Ever since Andy Murray hired Ivan Lendl in 2012, the Scot couldn’t have imagined the trendsetter he would become. The eight-time Grand Slam champion Czech guided Murray to the 2013 Wimbledon during his first stint and his second on SW19 when they reunited earlier in the year. And it soon became a fashion statement to have a celebrity coach. You had world No 1 Serb pairing with Boris Becker, Swiss maestro Roger Federer getting Stefan Edberg on board, Kei Nishikori taking on Michael Chang on his staff and so on.
But when the combination stops being effective, a split is inevitable. News trickled in last week that 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic will no longer be coaching Marin Cilic, his Croatian compatriot whom he had guided to the 2014 US Open title. “I am no longer working with my coach Goran Ivanisevic. We have started to work together in September 2013 and we had a lot of success during that period, especially winning the US Open in 2014. It was huge privilege to work with Goran, I enjoyed our work all this time and Goran helped me to reach many goals. Unfortunately, the road we were sharing on this journey is separating and I wish only the best for Goran in the future.” Cilic wrote on his Facebook page.
When Ivanisevic and Cilic got together in 2013, the younger Croat had just come off a four-month ban. “It took a while for Marin to start believing in himself,” Ivanisevic had told this correspondent. “To win a Grand Slam and to reach the semis of won, there is a huge difference,” he had said, adding that coaching is a lot more difficult than actually playing on court.
Great players, great coaches?
One wonders how this works because a former player might not be a great coach and vice versa. Brad Gilbert, the once world No 4, could never win a Grand Slam but has coached Andre Agassi to six of his eight Majors. Andy Roddick won his sole US Open in 2003 under Gilbert’s influence. Or the late Tim Gullikson who worked with ‘Pistol Pete’ Sampras. Sampras won four of his 14 Slams and reached the numero uno position on the rankings chart under his ‘great good friend’s’ guidance.
Recently, Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic got John McEnroe on his side for the grasscourt season and it seemed to have worked. The Canadian defeated Federer from two-sets down in the semifinals to reach his maiden Major final, but lost out to Murray in straight sets. “He needs more experience,” is how former Davis Cup captain Naresh Kumar put it. “He misses every third or fourth ball. But if he’s persistent, and keeps working, he will beat them. He already has one of the most powerful serves in the game.”
Going back to the basics, does a star coach actually help the player? “At such a high level, coaches are needed for tactical guidance, not technicalities,” Kumar adds. Players have their unique styles and technical flaws need to be corrected at a young age. In Sania Mirza’s recent book ‘Ace Against Odds’ she speaks of her service and writes, ‘The best coaches in the world believe that after the age of fourteen it becomes very difficult to change the position of the dropped elbow on the serve. All I could do was try, and that I’ve done for years’.
Tactics and temperaments
After Murray’s second Wimbledon win, the media is abuzz how Lendl’s influenced has helped the Scot. Kumar feels that Lendl has been able to help the 29-year-old with discipline, which in turn has helped him improve his game and mental focus.
He does feel that when Edberg joined Federer’s team, it was a perfect match. “Federer needed to shorten his rallies and come to the net more often. Edberg advised him to do just that which ended up surprising the Swiss’ opponents. No one expected that,” Kumar says.
In fact, SABR or Sneak Attack by Roger last year was a rage. The Swiss did it in practice as a joke but when he tried it against Djokovic in the Cincinnati Masters final last year, he left the Serb stunned, sneaking up to the net when the opponent least expected it. It was under Edberg’s influence that the master player started taking more chances. While Djokovic has been going from strength to strength, Kumar finds the partnership with Becker surprising. “They are complete opposites!” he exclaims.
But one thing he is clear about. If one has to hire a celebrity coach and win a Grand Slam, it’s better to hire a former Major winner. “You have to play consistently and sustain the high level in the second week of the tournament. Those who have won a Slam will be able to tell you how to go about it,” he says.