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Far more to the dynamic world of coaching than meets the eye

6/19/2008 - Tennis

As she raced through the draw at Roland Garros, Ana Ivanovic seemed connected to the friends' box by an unseen tether, a psychic connection. After virtually every winner she would make a demure fist, turn it (with more of a twist than a pump), then look triumphantly at her coach, Sven Groeneveld.

Even without Groeneveld in the box -- he is an employee of adidas, the sponsor for Ivanovic and her opponent, Dinara Safina, thus causing a conflict of interest -- Ivanovic prevailed 6-4, 6-3 in the final to win her first Grand Slam singles title and capture the world No. 1 ranking.

Safina, who moved up into the top 10, also thanked her coach, Zeljko Krajan.

"If someone had said to me at the start of the year that I would be in the final of the French, I would have said, 'Are you kidding?'" Safina said. "But my coach believed in me. He kept telling me I am a good player, even after bad losses. I know I must work harder. I know I must be a perfectionist."

Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, has heard the skeptics.

"We sort of scoff from the outside: 'Why do players look at the box so much?'" he said at Roland Garros. "The reason is, you're all alone. In golf, you have a caddy. In other sports the coach is on the sideline, and he's allowed to coach. In tennis, technically, you aren't allowed to coach from the sideline."

Coaching was the subtext in both French Open finals: Roger Federer's alliance with legendary coach Jose Higueras was a leading story line on the men's side, but Rafal Nadal hammered Federer in straight sets.

"I think coaches are overrated," Higueras said before the tournament.

Is Higueras right? Or, on the other hand, are coaches vastly underrated?

Coaching at the highest reaches of professional tennis is perceived as a nebulous business, indeed. What, exactly, do coaches do? Are they training experts, tactical wizards, amateur psychologists -- or just well-paid dinner companions?

All of the above.

Most players learn their techniques as young teenagers from youth and junior coaches, but guiding a professional through the elite ranks is a more subtle science. And while much has been made of illegal coaching from the sideline, elite coaches say it is a relatively insignificant part of what they do.

The day before the French Open began, Justine Henin discussed her retirement in a news conference. She finished as the world's No. 1 player three times, won seven Grand Slam titles, but insisted she was leaving the game of tennis on her own terms.

"I know I'm not going to miss the circuit," Henin said. "I'm not going to miss the travel. What I'm going to miss the most is the relationship with [coach Carlos Rodriguez], because day after day we were working so hard and we've been so close. The little details made the difference because Carlos was so professional."

Rodriguez's name doesn't appear on any of Henin's 41 singles trophies, but their long-term partnership epitomizes the value of the coach. Henin's mother died when she was 12 and she had a poor relationship with her father and brother. Rodriguez, who began coaching Henin when she was 14, filled the void. Was he a father figure?

"It's as if -- but I'm not," Rodriguez said. "I'm harsh toward her. She tells me, 'What I like about you is that you have no diplomacy, but you make yourself very clear.'"

A tricky spot
First of all, throw out your view of the conventional team coach. Vince Lombardi or Bill Parcells never would have made it as a tennis coach.

"This is very, very different from the NFL or NBA," Paul Annacone explained. "Those coaches are paid to tell the players what to do. In tennis, the players pay us to listen to them. These guys are great players. They don't want to be dictated to, or yelled at. Pick your spots, show them statistics to prove your point.

"For me, the biggest trick is how do you say what you need to say the way the player wants to hear it?"

Annacone is currently the men's head coach for the Lawn Tennis Association, the governing body of tennis for Great Britain, and also coaches the country's Davis Cup team along with John Lloyd. Annacone is better known for his eight-year tenure as the coach of Pete Sampras.

Nine of Sampras' record 14 Grand Slam singles titles came with Annacone, from 1995 to 2001 and for a spell in 2002. Annacone also coached England's Tim Henman from 2004 until his retirement.

Annacone's ability to straddle that line -- articulating what a player needs, versus what he wants to hear -- may have been the greatest factor in his success. One example Annacone offered: Sampras' general resistance of advice to come to the net more often.

"A guy like Pete, one of the greatest players of all time, he wants to stay at the back of the court because he feels he's a better athlete than his opponent," Annacone explained. "It's an almost primal instinct: 'I'll hit more balls.'

"As a coach, you'd like to see him impose his will, get to net more, use those volleying skills. You know, impose his legacy: 'I'm Pete Sampras.'

