11/26/2013 3:00:00 PM
I’ve long believed that pro tennis coaches are a rare, diversified and fascinating breed. They live and die in many ways depending on the whims, anxieties and mixed fortunes of their players. They are fountains of knowledge and strategic acumen. They try to provide those who hire them with a passport to excellence on the competitive battlefield. They work assiduously at their craft, studying tactical patterns ceaselessly, revising their thinking whenever necessary, looking for every conceivable way to excel at what they are doing.
One of the leading coaches in the pro game these days is indisputably one Roger Rasheed, a 44-year-old who had only modest success as a player on the ATP World Tour in the early 1990’s before establishing himself in a forum that suits his personality and inherent talents to the hilt. Rasheed is an affable and earnest Australian who has been a prominent coach for a decade. He worked with Lleyton Hewitt from 2003 until early in 2007. From July 2008 to July of 2011, he joined forces with the enigmatic and electrifying Frenchman Gael Monfils. In October of 2012, he signed on with another charismatic athlete and individual from France named Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, before they mutually agreed to end their professional alliance in the late summer of 2013.
When you have assisted players of that ilk over a long period of time, it won’t be long until others start calling to enquire about your availability. Unsurprisingly, Rasheed heard from a number of people last fall before he decided to start coaching the enormously compelling Grigor Dimitrov. They started testing the waters in Stockholm, and Dimitrov won their first tournament together with a final round triumph over David Ferrer.
As Rasheed recollects, “Once I agreed to spend some time with Grigor, we thought we would spend the rest of 2013 together at his last three tournaments. So we started in Stockholm. I was able to get on court with him starting the Sunday before Stockholm and I said to him, ‘If there is one thing you need to prove to me, it is that you are really deliberate and honest about what you want to create for yourself, and what legacy you want to leave from today onwards as a tennis player.’ There is nothing in this for me except for the love and passion I have for coaching. I would be more than happy to be at home spending time with my daughter. I just want to get as much out of Grigor as I can. To his credit, from that first day on his [eyes and] ears have been wide open. He wants the information. He is a young man with a great culture and upbringing behind him. He has been in and out of different coaching setups and it is important for him now to find something he can sustain because otherwise you get too many messages too often.”
Rasheed and Dimitrov are currently doing some serious off season work in California before they return to Australia to get ready for the 2014 campaign. The timing of their partnership is impeccable from the standpoint of both men. Dimitrov, 22, has enjoyed a steady and impressive rise on the international charts over the past three years. He concluded 2010 at No. 106 on the Emirates ATP Rankings, moving up to No. 76 at the end of 2011, No. 48 for 2012, and finishing up at No. 23 year-end for 2013. He is enormously talented as a shotmaker, delighting galleries everywhere he goes with a dazzling array of strokes, earning the label of “Little Federer” in some circles because his game is so versatile and elegant, not to mention that he has a graceful one-handed backhand.
Clearly, Rasheed is in a position to play a significant role in turning Dimitrov into a markedly improved match player and a superior strategist. As Rasheed explains, “Grigor is 22 but in some ways he is more like a 20-year-old in his legitimate tennis development because of how he spent the last three years in and out of different academies. Grigor has had different mentors and different home bases which makes it hard to structure up. The biggest thing is that when you are gifted and have a lot of different tools at your disposal like Grigor does, too often you are using too many of them on the court. He still hasn’t worked out his natural game and how he can make the biggest impact on the court. We have spoken a lot about how to structure his game up and play the game that can actually get him to the spots he needs to get to. When you are real talented as a young individual and you have got a lot of shots in the juniors, you tend to use them a lot. Once you get to the ATP World Tour, sometimes those shots can become your enemy. He is always working and will keep learning along the way.”
