He peaked as a player at No. 7 on the planet in 1990, advanced to the quarterfinals at both Roland Garros and the U.S. Open in 1989, and upended a cluster of big-name players over the course of his brief yet sparkling career, including Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors. After serious knee issues curtailed his time in the pros in 1991, he soon established himself as an outstanding coach, and ever since has been one of the most respected individuals in that field.
At the age of 51, Jay Berger can be certain that his reputation, as both a man and an unassailable professional, have been molded through decades of dedication to not only the sport, but the people who inhabit it. He has contributed to tennis on a multitude of levels, as a competitor of unimpeachable integrity, as a coach of the U.S. Davis Cup and Olympic teams, working with individual players, and serving from 2008-2017 as Head of men's tennis for the USTA Player Development program. And yet, after all he has done, regardless of his wide range of accomplishments, as prominent as he indisputably is, Berger now finds himself recognized even more for simply being the father of the widely admired professional golfer, Daniel Berger.
Jay is fine with that.
"Wherever I go now, I am known as Daniel Berger's father,” he says. “All of the questions go there—not about me, not about anything else, but about how Daniel is doing.
“It is really fun, and it has kept me connected to a lot of people. I love getting texts from people who I haven't talked to for a while. Daniel has huge support from the tennis community, who just love seeing him do well. Even the top players congratulate me on his success, which is really cool."
Gratifying as being the parent of a highly accomplished athlete from another sport surely is for Berger, tennis fans are nevertheless well aware of what he has achieved in his own right. Clearly, he might have accomplished even more if his knee problems had not forced him out of the game as a player at 25.
I asked Berger if he felt cheated that he needed to stop competing at such a young age.
"Actually, I was okay with it, because I had reached so many of the goals that I had,” he says. “I had done well. And I knew what I wanted to do afterwards, which was to coach.
“I would say the only thing that got me was that a lot of the reason I stopped playing was because I had a surgery that really took me out. It brought pain in my knee later on throughout my life. It was a shame about the tennis portion. I loved playing, but at the same time I could stop my career having accomplished quite a bit, and having no regrets on the way I went about my career. That made it palatable."
Asked about his watershed moments as a competitor, Berger recounts his time playing Davis Cup for the United States—“That was something I dreamed about my whole life. I grew up watching Brian Gottfried, Harold Solomon and McEnroe. Davis Cup, and representing the United States, was a huge accomplishment for me.”—and reaching the quarterfinals at Roland Garros in 1989, after beating Jimmy Connors in the second round.
“The way I remember it,” Berger recalls, “there were only about four people wanting me to win, and those were the three people in my box and myself."
Not far behind his Davis Cup and Roland Garros memories, Berger treasures his run to the 1989 US Open quarterfinals, and his surprise journey to the round of 16 at Flushing Meadows in 1985, when he was not yet 19.
"That was incredible," he muses. "Getting to the round of 16 at the Open, when I had never really played professional tennis, was amazing. I had won Kalamazoo that summer. Those were incredible memories."
And yet, Berger was destined to become a coach, and he realized how well suited he was to succeed in that role.
"I always knew I wanted to give back," he reflects. "Tennis had been great to me, and I knew this when I was playing. I knew I wanted to have an impact on the lives of kids. I really wanted to help young players, and not necessarily to become pros. I wanted to help them become better people through tennis."
Berger made a remarkably smooth transition into the field of coaching. He studied hard and got his degree at Florida International University in 1994, and then coached its team. Later, he took on a more prominent coaching role at the University of Miami.
Meanwhile, he got involved as a national coach for the USTA in Player Development. Berger hardly skipped a beat as he left his playing days behind him to embrace coaching.
"It was my goal," he explains, "to be a college coach when I found out I couldn't play anymore. So I went back to college and got a degree. I fell in love with school, and graduated with a 3.75 average. I started coaching, and then went on to the University of Miami. A couple of years prior to the University of Miami, I started working with Player Development, and then spent the next 14 years doing that."
Nothing was more rewarding for Berger than the period from 2008-2017, when he was head of men's tennis for the USTA Player Development system.
