Kolkata It was in the Caribbean circuit that Tony Roche met Jaidip Mukerjea and Premjit Lall. Life was a beach in those amateur era days as they moved from one interesting tourist spot to another, playing each other but often staying and travelling together. “The Australians weren’t close to the American players, we bonded better with the Indians and I always enjoyed Jai and Prem’s company. And because they were world class players, I would meet them at top tournaments too, so we would see a lot of each other,” said Roche.
Over 50 years later and nearly eight years after Lall’s passing, Roche is here for a tournament in memory of his friend organised by Mukerjea. In an exclusive interview with HT, the multiple Grand Slam champion spoke about former trainees Roger Federer and Ivan Lendl, why he thinks new world No. 1 Andy Murray’s time has come and more.
Q: Roger Federer has had a rare injury break. Is his body finally telling him it’s time?
A: I don’t think so. It’s not like his shoulders are worn out or elbow or back. It’s just that his knee got in a funny position and was gone. I think, physically he can still do it. He is committed and wants to do it and that will make him very dangerous at big tournaments. I think Roger believes he has another Slam in him. He isn’t playing to get into semis and quarters. He is playing because he wants to win Slams.
Q: What drives Federer at this age?
A: Passion for the game. I think it gets stronger with time. He is a strong believer in the tradition of the game; he is interested in its history of the game and he is gonna be such a big part of that. Tennis is very lucky to have him and Rafa (Nadal). These two care about the game and care about where the game would be going to be in 20 years’ time.
Q: So, it comes down to respect for the sport?
A: Essentially. One of my big pet hates is that those in charge of tennis programmes across the world don’t teach kids about the history of the game and the need to respect the game. You can’t expect just to take, take, take; you’ve got to understand where the game has come from, about the guys who did all the hard work to get tennis to where it is today. Golf has that. Can you imagine you playing a game and you’ve got to call penalties on yourself? Hope tennis falls into that category. The All Blacks (New Zealand’s national rugby team) have a culture of players cleaning the dressing room, doesn’t matter who you are. These things are so important.
Q: Boris Becker was recently quoted as saying that Novak Djokovic wasn’t working as hard as he could in the second part of the season.
A: It’s hard for me to comment but I guess what also happened is that Andy Murray took his game to another level. The first half of the year belonged to Novak and the second, Murray. So, from the beginning of 2017 things are going to be interesting. The big plus for Murray is that he has got (Ivan) Lendl in his corner.
I worked with Ivan for eight years and everyday he got up he was always looking for an edge, something he could work on, improve. He would be the same with Murray. And that’s what Novak has to contend with. Murray is only going to get better. I think the next two-three years would be his. Novak certainly has got the ability but in what ways he is going to counter what Murray does will be the key. A lot to look forward to.
Q: Like with cricket bats that keep making hitting sixes easier, do you think so much improvement in racquets is taking the soul out of tennis?
A: It’s probably become more predictable. But what they do, they do very well. They are superb athletes; you look at Murray and Djokovic... They defend so well and then they can turn that into attack. That’s what makes the difference between them and a player out of the top 20. These guys move so well. It’s so difficult to hurt them. A lot of that is natural but a lot of that is also very hard work.
Q: As someone who’s coached Jelena Dokic, what do you think is needed to get the best out of Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios?
A: I think Lleyton (Hewitt) coming on board as Davis Cup captain will help these guys. They will respect Lleyton because he is young, because of what he has achieved as a player and because he willing to give. Lot of Davis Cup captains come on board for one week here and one week there. Lleyton’s committed for majority of the weeks and I think it’s going to help Nick and Bernard big time.
Lleyton’s also very strong on the team even when you are travelling. He wants the boys to train and travel together even when they are playing as individuals. He wants to get the team concept back. In our time, one of the reasons why Australians dominated world tennis was this. Everyone pushed one another, helped one another. And when somebody wasn’t pulling his weight, the senior players would say ‘wake up’.
The other reason why we dominated was that we were fitter than the rest. From Frank Sedgman (former world No. 1 among amateurs), we had learnt the discipline that is needed in your training. (It’s difficult not to notice that even at 71, Roche has legs that look like tree trunks. “I was taught skipping was good and would do it non-stop for 30 minutes since I was 14.)
Q: At 43, do you think Leander Paes is someone who keeps pushing the envelope or one who simply doesn’t realise his time is up?
A: I think he can still compete. A lot of doubles players are in their late 30s, the Bryan brothers included. Daniel Nestor’s still playing and winning at 44. That’s not going to happen in singles.