‘Musical Chairs’: The Complexity & Dynamics of Player and Coach on Tour

Aadrian_rattenburys the Tennis season draws to a close, tennis players on the Tour are not only looking forward to a short but well-earned rest before the preseason preparation for another year long grinding schedule but also who do they want as their coach – ‘The Hiring and Firing’ season. Already this year coaching changes by players have been numerous, some unexpected or without apparent logic. Some players have reached for the ‘default’ button and resorted to their mother, father or brother or simply engaged a ‘hitter or sparring partner’ to travel with them.

A good example of the player/coach arrangement and potential issues is Caroline Wozniacki who prefers now to be coached by her father. Wozniacki knows it well as she has been coached by Piotr for many years. Since turning pro in 2005, Wozniacki has had ups and downs in her career and has also hired some notable coaches like Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and David Kotyza. But she’s not managed to work with anyone for a long period of time and has gone back to work with her father, each and every time.
‘I realized that the best combination for me is just having my dad as my coach,’ Wozniacki said. ‘He’s coached me since I was seven years old when I started. There’s no reason for me now to ever have to change again. The only reason I did that was because my dad wanted to stay at home more and kind of relax. But I think we got to a mutual understanding now. I think it’s very hard because I think you spend so much time with a coach, you have to also really have a chemistry. If you spend so many hours every day, if you don’t get along off the court, you’re going to get annoyed on the court. Sometimes it can even be a great coach, but maybe not for you. They fit better to a different playing style. There’s a lot of things that go into it and it’s not easy.’

The ‘musical chairs’ and ‘hiring and firing’ of player/coach associations brings into focus one of the major commitments that affect both the players and coaches on the World Tour.

The relationship between a professional tennis player and his or her coach is definitely a unique one. While in team sports like football, rugby or cricket, the coach is employed by an organization that functions pretty much like a company, tennis coaches are hired directly by the players. This creates a sort of ironic situation, in which the coach, who supposedly is the boss and should have a commanding position, is in fact the employee in the relationship. At the end of the month, he or she picks up the pay from the player, and not from an organization or a company.

A team sports coach can get away with not being liked by every player and the players have to follow the coaches’ directions as they are employed by their organizations. Tennis players, on the other hand, can fire their coaches at any time, if something is not going according to their own expectations. WTA sources have indicated that the ‘average’ life of a player and coach working together on the Tour is three months!

This unique type of player/coach relationship requires a lot of work from both parties. It is almost like a marriage, as they spend a lot of time on the courts together, travel together (moving endlessly from place to place every week), eat together, and in most cases live in close proximity for much of the year. In some cases, particularly in the women’s game, that can include parents! Consequently, as Wozniacki alluded to, stress and pressure is inevitable unless player and coach are aware of that and are willing to make an effort towards preserving the relationship on good terms.

To outsiders, the life of a full-time tennis coach seems glamorous, even glorious. Tennis insiders know the truth: It might well be the worst job in sports.

At the very least, it’s not the high-paying, low-output job it looks like on television. To casual tennis fans, coaches seem to do little more than watch matches from the stands. But away from the spotlight, there’s work to do. A lot of work, much of it menial.

Someone has to book a practice court. Someone has to get rackets restrung. Someone has to push players in the gym and go on the court for as much as five hours a day, often in the sun. Someone has to count calories and plan proper meals. Its 24/7 with match scheduling that can often mean late night finishes and not returning to the hotel until early hours of the morning.

And then there’s the whining, griping, racket-smashing and lamenting of players who fail all on their own, without any teammates to ease the pressure or pain. Coaches bear the brunt of their anger and petulance. They do all this while being away from family and friends for 40 weeks a year, or more, between tournaments and practice.

Often players will look to blame their coach for their own shortcomings, rather than face up to themselves and ‘look in the mirror’. A case in point where a leading player on the women’s tour blamed her coach for losing a match against a much lower ranked player from being 6/1, 3/1 up in the match!

Whilst there are other players who think and act as if they are ‘superstars’ because they are ranked #1 in their country (which has no tennis heritage and/or is a small country) but only ranked in the #200 region in the world!

There’s no job security for tennis coaches. They may have a contract, but when a player wants to end a relationship, it ends. Immediately.

It is also not just the coach but the whole team who are fired, as highlighted this year by Novak Djokovic and Giles Simone.

Some players prefer to have specialist coaches for specific parts of the season, like Stan Wawrinka did this year with Paul Annacone for the grass court season. There has been love and hate relationships like the one in which Tommy Haas fired and hired back David “Red” Aim so many times. There are relationships that don’t last too long and there are relationships that are career long, like Rafa Nadal with Toni Nadal, James Blake with Brian Barker, Gustavo Kuerten with Larri Passos, and Justine Henin with Carlos Rodriguez. There have however been extreme cases of coaches getting fired on the court by the player, during a match or after one match as in the case of Maria Sharapova with Jimmy Connors!

Andre Agassi (who worked with Novak Djokovic at the French Open &Wimbledon and due to work with him next year) made a very interesting point in his foreword for Brad Gilbert’s book “Winning Ugly”, where he said that a good coach is the one who is able to take his player all the way to the level in which he is not needed any more. This is absolutely true!

Whether some players agree or not, the coach’s role on a tennis player’s development is of tremendous importance. A good example of that was Johanna Konta’s improvement under the guidance of Esteban Carril who had helped her climb an extraordinary 137 places in just 18 months (both of whose services she dispensed with at the end of last year). Carril can hardly have been paying for a performance slump, the issue was rumoured to have more to do with his request for a pay rise, although this has never been confirmed.

Konta has now dispensed with the services of Wim Fissette (who has previously worked with three world #1’s in Kim Clijsters, Simona Halep and Victoria Azarenka) after less than ten months and with whom she reached a career high of #4 in the world. The ‘official’ line was that the decision was ‘mutual’, yet it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Fissette was taking the blame for three terrible months on the court – in which Konta won just two matches from six tournaments entered.

So, it is back to the coaching selection game, with likely try-outs for interested parties to be staged in the coming months!

Usually it is hard for people who are not really into tennis to notice the coach’s finger on a player’s game, and only specialized media approach this issue, but its existence is a true fact and can’t be denied.
Coaches weren’t always so dependent on the whims of a single player. When Bob Brett, the famed coach of Goran Ivanisevic, Boris Becker and Marin Cilic, started coaching in 1979, he traveled with three or four players. Brett respects the desires of current players and admires the quality of care a player can receive from an entourage of coaches, trainers and masseuses. Yet he sees benefits in the old method.
“For experience and overall development, it’s much better to have two or three players,” he said. “They feed off each other.” Despite all the burdens of coaching, those who do it are still addicted to the trade.

Tennis is an individual sport, and the uniqueness of coaching is one more ingredient that makes it such a great sport.

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