As I watched the start of the men’s final at Wimbledon this year, I could not help but fixate on the teams behind the players. With Ivan Lendl in Andy Murray’s box and the team of John McEnroe plus Carlos Moya supporting Raonic, it lead me to consider the rise of the tennis “super coach”. The 2016 Wimbledon Championships were an easy showcase for the super coach concept. Former stars from the 80s and 90s were in abundant attendance to provide insight to current tour stars.
The most notable of these is definitely the Lendl-Murray reunion that took place during the grass court season. Other super coach combos include Becker and Djokovic, Ivanisevic and Cilic, Chang and Nishikori, or Norman and Wawrinka. Some players like Raonic even find the need to have two legends helping out. Roger Federer has teamed up with Ivan Ljubicic but also had Stefan Edberg in his box. To me the funniest super coach scenario is Lleyton Hewitt, who as Australian Davis Cup captain advises the young Australian players, but also found time to play doubles himself.
This whole super coach concept seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. I do not recall many of the stars of the 1960s and 1970s returning to coach the champions of the 1980s and 1990s. To my knowledge Laver, Rosewall, Ashe, Smith, or Nastase did not reappear to work with the likes of Sampras, Agassi, Chang and Courier. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the only name that immediately springs to mind is Tony Roche, who of course coached both Ivan Lendl, Pat Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt.
Yet, the trend is worth examining. Why is it that so many legends of the game are suddenly appearing as counsel to the greats of the current generation?
I remember speaking in the locker room with Jim Courier during the 2014 Australian Open when Roger Federer first teamed up with Stefan Edberg. I asked Jim what he thought Stefan could teach Roger about the game of tennis. His reply was “Roger has not hired Stefan to teach him about tennis, he has hired Stefan because he wants to be inspired.” I thought this was a very poignant response. If I was Roger Federer, and I had all the money in the world, why wouldn’t I try to get the advice and company of my childhood idol? It made total sense.
What often gets lost in these high profile coaching relationships is that the super coach is not usually the only coach. While Edberg was helping out, Roger still had his regular full-time coach, Severin Luthi, by his side on a daily basis. Marian Vajda has not lost his job just because Becker joined team Novak. The same is true of Nishikori who continues his longtime work with Dante Bottini. Andy Murray has Jamie Delgado and Raonic works with Riccardo Piatti.
The actual support staff of the top players has grown, and super coaches are being used as additional consultants, for their unique experience and personal insights.
Many of these relationships are very intuitive. Nishikori for example, is basically the 2016 version of 1996 Michael Chang, and why wouldn’t he want to tap in to the knowledge and lessons from somebody who has experienced the closest thing to his reality.
Andy Murray lost his first four grand slam finals and of course thought he could benefit from the experience of someone like Lendl who did the same but turned it around to win 8 majors.
Raonic desperately wants to improve his volleys and touch at the net, so teaming with the man who perhaps had the greatest hands in tennis history is a natural fit.
The quality of the support teams behind the top players reflects a kind of maturing of the egos around the sport. Coaches are becoming less territorial and more willing to collaborate.
The best arrangements appear to include both:
- A long-time trusted and able coach, who is effectively the best friend of the player. Someone who knows both the player’s tennis and life inside out
- A collective attitude of knowledge seeking. This allows both the player and the trusted main coach to integrate specialist knowledge or inspiration into the team
- A “super coach” who brings expert insight to the table, but who also recognizes the quality and value of the regular coach. The super coach uses their position and authority to enhance the player coach bond rather than cast doubt upon it
As a coach, it is important to leave your ego behind and let it reside in the memory of your playing days. I was a coach who was very much in the “trusted best friend” coaching category. I knew that my strength as a coach was not in the specialist knowledge or experience that I could provide, but in the fact that I knew and could communicate better with the player than anyone else. I would have absolutely jumped at the opportunity to work along side a super coach.
I know many coaches in many different sports who would be too protective or nervous about their position to collaborate effectively with another coach. I also know many athletes and high-profile coaches who do not truly respect the role and quality of the work that someone like Severin Luthi does with Roger or that Marian Vajda has done with Novak.
There is no place in sport for selfish thinking. Anyone who really cares about the success of an athlete will encourage them to seek out new information from a variety of sources. Watching the Wimbledon Final, and the success that these teams are having when egos are set aside, really reinforced that message to me. I think as the sport progresses, we will continue to see these former legends turned expert advisers play an increasingly important role in tennis.
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