Reading the Readers: Jan. 8

Tuesday, January 07, 2014 /by
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AP Photo

Before I make the long trip to Australia, here's a little early-season mail. If you have a question or comment for this column, please email me at stignor@tennismagazine.com. See you in Melbourne.

*****

Steve,

I like the Top 10 match countdown you do every year, but don’t you think it would be better if you didn’t put the men and women together? The women get the short end of it.—Emily from Boston

It's true that in each of the five years I’ve done the list, there have been more men’s matches on it than women’s—the ratio was six to four this year, and that might have been the closest I’ve come to a 50/50 balance.

It’s also true, as some others have said, that the men will always have an advantage in the epic-match department, because they play three-of-five at the majors. The men, by virtue of the format, play more long, winding classics, the kinds of matches that end up on Top 10 countdowns. It’s hardly a surprise that my Top 3 from 2013 were all five-set men’s matches from Grand Slams.

But I put them together because I don’t like the idea, prevalent in many circles, that you can’t compare the men’s and women’s games. It’s all the same sport to me, and if I separated them into two lists, it would imply that I thought otherwise.

*****

Steve, you’ve been watching tennis for longer than me. I never saw Lendl, Becker, or Edberg play live. Who was your favorite of them?—F. Donald

Of the three, my favorite was Becker, though I was always more of a McEnroe and Wilander fan than any of them. I rooted against Lendl, from the beginning of his career until the end, though like a lot of people I’ve gained appreciation, and even some liking, for him in the years since. It’s amazing how many tennis fans now say they loved Lendl—where were they when he was playing?

I don’t remember having much of an opinion either way about Edberg. I’ve never been an automatic devotee of smooth, elegant tennis, and he didn’t offer much emotionally on court. I know many will disagree. From a fan perspective, Edberg is a good fit for Federer, because they both have extremely loyal followings, who are very particular about how you describe their man.

I wasn’t a rabid Becker fan, either, but I did like his fire and his daredevil flair—he seemed to win as much on chutzpah as he did on talent. A few months after he conquered Wimbledon at 17, I found myself unconsciously mimicking the deep knee bend he always did on his serve. I also once caught a glimpse of Becker in the old Tower Records in Manhattan, with his wife, leaning back and strumming an air guitar to a corny George Benson song. Like him or laugh at him (or both), he’s a personality. 

Can Becker or Edberg do for Djokovic and Federer what Lendl has done for Murray? It seems hard to imagine at the moment; neither has much coaching experience. But I didn’t anticipate that Lendl and Murray would be as successful as they have been. (Though I’m still waiting for Murray to play Nadal; they haven’t met since Lendl took the reins of Team Andy.) 

What’s interesting to me is that the trend in the NFL and NBA is away from the “been there, done that” school of coaching, and toward nerdy geniuses who never played the game at the highest level—think Frank Vogel of the Indiana Pacers, Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics, and Chip Kelly of the Philadelphia Eagles. Experience, the thinking seems to go, isn’t as important as intelligence and creativity; the outside view is clearer than the inside view. The opposite philosophy has taken over at the top of men’s tennis. The players want to feel like the guy talking to them has done it himself. The inspiration that Becker will bring Djokovic is likely to be more emotional than technical. Unlike a basketball or American football coach, tennis coaches don't call plays during matches, and at the top levels they don't exert anything like the same control over their players.

Tennis coaches have traditionally not come from the top tier of pros; the greats aren’t known for their patience with, or understanding of, mediocrity. It was second-fiddles like Tony Roche and Brad Gilbert, rather than champions like Rod Laver and John McEnroe, who developed the observational powers to become top-level mentors. The game didn’t come to them as naturally, so they had to work at it and think about it more. It's also hard for a big name who doesn't need the money to commit to doing what it takes to be a traveling coach.

“Those who can’t do, teach,” the saying goes. The opposite is usually also true: Those can do, can’t teach. Maybe it’s not surprising that Lendl would break the mold—he was one of the sport’s ultimate overachievers, a champion who was made rather than born. We’ll see if Becker and Edberg can follow his lead.

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