August 26, 2016
One day people might wonder why the top tennis stars need old guys to do their psychological fighting for them.
But doesn’t it just make tennis that little bit more exciting?
The era of the super-coach has given the circuit a whole new dimension. There are now battles behind battles, a wider, deeper human drama to enjoy as egos the size of Centre Court clash by proxy.
Take the final of Wimbledon 2016. Sure, it was Murray v Raonic. But it was also Ivan Lendl against his old rival, John McEnroe.
The on-court struggles between the flamboyant, fiery McEnroe and the gaunt, ambitious Lendl were always something to be savoured.
And for that tension to be re-ignited and transferred to the players’ box is no less intriguing.
At Wimbledon 2016, it was Lendl who triumphed. Lendl’s return to the Murray camp has been the catalyst for more big-time glory.
But McEnroe might argue that he has already raised the Raonic level by helping to inspire him to his first Grand Slam final, thanks to that scintillating victory over the great Roger Federer.
Meanwhile we all know how successful Boris Becker’s partnership with Novak Djokovic has been over the last year or two,culminating in that famous Career Slam victory in Paris earlier this summer.
Until relatively recently, Djokovic looked simply unbeatable in any important match, and some of the credit was given to Becker.
Whether or not Becker would be so keen to take any of the blame for Novak’s recent dip is of course another matter entirely. But no one can say that the Djokovic-Becker collaboration hasn’t been a resounding success overall.
And there have been other super-coaches, of course. Stefan Edberg brought Roger Federer back into serious Grand Slam contention, Michael Chang inspired Kei Nishikori to a US Open final a couple of years back.
The winner of that final, Marin Cilic, had the former Wimbledon winner, Goran Ivanisevic in his corner, though they split recently and Cilic just won Cincinnatti without him.
Women super-coaches have entered and left the stage. Martina Navratilova and Amelie Mauresmo have dabbled with limited success, helping Agnieszka Radwanska and Andy Murray respectively.
No doubt more women will become super-coaches in the not-too-distant future.
That’s the trend, after all. “Know of a big name at a loose end? Ask him or her to become a super-coach!”
They find it hard to resist, these ex-players. It’s one thing to pontificate loftily in the media. It’s quite another to have a more direct influence over events on court.
To be able to bask in the reflected glory of the latest hot-shot, if things go well. What’s not to like?
So what precisely does the super-coach bring to the party? They never seemed to be necessary in the past, did they?
Sure, players had coaches behind the scenes, but they were generally low-key, technical people. Not superstars of the game in their own right.
Like their lower-profile predecessors, the modern-day super-coach does make the occasional technical and tactical tweak to the current player’s game here and there – especially when it comes to the grass-court season.
Former grass-court giants such as Becker and Edberg are eminently qualified to do so, and have improved the work of even the great Djokovic and Federer at the net, as well as the timing of their approach.
But as the super-coaches are sometimes prepared to admit, there isn’t much they can teach a top-ten player, not one who has already been on the circuit half their natural lives.
What don’t they know about the game of tennis after a decade-and-a-half in the sport?
So most of what the super-coach brings to the table is psychological. A super-coach shares the pressure. A super-coach adds mental toughness and cool composure with a single, icy stare. A super-coach gives a jaded player fresh confidence, just by turning up at the big match.
By having a super-coach, a player can tell the world, and more importantly his competitors: “Look at me! Look who I’ve got in my corner! Think you can still mess with me? Think you can find cracks in my mindset now? I bring the psychological power and tennis knowledge of two men to the court now. You’ve still got to beat me…but there’s my chosen tennis legend to beat now, as well!”
There are drawbacks to this system. If the super-coach tries to leave his seat during a big match, even for a natural break, don’t be surprised if their player suddenly throws his toys out of the pram – as Djokovic once famously did when Becker dared to head for the rest room at the wrong moment.
Once dependent on his super-coach, a player is also vulnerable. He can suddenly be stripped of his armour, almost as though stripped naked, if his chosen veteran guru doesn’t show – or worse still deserts his post in times of extreme psychological need.
Maybe one day, it will no longer be the done thing to have a super-coach. “What? You still need an old guy to do your psychological fighting for you? So early-twenty-first, man, so early twenty-first. I mean, really? You gotten youself a super-coach? Not cool, bro, not cool at all. Just man up, dude.” But for now, it is regarded as cool. Super-cool.
So there are egos duking it out all over the place, beyond the showcourts, beyond the current generation of players. The “wrinklies” are regarded as key by the men (and sometimes women) in their physical prime.
And whatever we may think that super-coach and his imperious presence might say about the mental deficiencies of the players themselves, you’ve got to admit – it is kind of fun. If only because it is so very strange.