"How do you get him to do that? I'd say something like, 'If you have a lot of different weapons, and you're choosing not to use them all, what's the point of having them?' You try and convince him that coming forward sets a tone, sends a message early in the match. As the match goes on, in pressure situations, the opponent will feel that more than if you give them too much time and space to rally freely."

A deep understanding of the game is the foundation for a coach, but communication skills, according to Annacone, are critical in imparting that knowledge.

"You have to have the information -- that goes without saying," Annacone said. "But you have to disperse the information the right way.

"Everybody's different. Pete wanted things in small, short, concise sound bites. Tim wanted things in a longer form. He was more receptive to more details and a more involved discussion.

"The better you are at articulating what's going on, the more successful that relationship is going to be."

Today's top players have many voices in their ears. There is the background noise of parents, advisers and youth coaches who go back to the early days. Oftentimes, parents are also the coaches. Richard Williams taught his daughters Venus and Serena the game growing up in California, and even today he and their mother, Oracene Price, are listed as their coaches. Yuri Sharapov, along with former player Michael Joyce, coaches his daughter Maria Sharapova. The coach and player form the core of the corporation, but there is often an agent or business manager, a trainer for strength and speed, a massage therapist and a racket stringer.

In some ways, the player-coach relationship is like a platonic marriage.

"Yes," Annacone said. "Pete and I were together constantly for eight years. That's a lot of card games, a lot of rented movies and a lot of dinners out."

For me, the biggest trick is how do you say what you need to say the way the player wants to hear it?

--Paul Annacone

Annacone is a fairly laid-back personality, the emotional opposite of Brad Gilbert. While Gilbert enjoyed an eight-year run with Andre Agassi, his most recent liaisons with younger players Andy Roddick and Andy Murray were relatively brief.

Fair to say that Gilbert, who was much older than both players, was a high-energy guy who -- considering the 24-7 nature of the relationship -- eventually wore thin on his pupils.

Jelena Jankovic, the WTA's No. 3 player, seemed to be craving a coaching relationship back in March at Indian Wells.

"I don't want to be alone anymore," she said. "I want to listen to somebody who has better knowledge than I do. If I have the right coach, who can raise my level by putting me on the right track.

"All the good coaches are already taken, or maybe they don't want to travel. It's very, very difficult."

A month later, she had found support from a familiar source. Ricardo Sanchez, who has overseen her career for some time, took over the full-time traveling job. Jankovic promptly won the Italian Open. Jankovic, Sanchez declared, had the game to become No. 1.

Jankovic, sounding far more confident than she had a few months earlier, confirmed her coach's opinion.

Fresh eyes
Peter Lundgren, despite his newest client's straight-sets defeat in Halle, Germany, sounded relatively upbeat a week ago.

"He double-faulted on the very first point," Lundgren reported from his hotel room. "But he played a pretty good match."

His new charge is Marcos Baghdatis, and because he lost to world No. 1 Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, Lundgren still was enthusiastic about the future. Baghdatis blew into the top 10 in 2006 from the unlikely launching pad of Cyprus. He crashed the Australian Open final (losing to Federer) and reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, which lifted his ranking to No. 8 among ATP players. And then …

After a quarterfinals appearance a year ago at Wimbledon, not much positive has happened. Baghdatis, who has dazzling skills, is not known as a particularly diligent practice player. His 2008 record after Halle was an indifferent 11-8. He was swept away in the first round at Roland Garros by Simone Bolelli in straight sets.

Lundgren, who coached Federer in his formative years (2000 to 2003), was hired largely to give Baghdatis, now ranked No. 25, some structure and discipline.

"A fresh set of eyes -- that's my job," Lundgren said. "Coaches see things the players can't see because they are so busy playing."

Lundgren is a good example of how a coach must adapt to the maturity level of his or her player. Lundgren's first major player was the mercurial Marcelo Rios of Chile, who he steered to the No. 1 ranking. That got him the coveted gig in Switzerland with Federer.

"With Roger, I felt like a father figure sometimes," Lundgren said. "With Marat [Safin] and Marcos, I'm coming in from a different angle. These guys, they are men already."

Baghdatis, who turned 23 years old this week, knows how to hit every shot. Lundgren's job is to teach him the concepts of when and where.

"There are a lot of things to change," Lundgren said. "He needs to be more aggressive. He's playing from the baseline too much; how to get to net is a big issue. Also, before he was just kicking his serve in. Now, we're trying to use more variety, use his serve to create some things.

"He doesn't know his game yet. He's an unbelievable shot-maker, but he doesn't know when to come in and what to do when he gets there. At a certain point, you want that to become automatic."

