The supercoach trend has altered how we think about teaching in tennis

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It didn’t take long for Carlos Moya to gel with Rafael Nadal once they began working together in 2017. “He’s more than a coach, he’s one of the best friends I ever had on the tour,” said Nadal of his fellow French Open champion. (AP)

It was the afternoon of July 8, 2012, and Andy Murray had just endured the most painful three hours of his tennis career. The Brit had lost his first Wimbledon final, to Roger Federer, in front of a celebrity-filled Centre Court crowd. Then, during the trophy presentation, Murray had shed tears as he tried to speak. And why not: it was the 25-year-old’s fourth major final, and his fourth defeat. 

Perhaps most mortifying, Murray had done all of this in front of the legendary player who had agreed to become his coach six months earlier, Ivan Lendl. The feared former champion known as “The Terminator” had watched in his customary, stone-faced way as Murray let his chance to become the first British man to win Wimbledon in 76 years slip away. What was Lendl going to say now?

“He told me he was proud of the way I played,” Murray recalled. “I think he believed in me when a lot of people didn’t.”

What Lendl’s faith meant to Murray quickly became apparent. One month later, on the same court, Murray beat Federer for Olympic gold. One month after that, he won his first Grand Slam title, at the US Open. And one year later, Murray took the final step on Centre Court and won Wimbledon. 

It was enough to make Lendl, who had lost in all 14 of his attempts at the All England Club, finally crack a smile.

“I’m just happy I managed to do it for him,” Murray said.

During those 12 months, Murray fulfilled his considerable potential, and he did it in part because the man he had hired to toughen him up had shown a surprising capacity for empathy, the kind that champion athletes have never been known for. The supercoach era had begun.

Murray’s success with Lendl didn’t go unnoticed. By the start of 2014, a slew of similar pairings had been announced: Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker, Federer and Stefan Edberg, Goran Ivanisevic and Marin Cilic, Michael Chang and Kei Nishikori, Lindsay Davenport and Madison Keys, Martina Navratilova and Agnieszka Radwanska. Anyone who didn’t have a supercoach was asked when they were going to get one.

At first, the idea looked like a fad for a celebrity-obsessed age. While Hall of Famers like Billie Jean King and Jimmy Connors had come back to coach, the consensus was that the best athletes couldn’t teach what they did. It all came so naturally, they never had to think about it. Of the great Aussies of the 1960s, it was Tony Roche, rather than the legendary Rod Laver, who went on to become a top-level coach. When asked for advice, Laver’s response was famously uncomplicated: “Just give the loose ones a bit of a nudge.” 

That dynamic held true across eras and countries. Whether it was Ion Tiriac and Ilie Nastase, Brad Gilbert and John McEnroe, or Peter Lundgren and Mats Wilander, the player with less talent for the game was the one who had the patience to communicate its concepts to someone else. It’s a phenomenon that goes beyond tennis. In the NBA, it’s Steve Kerr, a role player for the Chicago Bulls teams of the 1990s, rather than Michael Jordan, the star of those teams, who coaches the champion Golden State Warriors. In the NFL, the winning coach of this year’s Super Bowl was the Philadelphia Eagles’ Doug Pederson, who spent his playing career as a backup to Brett Favre.

*****

Yet the superstar turned supercoach didn’t turn out to be a fad in tennis. Lendl would help Murray to the No. 1 ranking in 2016. Becker would team with Djokovic to win six majors. Edberg would rejuvenate Federer’s net attack. While those high-profile pairings have ended, others have begun. In 2017, Carlos Moya pushed Rafael Nadal back to No. 1, Davenport helped Keys reach the US Open final, Pat Cash steered CoCo Vandeweghe into the Top 10, and Conchita Martinez guided Garbine Muguruza to her first Wimbledon title. When Djokovic parted ways with Becker, he started working with Andre Agassi.

What changed? Money, as it tends to do, played a role. Today’s pros have enough of it to feed a small army of advisers. That means a Hall of Famer doesn’t have to endure the tour’s weekly grind, book flights or pick up towels. Murray, Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Muguruza have kept day-to-day team managers on board, and saved their supercoach for the big events. Today’s player box has a new must-have member: The talismanic figure whose presence alone is inspiring.