Dimitrov was very impressive in taking the middle set off Nadal in Monte Carlo last spring, and stayed with the clay court maestro all the way to 4-4 in the final set of that quarterfinal before bowing. He then upset Djokovic in Madrid. Over the summer on the hard courts in Cincinnati, Dimitrov took another set off Nadal. He is undaunted by facing the cream of the crop in his profession; to the contrary, he seems to relish the challenge of competing against the best players. As Rasheed says, “He is happy to play with the big guys and that is a real good thing to have. When a player like Grigor is happy in that space you know they have got a chance. He can play at that level but then can lose to guys outside the top 100, which he has done a couple of times. I have spoken with him about that in terms of how he can become a more secure tennis player. You have to know: are you giving away too many points and what are you doing to give those points away? I am hoping he will be that hungrier type of tennis player that sees every moment as a moment that needs to count.”
Rasheed plans to travel to just about every tournament Dimitrov plays in 2014. “At his age,” explains Rasheed, “you need that. So I will be at all the events with him, although there may be one I might not be able to get to for whatever reason. I am excited about it because he is a good guy. I wouldn’t take this job on if the athlete himself did not have an enormous amount of respect for the game and the people around him. If they have an attitude where they are using the people around them as yes people, I would not want to be involved. When we first started working he had just come off not winning a match for two-and-a-half months, so we tried to put some things in place and have a few non-negotiables on the court and then see where it takes him. I am not looking to see if Grigor can finish at No. 16 in the world at the end of 2014 or how he does in a Masters [Series] 1000 event or what impact he will have at a Grand Slam event next year. My goal is for him to be a better player in 12 months time.”
As a coach with a wealth of experience, Rasheed knows how he wants to proceed with his new charge. He fully expects to be with Dimitrov through the 2014 and hopefully well beyond that, but they will take it day by day and month by month, giving themselves time to make the union work successfully. Looking toward the immediate future, Rasheed says, “You need to feel comfortable, but also uncomfortable at the same time. Realistically, he knows it needs to be a long term involvement, but let’s see what Grigor and I can bring to the table and what he is prepared to put out there. The player is the one who has to make the legitimate impact. They are the ones who drive it. Grigor is ready to start the journey and he knows it is a journey. If I can put it in terms of a golfer, I would compare Grigor with someone like Adam Scott, who is a young talent in Australia, a player who has taken some knocks along the way but is now putting the package together. Grigor will improve over time and there is no ceiling.”
As we spoke about Dimitrov in depth, I wondered how Rasheed would compare his new and promising player to the accomplished men he guided in years gone by—Hewitt, Monfils and Tsonga. “They are all different,” he responds. “Obviously Lleyton loved to go to work. He would always be thinking, ‘What are we going to attack today? Let’s go for it.’ So that is gold. Gael had the weapons. When we started he was 15 in the world but three months later he was 9 or 10. He embraced that for about two-and-a-half years out of the three year relationship we had, which was outstanding I thought. He stayed between 7 and 11 and gave himself a lot of opportunities. I learned a lot working with him. Jo was obviously a top ten player and he wanted to commit to a real aggressive attack on the top four. Both Gael and Jo were very flamboyant in different ways and I found out that you have got to let their general emotion and adrenaline come to the forefront because that is what makes them tick. I won’t strip any player completely [of their way of doing things] but I might strip away some stuff to give them an added opportunity to excel.”
Rasheed pauses for a brief moment before adding, “You walk on the edge a bit as a coach but it is magnificent to be able to work with a talent like Grigor and in the past with Lleyton, Gael and Jo. Whatever you put out there on a given day, they can do it. When you have that kind of extreme talent capability at your exposure with those kinds of physical attributes and a mentality in a sense like Lleyton’s, to be able to use that as a coach is one of the pleasures of waking up every day. I love it.”