Darren Cahill, like Lundgren, has also been fortunate enough to work with high-profile players at opposite ends of their careers: Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi. Cahill, an ESPN analyst and Australian Davis Cup coach, described his approach with both athletes at Roland Garros, sitting on a third-floor terrace overlooking Court 5.

"Lleyton, I got him as a kid," Cahill said. "He was learning to play, strategies and so on. He was asking, 'How do I break down other people's weaknesses? OK, where do I put this ball at this point in a point?'

"With Andre, it was more about getting the most out of his game. We'd strategize, but the most important thing? It was to listen, to understand what I could do for Andre before I could coach him. After that, my job was to process the information and try to inspire him."

Cahill, who was the son of a famous South Australian football player and coach, had the nickname of "Killer" when he played. It is not a coincidence that Cahill was a solid player in his day. He rose to No. 22 in the rankings and in 1988 reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open, beating Boris Becker in the process. Lundgren (No. 23) and Annacone (No. 12) were both well-ranked players who draw on those experiences in their coaching.

"It's not necessary, but it helps for sure," Annacone said. "For me, what's really relevant is to go back and say, 'OK, let's take a deep breath here and remember what it was like to play.'"

"It's a lot more than hitting forehands and backhands under pressure. In the life of a player, there is always a lot more going on than meets the eye. Like when the luggage gets lost at the airport, nursing injuries or dealing with that fight with the girlfriend."

Reassurance and support
"Come on, John. You can do this."

McEnroe pressed his face into a narrow opening in the fence at the southwest corner of Court 10 and helped John Isner through a moment of crisis. It was a deserted area of Roland Garros, off limits to spectators, but McEnroe's media credential allowed him this unique vantage point.

"The stands were full," the U.S. Davis Cup captain said later in the cafeteria underneath at court Suzanne Lenglen. "It's just a show of support. Reassuring him. Keep doing what you're doing: Trying to end points quickly. That can make a difference."

Isner lost that first-round match to Juan Ignacio Chela in five sets, but seemed to play better for the handful of games that McEnroe was (literally) in his corner. In Davis Cup, captains are often viewed as ceremonious, but in 2007 McEnroe proved he was more than a mere cheerleader. He guided Americans Roddick, James Blake and Bob and Mike Bryan to the Davis Cup title.

"When I'm not the full-time personal coach, it's a more strategic role," McEnroe said. "I'm trying to get them to use their game more efficiently, trying to break down the opponent.

"My line is always, 'Use your strengths. Defend your weaknesses.'"

The United States Tennis Association rewarded McEnroe, once a top-30 player, by placing him in charge of player development. One of McEnroe's responsibilities is overseeing the U.S. Olympic tennis effort in Beijing this fall. Rodney Harmon will be the men's head coach, assisted by Jay Berger. They'll be working with Blake, Sam Querrey and the Bryan brothers.

"One area I'll be involved is scouting," Harmon said. "When the draw is known, I'll call players and coaches I know for information on opponents, as well as watching their matches in person. You're looking for tendencies. Where do they serve on the big points? Where do they return? High to the backhand, low to the forehand? How do they volley?

"If I can find that one thing -- the guy goes out wide to the forehand -- and at 5-all in the third, and you're waiting on it and hit a winner, then it's worthwhile."

At the French Open, Blake described the scouting process employed by his personal coach, Brian Baker, before the Simon Greul-Ernests Gulbis match that would determine his next opponent.

"He'll watch the match and come up with a pretty good scouting report," Blake said. "We usually go over it for no more than 10 minutes. I want to go out there with a few clear plans, a few clear ideas of what exactly I need to do, and go out there and execute."

After Lundgren broke with Rios, he said the fiery Chilean "needed a psychologist more than a coach."

But isn't that part of the job description?

"Yes," Lundgren conceded. "That was a long time ago. I was so fresh in the game, to start with somebody like that was tough. You try and understand how a player works. You can't always."

Berger, in an attempt to make himself a better coach, is pursuing a Master's degree in mental health counseling at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

"The mind is so important in tennis," he said. "This will equip me better to deal with players, and even their parents."

Most players outside the top 25 pay their coaches a modest salary, perhaps 10 percent of their winnings, with bonuses for titles and good showings in Grand Slams. Gilbert, meanwhile, reportedly is making more than $1 million per year as a high-performance coach for the Lawn Tennis Association.

"I don't look at it like that, actually," said Lundgren, laughing, when asked about the lucrative money available for top coaches. "It's a lot of money. Maybe we really do make a difference."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.