“I don’t see Edberg in a coaching role,” Federer said when he hired the Swede. “More as an inspiration, a legend joining my team, just discussing tennis really.”

“Conchita knows how to win here on Centre Court, and that’s a big thing,” Muguruza said during her Wimbledon title run. (The two ended their trial partnership this year.) “To have her by my side gives me this little confidence of having someone that has won before.”

It wasn’t just issues of money or time commitment that kept the game’s stars on the sidelines. There was a reverse stigma attached to having been a champion, an assumption that to climb as high as they did, they needed to be selfish and inward—to not play well with others. 

When Murray hired Lendl, the first question that went through many people’s minds was, “Will Ivan the Terrible be nice enough to coach?”

“The cliché was always, ‘You don’t have to be a great player to be a teacher,’” says Paul Annacone, who coached Federer and Pete Sampras. “And that became the conventional wisdom. The great ones have experienced rare highs on court, but they potentially have a narrow focus.”

One of those great ones agrees.

“If you want to be successful in tennis it has to be about you, you have to be very egoistic and central focused,” Becker told the South China Morning Post’s James Porteous. “But as a coach the opposite is true.”

What may help more than anything is that a legend of the past sees something of himself or herself in a legend in the making. Like Murray, Lendl lost his first four major finals. 

“Obviously I see the similarities between him and me, and I want his career to end up like mine,” Lendl told the Daily Mail when he was hired.

For Becker, the bond with Djokovic included a shared sense of defiance.

“I see him play Nadal and Federer, probably the two most popular players in the world, and he doesn’t always get a fair deal from the crowd,” Becker told CNN. “I see some similarities between him and a young Becker.”

Neither Murray nor Djokovic won right away with Lendl or Becker. But when they saw that their mentors still believed in them after defeats—“He told me he was proud of the way I played,” as Murray said—their relationships were strengthened. 

Since then, Lendl and Becker, and the high-profile coaches who have followed them, have shown that they can communicate what they know, and that labeling them “natural athletes” doesn’t do justice to their tennis IQs and banks of knowledge.

“They’re all smart people,” Annacone says of the supercoaches, “and they all understand the process that goes into getting to No. 1. It didn’t just happen. You look at someone like Goran [Ivanisevic], he went through an amazing process to finally win Wimbledon.”

These legendary players also know from bitter experience that failure is part of that process.

“I think personally I set more realistic expectations than some other coaches, having been through it myself,” Cash says of his work with Vandeweghe. “Coaches who haven’t been through it tend to theorize, and don’t understand what it’s like to play under immense pressure. 

“If you’ve ‘been there, done that,’ it gives your players a sense of confidence.”

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According to Dr. Alexandra Guhde, a clinical psychologist who has advised pro tennis players, it’s about more than just listening to someone who has been there and done that. She says the supercoach trend mirrors a rise in the use of professional mentoring in the corporate world.

“In the classical psychological sense, a mentor is someone outside the family that a young person looks up to,” she says. “Mentors make themselves available to pass on wisdom, and, perhaps most importantly, allow themselves to be slightly diminished as the student (hopefully) passes the teacher. 

“This is a service that I think Lendl and Becker provided Murray and Djokovic.”

Every supercoach helps their player in a different way. But in each case, that help is predicated on the respect he or she commands. Nadal trusted Moya enough to listen when he advised him to mix up his service locations and return positions. Murray appreciated Lendl’s honesty. Keys has an abiding faith in Davenport’s experience.

“She was No. 1 in the world, and she’s won Grand Slams,” Keys told Vogue, “so if there’s any person who can help me get through, it’s her.” 

Coaching in the Bigs: Lindsay Davenport on her time with Madison Keys

At SW19, Martinez even made a skeptical Muguruza appreciate the power of superstition.

“I had to do the same every day or otherwise there would be drama in the team,” Muguruza said with a laugh. “It had to be the same bag, same balls, and I had to be first through the door and she had to be second.”

Whatever a former champion tells you to do, you do, right? The supercoach trend may eventually fade, but we’ll never think of star players the same way again. “Natural athletes,” it seems, can have brains. And those who can do, can teach, too.


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