forget that coaching is first of all a full-time job,» says Mouratoglou. «Without removing anything to the experience of the great champions, a great player does not necessarily make a good coach, while most coaches were not No. 1 or Grand Slam winners.»
«You can teach how to do this or that shot even if you were not able to do it yourself at very high level, the French system proves it,» says Arnaud Di Pasquale.
Emmanuel Planque, coach for the Tennis Federation, makes a distinction between coach and trainer. «These are two very different jobs. The coach has an enormous experience in terms of game and mental dimension. The trainer also knows the game himself, but he also has the ability to develop elements and transmit a number of things to allow the player to progress.»
Only time will tell the impact of these former champions on today’s champions. But, it’s obvious, it is difficult to compare the cases of Federer and Djokovic and those of Cilic or Nishikori who are still quite far from the top. And the job of a full-time coach has nothing to do with the role that Edberg and Becker play.
We’re not going to find a single answer to very different situations. How else to explain the success of players who keep the same coach for a very long time, if not forever? Like Rafael Nadal, for example...
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