"It was really a tremendous amount of work,” he says. “We were putting together a program under Patrick McEnroe and Jose Higueras. It was a time in men's tennis where we had such great players like Roddick, Blake and Fish. Within the first three or four years, anybody that was really at the top of the game retired. So that put a big hole in men's tennis in the U.S. We were trying to take advantage of any great American players we had, and looking to rebuild American tennis."
As Berger examines that stretch of time, when he was so consumed with making American tennis flourish, he is proud of what he was able to contribute.
"I would say the work we did with some of our top players was really gratifying. Putting a team around Mardy Fish and seeing him reach No. 7 in the world and make the ATP World Tour Finals in London [in 2011] was incredible. Certainly my experiences as the Davis Cup coach, and my time as Olympic coach, when the Bryans were winning medals, was great. Just the experience of taking a team with Andy Roddick and spending time with guys like that stands out, as does working with Patrick McEnroe and Jim Courier in Davis Cup. I put that paramount in my thoughts."
Having said that, Berger staked his own claim to U.S. coaching by trying “to bring more of a philosophy” to the game.
“The work we did with this young group of players, the [Frances] Tiafoe and the [Taylor] Fritzs and the [Reilly] Opelkas and the [Tommy] Pauls, really came from a place where we hadn't had much success at the junior level in a number of years. So we put teams around these players, and we dominated over a period of a couple of years. We won five or six major titles on the ITF circuit, and also had three or four finalists. To put these players in a position, where they had the ability to hopefully become great pros, was incredible. And we did not do it with just one player, but instead a large group of players that had the potential to make it to the Top 100 in the world, with some going way beyond that."
Perhaps Berger's most underrated contribution to American tennis was the long stint he served as Davis Cup coach. I told Berger that Jim Courier had praised him to the hilt in an interview with me a year ago. Courier lauded his colleague effusively, saying he regarded Berger as a virtual co-captain.
"I did it for 13 years, and those were some of the most incredible weeks of my life,” Berger says. “mean, for those 13 years, I was at every single U.S. Davis Cup match, working under two great captains in Patrick and Jim. I certainly learned a lot from both. Patrick was a little more emotional than Jim, but absolutely great at what he did. Jim can be emotional in regards to invoking emotion with his players, but he is very tactical and extremely detail oriented in regards to strategy, tactics and the importance of data."
Berger talked expansively about those incomparable Davis Cup days.
"You would have to be in the locker room in those weeks to really know what they are about. Spending all of that time with Roddick, the Bryan brothers, James Blake, Mardy Fish, John Isner, Sam Querrey and all the others, the camaraderie was always there. The love they feel for each other, and for playing for the United States, how much they care, how they always answered the call to play—that is what I will always remember. I also think about the antics that went on during those weeks. I am talking about the fun pranks that came about, especially with Andy Roddick on the team. To see him compete to win the Davis Cup title under his leadership as a player, and certainly being around the Bryans, was incredible for me."
Having summed up his feelings on being first a competitor and then a coach, Berger went on to discuss another source of great pride, his son Daniel. I wondered if he had initially tried to steer Daniel toward tennis rather than golf.
"Daniel played soccer and tennis as a kid,” he explains. “He was always an athletic kid, from the age of five or six to when he started playing golf at 11. At the time he started golf, I was at the University of Miami. I loved spending time with my kids. I have four kids. To be honest, it was difficult for me to spend all day on the courts at the University of Miami, and then want to be back out on the tennis courts. I could do anything else [with my kids], but that would have been close to ten hours a day on the tennis court if I played with my kids at the time."
So Daniel turned unreservedly toward golf, and poured his heart and soul into making that his professional mission.
"I could see my son having the desire to get really good at something,” Jay says. “I told him I was going to this Florida State tennis tournament. and there was a golf course right next to it. So he was eleven, and came with me. The idea was we would go to the tennis, and then he would play some golf. We did that for three or four days in a row. I would drop him off at the golf course, and then meet him later on. He had never played golf. On the fourth day, we were driving away from the golf course. He turns to me and says, 'Dad, I am going to be a professional golfer.' I said, 'Well, that's great son. That's fantastic.' Daniel asked me how many hours I used to practice when I was a tennis player, and I told him I practiced five to six hours a day. He turned to me and said, 'I will practice eight hours a day.'
