The Coaching Carousel Continues to Spin

Originally published in Tennis View Magazine, December, 2011.
It’s a well-known fact that talent alone doesn’t make a tennis champion. It also takes a good support system. Whether it’s a famIly member or a former pro, a good coach is likely one of the most important assets a player can have. but often times, the life span of a player/coach alliance can be unpredictable, unstable and even short-lived. In recent years, more money, more pressure and a more global talent pool have forced the tennis-coaching carousel to pick up speed.
Without a doubt, most tennis coaches are in a fragile position, subject to the whims of the players who want fast results so they can shoot up to the top of the rankings. ESPN analyst and former pro Darren Cahill says that “because a tennis player’s window is so small, they don’t wish to waste a moment. They keep second guessing as to whether maybe there’s something better out there for them, or they’re quick to pull the rip cord if they go through even a slightly bad patch, thinking that somebody else can get them through that quicker.” Cahill, who previously coached Andre Agassi and currently offers his coaching expertise to players participating in the Adidas Player Development Program, says that if a player and a coach make it past the three-year mark, they have a pretty special relationship.
According to Antonio Van Grichen, who is best known for his five-year stint coaching Victoria Azarenka during her climb to No. 6 in the world, says that the foundation of a good coach/player relationship is based on respect, motivation, good communication and trust. “In any kind of relationship, respect has to exist with one another,” says Van Grichen. “Motivation is what drives both the player and coach to work day in [and] day out towards their goals. Good communication is essential to avoid misunderstandings and helping to improve the player’s game and the player/coach relationship.” Van Grichen also worked briefly with Vera Zvonareva and Ana Ivanovic.
Chip Brooks, Tennis Director at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy and has been working at the Academy since 1977, has another way to define coaching success. “It all boils down to personality,” he says. “It’s about understanding game styles and knowing what buttons to push to get the player to overachieve. It’s not just getting the player to play well, it’s getting them to play at a higher level than they are capable of playing.”
Is there ever a good time to change coaches or to try something different? The quick answer: “Yes,” says Cahill. “Especially when a player has a block of training weeks. It’s very difficult to make any real change when you have a bunch of tournaments coming up. In November or December, if players are thinking about making a change, that’s a great time – it’s a relaxed atmosphere for a player to get an opportunity to know the coach and for the coach to get to know the player. Then when January arrives, players get to see how those things implement themselves into a match.”
Compared to 10, 20 or even 30 years ago, players at the top of today’s game are making astronomical amounts of money, which could be one major reason why so many player/coach partnerships don’t last. For example, a $3.5 million career from 20 years ago is similar to one year’s earnings for today’s top players. Simply put: Players can afford to make more frequent coaching changes.

“I think that you’ll find that most of the top players spend the money to make sure they keep improving themselves,” says Cahill. “It’s like investing in your future. You can only do that when you’re making better money because it’s an expensive exercise to take on a coach. It’s not only a salary, but it’s also all the traveling expenses you have to pay for.”
Chip Brooks says that taking on a coach can definitely burn a hole in a player’s pocket, depending on the contract agreement. “Good coaches are not going to come cheap, and they are wanting long-term deals with a percentage of prize money tied to bonuses.”
Even without a coach, playing on the ATP or WTA Tours can be cost prohibitive. “The USTA came out with a stat this year,” says Brooks. “The average cost to play a year of tour-level events now, excluding equipment, no coach and no parents is about $143,000 per year. Your break even is around 100 in men’s and women’s tennis.” This can be a risky investment for players coming up in the ranks with no guarantees for success.
On the contrary, a tennis coach can help a player reach new heights and reap substantial rewards in the process. “If the coach can help a player win two rounds more in each Grand Slam, they’ve more than covered their investment when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money,” says Brooks. “Forget about the $1.8 million Sam Stosur just won by winning the U.S. Open singles title. Think about all of the endorsement money she’s going to pick up because she’s the first female from Australia to win a grand slam singles title in 31 years. If a coach can help a player get to the next level, then it’s worth every penny.”
Ana Ivanovic has gone through more coaching changes during her young career than most other players, struggling to find long-term stability with a regular coach as well as consistency with her game. How many coaches she has had? At least eight: Zoltan Kuharsky (early career), David Taylor, Craig Kardon, Scott Byrnes, Sven Groeneveld, Antonio Van Grichen (trial basis), and Heinz Gunthardt (eight months). She signed on with Nigel Sears, the former head of coach for women’s tennis at the LTA, in June, 2011. Ivanovic has also sought the tutelage of Darren Cahill, via the Adidas Player Development Program.

“When you have a new coach, there is extra motivation in the beginning, and that can create some good results,” says Ivanovic. “But the changes that you make together take time to flourish, and it will be some time, probably next season, when I am in a position to really reach my potential.”

For better or for worse, some players, including Caroline Wozniacki, Li Na, Rafael Nadal, Marion Bartoli, and Maria Sharapova rely heavily on parents, a spouse, or other close relatives as their primary coach. For the most part, these players have been able to avoid the coaching carousel, but there is a down side. These players seem to have no real choice when it comes to coaching, until they reach adulthood. Even then, it can be a sticky mess for players to part ways with a parent or relative as a coach, given their history together both on and off the court.

Li Na became household name after winning the 2011 French Open. A few months prior to winning her first Grand Slam, she decided to drop her coach (also her husband) for a more experienced and knowledgeable coach, Michael Mortensen. His tutelage helped to turn things around for Li Na by developing her clay-court game.

Marion Bartoli, who, despite having a tumultuous relationship with her father/coach, Walter Bartoli, continues to work with him on a full time basis. Who can forget Bartoli’s third round match against Flavia Pennetta at the 2011 Wimbledon Championships, when she was overcome with frustration and banished her father from her players box on Centre Court? He obliged, and Bartoli went on to win the match.

The bottom line: In tennis, pressure and instability will always be a part of the player/coach dynamic, as they navigate through their respective careers. But as they say, money makes the world go round. And in tennis, it simply makes it go round a lot faster.

No comments: