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Steve Flink: Multiple coaches work in some but not all cases

9/24/2013 2:00:00 PM

Over the summer of 2013, Novak Djokovic asked former world No. 10 Wojtek Fibak of Poland to become a part of his coaching team. Djokovic turned to Fibak to provide a fresh outlook. Fibak had guided Ivan Lendl in the 1980’s. His tactical acuity is a primary strength, and so the 61-year-old joined forces with Djokovic’s longtime head coach Marian Vajda. This was not the first time Djokovic had sought outside counsel to support Vajda, who has been at the helm with the Serbian superstar since 2006. Years ago, Djokovic brought in the Australian doubles wizard Mark Woodforde to work exclusively on his volley for a short period. He also hired Todd Martin in 2009, asking the American (who reached a career peak in 1999 at No. 4 in the world) to join his team and work closely with Vajda on both a technical and tactical basis. That relationship did not last long; the earnest, erudite and immensely likeable Martin tried to alter Djokovic’s service motion, but the experiment did not turn out well.

Djokovic, of course, is not the only leading player who has believed more than one man in his coaching corner can be beneficial. Rafael Nadal takes former ATP pro Francisco Roig on the road with him when Toni Nadal is back home and unavailable. Even more significantly, Roger Federer has had two coaches working with him simultaneously since 2010, when he brought the renowned Paul Annacone into the fold to blend his point of view with that of Severin Luthi. Established as the Swiss Davis Cup captain, Luthi had joined Federer as a personal coach in 2008.

But perhaps the most successful alliance of dual coaches for a top player was the setup Jim Courier had in his heyday. When Courier captured four major titles between 1991 and 1993—securing back to back French Opens in 1991 and 1992 and consecutive Australian Open crowns in 1992-93—he was bolstered considerably by a pair of outstanding individuals in the coaching field: Spain’s Jose Higueras and the American Brad Stine. They did a terrific job jointly with Courier in every way, helping him immeasurably to reach No. 1 in the world and conclude 1992 as the top ranked player in tennis. In my view, Higueras and Stine were outstanding, taking two points of view and blending them seamlessly into one coherent message for their player. The danger in too many instances is that the central theme gets terribly blurred, leaving the player in a conflicted state, making that person suffer needlessly in an unproductive team coaching atmosphere.

I spoke over the telephone with Stine this past weekend about his highly successful venture with Courier, and he explained why he was able to get his views across coherently to Courier while never stepping on Higueras’s toes, and vice versa. “I was relatively young at the time, “Stine recollects, “and I didn’t have a lot of experience from the standpoint of coaching on the pro tour. I was coming out of college tennis, and I had worked for the USTA with some of the younger pros in what was called their ‘Rookie’ program. I had been around Gully [Tom Gullikson] and some other guys who were coaching at a high level. I believe I was a pretty good coach but I was only 30 or 31 years old when I started coaching full time with Jim Courier.”

Stine had started working with Courier at the end of 1990, training with him in that period. In 1991, he signed on with Higueras to help Courier full time, working through the USTA at that time. As he recalls, “I really looked at the relationship I had with Jose as more of a mentor relationship. He was clearly the head coach when we started the whole scenario with Jim, so I felt in a sense like an assistant in that relationship. Jose set down a plan of what he wanted to do. The three of us sat down and talked about it but it was Jose who had a vision in his mind of some of the things in Jim’s game that we needed to focus on. I was trying to implement those things.

“From my standpoint, I would like to think I did a really good job helping Jim with those aspects of the game that were so important, primarily developing the slice backhand and developing a better sense of transitioning forward and being able to finish more points at the net when it was appropriate. To this day, I feel that the addition of the sliced backhand in Jim’s game is the thing that propelled him forward to the top of the game, because it gave him an opportunity to play defense on the backhand side, which he had never done before. When we started, Jim was No. 28 in the world but without that defensive ability, so creating that really made an enormous difference. And that was Jose’s vision.”

Know this about Brad Stine: he is a man who knows tennis comprehensively, and he surely contributed more to Courier than he will ever say publicly. Be that as it may, he lucidly remembers going with Courier to tournaments in those days and spending “15 to 20 minutes every single day having Jim hitting sliced backhands, regardless of whether he did or didn’t play that day, whether he won or lost.”

Higueras didn’t want to travel too widely, and Stine willingly took on the role, going on the road more than his sidekick. The formula worked beautifully. Stine explains, “The bottom line is that Jose did not want to travel a lot so he was looking for someone who was going to fill that gap, someone who wasn’t going to undermine what he was doing or create any kind of controversy, but was going to be basically a second voice of his voice.”

In the end, it didn’t really matter if Stine was on site and Higueras was far away at times. The lines of communication among Courier, Stine and Higueras were invariably wide open, and the clarity of what the coaches were saying to their player never faded. “We were tag-teaming Jim a lot,” says Stine. “Jose and I were having conversations where I would talk to Jim and then Jose about something that had come up during the day, something related to ball striking or mechanics or technique or tactics, or perhaps an issue of mental approach of emotional things that were going on. And Jose would speak to Jim and hour or two later and reiterate basically the same things I had said to Jim, and vice versa. Jim was hearing a consistent voice from us.”

I asked Stine about how crucial it was that he saw himself as essentially an assistant coach while Higueras—an accomplished player who was ranked No. 6 in the world in 1983—wore the label of ‘Head Coach.’ Was that why it all gelled?  “I think so,” he answered. “I had a fairly small ego situation. It certainly wasn’t that my role was insignificant, and I don’t want to downplay anything I did, but we worked out a scenario. It wasn’t like Novak bringing in Mark Woodforde to work on the volley, or Todd Martin working on his serve and other things. Marian Vajda has been there consistently with Novak through the years and he has been the constant in that scenario. But they have brought in a number of different people over different time frames to do different things. If you take guys who have been involved in the game or who played at a high level, and put them in a two man coaching situation, it is hard to keep some ego out of that situation. Sometimes it doesn’t work as efficiently that way.”

What made Stine such an excellent choice to coach Courier—and take him to another level—was partially a matter of a long history between them. “I had a previous relationship with Jim through the USTA Junior Davis Cup program. I had coached him through that program already. And, secondly, I was coming fresh out of being a head coach in college tennis. One of the nice things about college tennis as opposed to pro tennis is it is an autocratic society. You as the head coach are God and you tell the players what to do. If they don’t listen, you can sit them down or move them in the lineup, or you don’t play them. Coming into that situation with Jim and Jose on the pro tour, when Jim had some issues emotionally or with other things, I was pretty confrontational with him over stuff like that. Jim has a strong personality and I think the fact that I confronted him over some things made a big difference. The blend of me coming from that college tennis scenario while Jose came from a purely tennis background made for a really successful situation.”

As Stine spoke expansively about his philosophy of coaching, I asked him to discuss Djokovic, and how it has all played out for the Serbian as he has kept tinkering with his game and those who have shaped it. Stine responded, “Novak is in a unique situation for being at the level he is. He has been doing this through a period of time where he has been playing amazing tennis, winning Slams and being one of the best players by far. It speaks to his mentality that he is still trying to get better, bringing people in and wanting to get input from them. It is not just interesting but impressive that a guy at his level is so desirous of wanting to maintain his position and willing to continue working at making his game better so he keeps bringing in these guys [like Fibak].”

It was strikingly apparent for those who have witnessed Djokovic across the prime years of his career that something went fundamentally wrong with his serve during the period when Todd Martin was in the camp with Vajda. For a time late in 2009 and in the first half of 2010, Djokovic seemed way out of sync on serve. He no longer served freely or fluidly. His back-scratch largely evaporated. He double faulted far too often, and what was once a primary strength became a serious liability. Martin—presumably in concert with Vajda—surely had the best of intentions for Djokovic in recommending the alterations in the Djokovic motion, but the bold formula backfired.

Stine followed that development with raised eyes. “I love Todd, “he says. “ Todd is a great guy. [But] whatever happened to Novak’s serve was horrendous for that period of time. He had to go back and completely retool that serve from whatever he was trying to do in the first place. I wondered what Marian Vajda’s opinion was of Novak’s serve at that time and if he saw from early on that it was a disaster and realized he did not want to go in that direction. Did Novak tell Marian, ‘Hey, I am doing what Todd is telling me and I don’t care what you are saying’, or was Marian on board and saying that Todd was right. Probably Novak came back at some point and said, ‘I can’t put a ball in play doing this.’ Novak’s serve was a disaster for a period of time but I am not bashing Todd by saying that. I respect him a lot. He has a great mind for the game. Todd is an exceptional person.”

Elaborating on the highly professional effort Martin made to make Djokovic a better player, Stine says, “When Todd was there, he was trying to do much more than just change Novak’s serve. He was involved in other things. I had the impression that Marian and Todd just did not seem to have much of a discourse during Novak’s matches. I recall Todd sitting in the row behind Marian at Novak’s matches. When Jose and I were together, we were always sitting next to each other at Jim’s matches, commenting and discussing things, going over stuff all the time and trying to evaluate what was going on and what Jim needed to do. In a way, Jose and I were like a support team together because you get nervous watching the matches in the box. I felt we were pretty symbiotic in what was going on in our relationship with each other and in our relationship with Jim, whereas there was a time with Todd and Marian where there seemed to be some conflict.”

Turning to the subject of Federer and the Swiss Maestro’s arrangement with Annacone and Luthi, I asked Stine why Federer would not have given Annacone—the former coach of Pete Sampras—sole authority. After all, there is a considerable stature gap between the accomplished Annacone—one of the sport’s greatest coaches—and Luthi, whose resume pales in comparison to the American’s.

“I totally understand that point,” replies Stine. “In the last few years I had an opportunity to get involved with a high profile player, but it was in a position where I was going to be a ‘travelling coach.’ That was the terminology used. For me, at this point in my career, I wasn’t interested in that. I am not sure I am going to be in a position mentally or emotionally to necessarily be a secondary coach again. I wasn’t really interested in that so I turned that offer down. Paul would be in the same situation but it is hard to know without being a fly on the wall what was being said when Paul started working with Roger. Roger has had a relationship with Luthi forever so you can’t discount that in any way, shape or form. There are always concessions that you make.”

Stine pauses for a moment, then adds, “The bottom line is that coaching is a funky thing in some ways. You are employed by the guy you are coaching. And as Jim Courier used to say, my job as a tennis coach was to tell him things he didn’t want to hear. Jim had a very good understanding of that. A lot of players don’t understand that. They want a tennis coach who is basically going to pat them on the back and tell them how great they are. That happens a lot on the tour. At the same time, when you are a coach and you are going to be out there like Annacone is, working with Roger and involved in that situation, you do make concessions.

“If Annacone takes a job working with a 19 or 21 year old who is one of the most talented young players in the world, his relationship and situation with that player would be much different. Roger Federer is married with two kids and has all of those kinds of things to think about. I had the same experience with Sebastien Grosjean. I started with him when he was 28 and he was married with two kids. My previous two gigs on the tour had been with Taylor Dent and Mardy Fish. Mardy Fish at 18 is just a whole different coaching scenario than Annacone dealing with Roger Federer now.”

Clearly, Stine understands why Annacone would accept the sharing of the reigns with Luthi, stature gap or not. I remain convinced that Federer would have been wiser to ask Luthi to step aside so he could hear solely from Annacone. Be that as it may, Stine realizes how hard it is in most cases to make a dual coaching arrangement the right fit for an individual player. He says, “I am not sure how many scenarios there are where you have more cooks in the kitchen than just one. Too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the soup. That can definitely happen. I don’t think there is any question whatsoever that one focused and concentrated voice that is confident and taking a player in the right direction can be a better scenario in some ways. And yet, at the same time, looking back on Jose and myself with Jim, if an established coach like a Paul Annacone or Marian Vajda can look at a scenario where they get a younger coach in there and almost monitor what they want, that can be a good scenario as well. Look at Francisco Roig, who always fills in for Rafa when Toni is not there. That is the same thing. And you have got to remember that if Jose wasn’t travelling to an event back then, it didn’t mean that Jose was not in contact with Jim or that Jose wasn’t in contact with me.”

In the final analysis, it all boils down essentially to communication. As Stine asserts, “If you break it down to the simplest points, you have got to find two coaches that are comfortable enough and confident enough in themselves to allow the other guy to have a voice but simultaneously they are on the same page. You have to be pushing the same agenda. Once you start pushing a dissimilar agenda, then there is just confusion on the player’s part and in the end somebody is going to end up losing their job.”

Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.