"On my life, Daniel practiced a minimum eight to nine hours a day, seven days a week, the rest of that summer. He was learning the game literally by himself. There were no kids at the club where he was playing near our house on Key Biscayne, Florida. His progress was such that, six months later, he was playing in a World Championships in the Public Championships at Doral [Country Club]. Anybody could get into it, but it was a big tournament. He played seven days a week until he was 16 and we got him some good instruction. He put a ton of engaged work into his golf. He couldn't practice much in the evening, so he would make me get up with him at 5:30 in the morning, and drive to the golf course before school. Ivan Lendl set him up with a person that got him to a club where he played at a young age with professional golfers. He was able to work at the club shagging balls at 14. He was there every day working, and then, at 14 and 15, used the money he had earned to play against professional golfers—some of whom he plays against today. He is still at that club now."
Daniel went to Florida State for two years. He finished second in the NCAA Championships. Since then he has become one of the best professional golfers in the world, and currently he is stationed at No. 28 in the world on the PGA Tour. Since turning pro back in 2013, Berger has turned himself into a top of the line player. At 24, his best golf is ahead of him.
But, behind every top performer in any sport, is a parent who has been indispensable. Jay has been there every step of the way for his son.
"We put zero pressure on him regarding his results in golf,” Jay says. “Daniel was able to take complete ownership over the sport itself. He knew that his parents loved him, and that all we cared about was for him to work hard and be a good kid. From my experiences as a player, and then as a coach seeing so many situations, I think that helped him."
As a father, Jay thoroughly enjoys watching his son play golf tournaments. He attended about six tournaments this past year, and might go to more events in 2018. Unlike the vast majority of parents who attend tournaments with their kids participating, Berger finds himself able to be comfortable when he is on site.
"I am totally detached about the results when I am there,” he says. “If I am watching him live, I am actually quite relaxed, and I really am enjoying it. Whether Daniel is doing well or not, it is the same to me. It is more fun when he is doing well, but either way I am pretty good when I am watching him live. It is different if I am watching it over the phone on the PGA Tour app. That stresses me out a bit. It is not a good way to watch somebody you care about, when you are looking at the scores online. But I am amazed at how well he does and how well he competes."
How would Berger describe the father/son relationship and how it may have evolved over time?
"It hasn't changed much at all with Daniel and me. He certainly gets me better father's day presents, which is fun. We have a great relationship. He knows I am there for him, and the whole family supports him always. Twice a year we have team meetings, and they are great for pro athletes. We have been fortunate to put a great team around Daniel, from his coach, to his physio, to his strength and conditioning person. My sister handles his day to day business affairs. We have had the same team around him since he started playing professionally. I am thankful, because that allows me to just be a father."
That means he can simply speak with wisdom to his son about the ebbs and flows of being an athlete. Berger is able to draw on his own experiences to provide counsel.
"I try to pick him up when things aren't going that well,” he says, “and tell him how proud I am of him, which I am. He has turned out to be beyond a great golfer; he really is a good kid. We have a lot of fun and play a lot of tennis together. Daniel has a great forehand. He loves to play tennis, and, when he is home, he plays three or four days a week."
Moreover, Daniel has developed friendships with a lot of tennis players, including the Bryan brothers and Andy Roddick, who he has played with.
Daniel reaffirms what his father says about his devotion to his craft, and his penchant for playing recreational tennis in his spare time. If he had decided as a kid that his overriding goal was to become an outstanding tennis player, would he have realized that dream?
"I like to think that whatever I decided to do, I would have been really good at it,” says Daniel, “because I have the work ethic that it takes to be good at whatever I wanted to do. I think physically I would have been the right size, my hand-eye coordination is pretty solid, and if I would have thrown all of my eggs into that basket, and really dedicated myself to tennis the way I have done with golf, I think I could have [been a tennis player]. But I am extremely happy that I chose golf, because it is my passion and it really is the sport for me."
How does he assess his father's contribution to his golf career?
"He ingrained in me from the beginning that hard work is what it takes to be great at something,” Daniel says. “He used to tell me when I was younger that, to be a master of something, you need to work 10,000 hours at it. He would say that, if you don't work hard, there is someone else in China or South America practicing, and they are getting better than you are. I took note of that."
As Daniel looks back over the landscape of his pro golf career, he does not take for granted what his father did to give him the best possible chance to succeed.
"He has given me so many resources,” he says. “I work with Jim Loehr, who is one of the best sports psychologists in the world. My working with him was set up by my Dad. Everything in my career has kind of gone through him at some point."
Clarifying why he likes having his father with him at golf tournaments, Daniel adds, "He just enjoys the process of watching me do the things that I do to get better. When he comes out to a golf tournament of mine, we never talk about golf. It is more just hanging out. I think a lot of parents of athletes really struggle with that, bit he really lets me do my own thing, and he never takes credit for anything. I would never be in this position today without him giving me the opportunity to do everything that I have done. He just never brings it up. It is unbelievable what he has done for me."
Jay Berger's self-effacing nature is demonstrable beyond the role he has played with his son. This past summer, he started coaching Jack Sock out on the ATP World Tour. Sock, of course, closed the season magnificently, winning the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris, earning his first trip to the ATP Finals in London as a member of the elite eight player field, reaching the semifinals there.
"I have known Jack since he was 17 years old, and spent quite a bit of time with him and even traveled with him some,” says Jay. “We have always stayed close. I was a real supporter of his when I was head of men's tennis for USTA Player Development. In those days, I was at all of his matches, talked to a lot of the coaches he was traveling with,and set him up with some of his coaches. So we really had a longstanding relationship. When he stopped working with his coach Troy Hunt— who did a great job with him—he called me the next day and asked if I would help out. For Jack, I would do anything, so I said, 'Sure', and we started working."
Sock had started 2017 strong, but his body did not hold up, and injuries kept him mired in a slump for a long while. In his second tournament alongside Berger, Sock made it to the semifinals of Washington. But, after winning one match in Montreal, he fell into a five match losing streak. Near the end of the season, he got to the quarterfinals of Basel and Stockholm, and then he captured the Masters 1000 crown in Paris, improbably qualifying for London with that burst of brilliance and resilience at the end.
Berger was undismayed by Sock's long slump. He knew that Sock had injured himself significantly at Queen's Club in June, and then hurt himself again in Montreal. Berger remained upbeat.
"Look, he was close the whole time,” Berger says. “He is a heck of a player. He was playing well in all of those indoor tournaments at the end of the season, playing great. He is a tremendous competitor. He has the ability to allow himself to play, and not worry about the results. That is a huge thing in tennis. That is something I really look for in a player, somebody that is not afraid to go for it. I just have so much confidence in his ability that I was able to completely detach myself from his results and look at it from a tactical perspective."
Berger had so much belief in Sock's propensity to win that he found himself almost devoid of nerves when his charge came through so remarkably indoors in Paris to win the biggest title of his career. In the opening round of that tournament, Sock was on the verge of defeat against Kyle Edmund, trailing 1-5 in the third and final set. He rallied valiantly to win in a tie-break. Sock never looked back, ultimately taking the title.
"I was really proud of the way Jack fought through that first match against Edmund in Paris,” says Berger. “Jim Courier says all the time that you never know when the most important match of your life is going to be, and you should be prepared for it. I called Jim after Jack won that tournament and said, 'You said something probably eight years ago that I have never forgotten.' Jim is so right about that. Jack is an incredible kid."
Berger will continue to work with Sock in 2018, but will travel more selectively. He is happy about that, but also delighted about a new post he recently started back home that is very close to his heart. He is the Director of Instruction for the Club at Ibis in West Palm Beach, Florida. Berger will put a considerable amount of time into that endeavor, along with his commitment to helping Sock.
"I am very excited about it,” Berger says of his new position in Florida. “They have a Director of Golf Instruction as well. We are one of the only clubs that has made that much of a commitment to tennis and golf, which is pretty amazing. I was on the court there the day after I got back from the 02' Arena, helping players at the club out. I see myself working there for the next ten years. I don't think I am ever going to retire from tennis completely. It is something I love too much. I love being on the court with anybody. The other day I was out there with a 79-year-old young man, and I enjoyed it as much as anything. I just enjoy teaching and coaching, and I will do that for the rest of my life."