After the Andy Murray/Ivan Lendl duo set the tone, here come Roger Federer and Stefan Edberg; Boris Becker and Novak Djokovic; Kei Nishikori and Michael Chang; Richard Gasquet and Sergi Bruguera; Goran Ivanisevic and Marin Cilic. In 2013 we also saw the partnership between Maria Sharapova and Jimmy Connors, although it quickly fell apart.
Tennis is definitely a sport where fashion is king. Every year, a new trend starts, becomes a hit and is then followed by a large number of players.
In 2011 and 2012, the gluten-free diet seized the Tour after the success of Djokovic and the revelation of his special diet. If in 2013 players had to be thin, only a few years ago it was necessary to be muscular and powerful after Fernando Verdasco started the tendency of protein consumption and overdoing body-building. It came just after his excellent Australian Open campaign in 2009, where he only lost to Rafael Nadal in five sets in the semi-final.
This year, after the success of Andy Murray - who in the past two seasons has won the Olympic Games, the US Open and finally Wimbledon - the new fashion is about working with former champions. Many are now following the steps of the Brit, hoping that his recipe will have the same effect for them.
Lendl/Murray: Setting the standard
Former tennis champions indisputably present some advantages. They have experienced the same situations, felt the same emotions, were able to overcome the pressure and handled many other experiences. They 'were there' and can bring a different perspective, or strengthen decisions. They can speak the same language because they share the same feelings in similar situations.
If we take the example of Ivan Lendl and Andy Murray, his contribution was obvious. He managed to change the perennial runner-up into a Grand Slam winner and Olympic Champion. Even more, all of his objectives were achieved within a year.
Ivan has managed to take on the role of coach, totally putting himself aside for the benefit of the Scotsman. He took on Andy's issues as if they were his own. He didn’t only copy what worked for him, but rather tried to find what could help the Brit using his personal experience as a player.Becker: By Djokovic's side
It is as if he had a big bag full of his experiences. And each time, facing an issue, he looked inside and found the perfect answer or example. He set up a game plan where Murray had to take a lot more initiative during rallies. He knew the right language to use to give Andy more confidence in himself.
He finally strengthened the British man’s consistency - especially in the weeks before Grand Slams – thanks to short adapted exercises, two against one. This stability fed Andy's confidence and he felt stronger than ever. The association worked and results followed.
But Ivan truly behaved as a coach and not as an ex-player. He managed to put himself completely aside for the benefit of Murray and it is a necessary condition of success.
The limits of an ex-champion as a coach
If Lendl was able to overcome the obstacles that faced him with style, let’s not forget that being a coach is first and foremost a full-time job. Some ex-players can make outstanding coaches; others don’t have the capacity. Several former champions have torn their hair out in the past trying to coach.
The first problem: former champions are no longer big travelers. They all agree to be present for Grand Slam tournaments, possibly the week before. But they are reluctant to be there for other events. It will also be difficult for them to go to the player's country for training sessions. But, if they want results, it seems essential that they can guarantee a certain number of weeks dedicated to work both in training and competition.
The second problem: They may tend to compare themselves to their player, which is not the point. The question is not to know who the best player is. But rather how they, as the new coach, will be able to be of use for their player in order to help them to overcome an obstacle or fix a recurrent problem. If making comparisons is at the center of the relationship, it will do more damage than good for the player. The point in coaching is to really put yourself aside for the benefit of the player, which is not easy for champions who were the center of attention for one or more decades.Edberg: Helping Federer
The third problem: former champions have great experience of the game itself and of competition, but poor coaching experience for most of them. Therefore, in the way they work with the player, technical guidance or other expertise must be brought by other consultants to fill the gaps.
The fourth problem: dividing responsibilities. For Federer, everything seems clear: Severin Lüthi remains the coach. Stefan Edberg will play a role of consultant, providing a different point of view. However, for Djokovic, the role of coach No. 1 was offered to Boris Becker and therefore Marian Vajda moved to No. 2. This was a surprise for me because the Slovakian has been present alongside the Serbian for many years and their association worked well. Boris's role is clearly intended to regulate certain detailed issues - probably how Nole managed his matches against Nadal in 2013. But it is important that this new element does not create confusion in a team which previously demonstrated its efficiency.
The right profile for all
The choice of the former champion must be made with a very specific purpose in mind. Just because it’s the new fashion doesn’t mean that it’s okay to work with every ex great. For Federer and Edberg, we clearly understand that the Swiss man really wants to progress in his short game, and to come more often to the net. As he is not getting younger, he knows that every year it is harder for him to play long rallies during five sets against Nadal, Djokovic or Murray. The idea of rushing to the net to shorten the rallies makes more and more sense.
Boris Becker can also help Novak in the same way but for different reasons. The ability of the Serbian to win games in five sets is not the issue, but his capacity to finish rallies against Nadal may be improved by adding a sharper and more efficient volley to his range.
For Chang and Nishikori, they are naturally closer, thanks to the similarity between their tennis. They are both small built, without a decisive shot, but defend very well. Chang can help the Japanese star with perfect preparation for tournaments and tactical schemes to give him hope of defeating the world's best in the majors.Chang: Assisting Nishikori
As for Richard Gasquet, his game is based on spinning balls and he wishes to improve his forehand, so he can use it to attack more. Bruguera thinks he can help there, as well as toughen him up by making him work intensely and harden him against setbacks.
Finally, Goran Ivanisevic has a similar size to Marin Cilic, with a very big serve. He will need to make Marin's service even more effective and help him develop a more enterprising style of tennis, which makes sense considering the qualities of the latter.
The first results of these new collaborations will be seen in the 2014 Australian Open.