When it comes to tennis coaches, the Australians have long set the gold standard: insightful, diligent, tranquil, accessible. Sadly, one of the sport’s very best, Bob Brett, died Tuesday from cancer at the age of 67.
Brett’s portfolio of players he worked with ran far and deep. There was Boris Becker, from 1987 to 1991, when the German played his best tennis and became No. 1 in the world. There was Goran Ivanisevic, Brett front and center with the mercurial Croatian through many moments of agony and ecstasy. There was Marin Cilic, as he rose up the ranks. And there were vast others too, including Grand Slam champions Andres Gomez, Mats Wilander and Johan Kriek.
What is it that makes an Aussie coach so valuable? Simple—if difficult to execute: relentless dedication to the work required for a player to squeeze every drop possible. Call it business, call it love: Bob Brett personified the best of each.
"He was always very generous with me," says Paul Annacone, former coach of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. "As a coach, we always get asked, 'Who's a great coach?' And for me, Bob is the first guy that comes to mind."
At the Australian Open in 2000, while coaching Nicolas Kiefer. [Below: Stuttgart in 1997.] (Getty Images)
Brett’s devotion to tennis began when he was very young. As early as age 12, he came in contact with the greatest Aussie coach of them all, Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman. Within a year, Brett became a ballboy for the Australian Davis Cup team, giving him the chance to closely study the work habits of such greats as Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and Tony Roche.
At 20, working 13 hours a day at jobs in Australia that had nothing to do with tennis, Brett wrote a letter to Hopman. At the time, Hopman was based at the Port Washington Tennis Academy in New York—a place that also happened to be the training ground for such future pros as Vitas Gerulaitis, John McEnroe and Mary Carillo. Off to New York it was.
From there, tennis became Brett’s life. His immersion in Hopman’s world soon took Brett to the legendary Aussie’s new training academy in Florida. Then came the chance to work with various pros, with Brett directing a squad under the rubric of racquet manufacturer, Rossignol. Players on these teams included Tim Mayotte, Jose-Luis Clerc and Guy Forget. Harold Solomon, John Lloyd, Peter McNamara and Paul McNamee were among Brett's charges throughout the 1980s.
“So sad,” tweeted Mayotte today. “A great coach and a great man! He coached (and tolerated) a group of young crazies as the leader of Team Peugeot Rossignol.”
To take in the breadth of personalities and playing styles that Brett coached reveals his ability to connect in a meaningful way with just about anyone who held a racquet. And while Brett always remained true to his Australian values, his reach was profoundly diverse. He spent many years aiding Japan, Canada and Great Britain.
"You don't get that résumé and level of success by accident," says Annacone. "There's a guy that's able to connect with a lot of different people.
"He was one of the leaders of one of my favorite clichés: It's not always what you say, it's how you say it. He was a guy that could get different personalities to buy in. That really resonated in my learning curve."
Seeking credibility for his start-up academy in France—now internationally renowned—Patrick Mouratoglou brought in Brett. The two partnered for six years.
“He trusted me, believed in me, took me under his wings and taught me the job,” Mouratoglou tweeted. “He was my mentor and I can’t thank him enough.”
Such is the nature of the Australian legacy in a sport as global as tennis. Throughout the sport’s history, those Aussies with the desire to make a mark on tennis know they must travel long distances, for long stretches of time. That requirement makes them both fit and adaptable—but also, unwavering in their allegiance to Australia’s principles of sportsmanship, kindness, camaraderie, competition and, most of all, hard work.
"When you watch what he did," says Annacone, "he did it with an incredible amount of mindfulness and patience and understanding that people hear things in different ways, and you have to figure out how to tap in to the buy-in switch. He was the maestro at that."
Just this past November, Brett became the second winner of the ATP’s Tim Gullikson Career Coach Award. Naturally, Brett’s predecessor was his fellow Aussie, Tony Roche. Tennis has lost a first-rate mate.