Nice Work If You Can Get It

Monday, March 31, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

“I'm really glad. I'm very grateful that Marian (Vajda) accepted to stay and he was here with me and we won the title again. I mean, many times before I said that he's not just a coach to me. He's truly a friend, somebody I can rely on in the tough moments, shared good and bad situations and things in life that I experience.”Novak Djokovic, shortly after winning his second Masters 1000 title in a month yesterday in Miami, on having both Marian Vajda and former Grand Slam champ Boris Becker as co-coaches. 

MIAMI, Fla.—Coaching relationships in tennis may be complicated at the personal level, but the basic premise is fairly clear-cut: Your coach is there to guide you through tournaments and to watch your back. He’s part teacher, part mentor, often a father figure, and the leading member of your team, which tends to be as small or large as your average weekly prize-money check allows.

Things have changed over the years, though. Coaches once dreamed of being able to travel with their protégés, both to better implement their ideas and also to boost their income opportunities. But the economics were unfeasible.

Now, we’re in an era when more Top 100 players have coaches who travel than those who do not. On the other hand, the ideal candidates for coaching positions—recently retired, successful former players like Marian Vajda, Ivan Ljubicic, and others—are men who already made plenty of money as pros and have many options in their post-tennis lives. Therefore, they feel less pressure and are comfortable pulling back from coaching (which is always part wet-nursing) to rest, work on other projects, or spend time with families of their own.

The more recent emergence of the “celebrity coach”—the group that includes, or included, Lendl (with Andy Murray), Stefan Edberg (with Roger Federer), and Boris Becker (with Djokovic)—further complicates things, as Djokovic’s situation attests. Becker, one of the great stars of the 1980s and 90s, is the 800-pound gorilla in the room whenever the chatter in a Djokovic press conference turns to coaching. 

The 187-pound German in the conversation missed the entire March Masters swing in the U.S. because of surgery to replace both hips, during which Vajda again helped Djokovic turn his game around. But Becker casts a long shadow, as you might expect from a player with such an outsized personality. Officially, Becker is “co-coach,” as Djokovic continues to insist, but wise heads wonder what he really brings to the table—other than a massive jolt of publicity, not all of it good, that the Serb probably doesn’t need.

The answer is pretty simple, and Djokovic himself has been utterly honest about it. Becker’s job in 2014 will probably take up all of 320 seconds, for that might be the sum total of those ultra-critical moments during which Djokovic, by his own assessment, needs to improve his performance. That’s nice work if you can get it.

This situation has created much intrigue and debate, leaving Vajda, the man most responsible for Djokovic’s success as a pro, in the shade. Vajda has handled it very well, though, and it’s no wonder. For as solid as his relationship is with Djokovic, the addition of Becker allows him to jump off the coaching merry-go-round more frequently. And he can do so without undue economic hardship or strain on his relationship with Djokovic.

I’m sure Vajda appreciated those thoughtful words of support from Djokovic, but I imagine Vajda himself might have some thankful words of his own—for Becker.

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