The hours spent on the court volleying the ball, fighting hard to beat the opponent, sweating blood to win the match, are testament to not only the player’s skills but also to the one who has nurtured them: the coach. Whether it was me, or Jim Connors, or Bjorn Borg, or Pete Sampras or the more recent Nadal or Federer, we owe a large part of our game to our coaches, who have not only made us better with every shot but also persevered through our best and worst. At Wimbledon, where the world’s best talent in the game converges in pursuit of excellence, it is as much a treat to watch the players as it is to watch the coaches in action as well. One look at Nadal talking to his coach and I am transported back to when after a long game, I’d sit with my coach and unwind the day’s play, learning something new with every sentence he spoke.
Despite the paradigm shift in the ways of coaching from the days of like Harry Hopman to the more recent ones, the aim towards excellence has not been lost. The veteran, Hopman, coached twenty-two successful Davis Cup champions over 30 years, including the likes of John Newcombe, Neale Fraser and Frank Sedgman. Lovingly called the ‘Great Kangaroo’ from Down Under, Hopman helped Australia win the Davis Cup 16 out of 21 times in as many years. Known for his rapport with his players and his composure in the toughest of situations, he was the authority for the Davis Cup squad and not only coached them on the court but also checked their lifestyles, fitness programs and techniques.
The greatness of Harry Hopman can be seen not just by his credentials but the gems that he helped produce in the history of the game, Bob Brett, one of the best coaches, being a fine example of this. Having worked for Hopman for five years, Brett began coaching at the age of 20. He has coached some of the greatest players like Boris Becker, Ivanisevic, Medvedev, Keifer and Mario Ancic. He was from the more flexible school of thought who understood what works for one player may need to be rethought for another. His experimenting techniques made him stand apart from the crowd in an era when people chose to be conservative.
While these coaches took the friendly approach with their players, there was a completely contrasting but equally successful personality, Ion Tiriac. The once coach and manager of Boris Becker is known for his different style, one that does not conform to any rules of coaching but still has seen enormous success. He brought the concept of personalized coaching to tennis by coaching the likes of Ilie Nastase, Guilermo Vilas, Henri Leconte and Boris Becker. Becker became the youngest player in the history of Wimbledon to have lifted the trophy when he was coached by Tiriac.
Another expert that comes to mind when talking about great coaches of the past is Paul Annacone. A great player during his day, he coached Pete Sampras for seven years in which he won nine of the fourteen majors he appeared in. Having coached Federer for two years, Annacone was also responsible for Federer’s seventh Wimbledon title in 2011. With an alert mind and in-depth knowledge of the nuances of the game, Annacone has helped many a player develop accurate strategies to counter their opponents.
Now, as I watch these matches, I realise that those who used to be coached back then have taken the responsibility of their juniors upon themselves. Two of the brightest stars of Tennis, who shone even brighter at Wimbledon, have come this season not just as spectators but as coaches to the best players in the world. Making their debuts with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray respectively, Boris Becker and Amelie Mauresmo will be playing this Wimbledon from the court-side. After a streak of losses in the later stages of the tournaments, Djokovic turned to Becker to learn the craftsmanship from the champion. Mauresmo has taken over from Ivan Lendl as Murray’s coach, leading him towards another title with her experience and knowledge.
Having the right coach is as important as having the skills to play. One without the other is useless. Wimbledon is a contest of nerves, and the nerves of a player are in the hands of his coach. While the players battle it out on the court, the coaches frown at the game with utmost intensity and concentration, making mental notes about the strengths and weaknesses on not only their protégé but also the opponent. As I walk past the court watching the players deep in discussion with their coaches, I walk past reminiscing my evenings with Pancho Gonzales, my idol and coach.
Written By : Vijay Amritraj