Has his philosophy on coaching changed appreciably over the years? Rasheed replies, “You become a better teacher of the game and coach through working with players like I have. It is all about the players who have given me such a great opportunity. One thing that has been very consistent with me the whole way through is expecting a player to be prepared to give the legitimate work ethic in order to be in the elite. That is the number one thing with me. It is non-negotiable. “
This is a man of deep convictions, which is why I asked him for his thoughts on the possibility of allowing coaching openly on the ATP World Tour. Would he be in favor of allowing the coaches to sit at the changeover the way Davis Cup captains do, and therefore confer with their players frequently during the intervals at matches? He responds unhesitatingly, “I am not a big fan of coaches being out on the court. I love our game for the fact that when two players are out there, one of the weapons for them is the mental capacity and navigating your way through a match. Lleyton was outstanding in Grand Slam events, even when he was two sets down. He would think things through and try to turn things around. He was summarizing things in his mind, which was like a computer. If the other player doesn’t have that quality, why should he be allowed to have someone feeding him information on the court? This is about two gladiators going for it between the lines, on their own.”
Having said that, Rasheed is not thrilled with the idea of players being assessed point penalties when their coaches use signals or offer encouragement during the heat of battle. “I think they should drop it,” he says, “I don’t think there should be point penalties of whatever. They are pretty good at policing it. But I feel like if a coach wants to say something to a player there are a few things that can happen. A certain number of players have no interest in that. There will only be a small number of players that are willing to take the true advice from their coaches during matches. Then there is that other group of coaches that are prepared to say anything just in case something they say doesn’t work. They don’t want to be involved in a blame game afterwards. I just feel they [the authorities] should let it go.”
Rasheed recalls the period when he was in Hewitt’s coaching corner. “If I was telling Lleyton, ‘Great way to play mate’ and I yelled that out, what is that? Am I endorsing his movement, or endorsing one particular shot? There are obvious ways you can talk to your player if you want to. If someone wants to have a discussion with his coach, so be it. Does it mean that player is going to turn the match around? I am not sure that is what will happen. It might work out every now and then but at the end of the day it is up to the player to actually work things out on the court. The only thing I don’t want to see is coaches walking out on the side of the court. Keep it the way it is and if a player wants to talk to his coach, go for it.”
One clear recollection for Rasheed is of Hewitt taking on Roger Federer in the 2004 U.S. Open final. “Lleyton is one of the great competitors of all time but he was playing Roger in that final and Lleyton lost the first set 6-0. Lleyton is a strong man but he was playing in front of 23,000 people and down 6-0 against a guy playing freaky tennis who acknowledged that [Federer eventually won the match 6-0, 7-6, 6-0]. Our job for Lleyton was to keep him thinking about the next point. It was about encouraging him out there. It really is a big factor as a coach to offer stability from the side of the court and if your player believes in that, and you look really sure of yourself, that can go a long way.”
Conversing with Rasheed for any length of time, his devotion to the coaching world he inhabits is unmistakable. That is why he is pursuing a project along with three other leaders in his field. Rasheed, Darren Cahill, Brad Gilbert and Paul Annacone are all happily involved with an emerging web site called www.protenniscoach.com. They will contribute to the site in different ways, and Rasheed is exhilarated about the project.
He says, “It is an idea that has been 12 months or more in the process. Darren and I are close mates. We wanted to get it right and we felt Paul and Brad should be involved as well. We all love coaching and all of us are massively passionate about teaching the game, whether it is the elite player or a next door neighbor. We spend most of our time with the elite so I wanted to find a way to deliver to the rest of the world, to tennis loving families out there. That’s why we created www.protenniscoach.com. You can have live interactive access to personal coaching with one of us. We will do stuff on the court and look at all the players and have live chats, but ideally you can decide you want Darren or Brad or Paul or myself as part of your coaching, along with your local coach. We can have a look at your game and you can Skype each other and have a conversation that way. This can be done with lots of social players out there who would love to have a chat with Paul or Darren or Brad and get into their world.”
If you think that Rasheed does not have his heart and head fully into this endeavor, listen to this: “The beauty of tennis is how it can extend coaching to the general public tennis loving families and players, which we think is really exciting. We quietly launched this web site and we believe in it. It is only ten dollars a month and you will see video clips of the four of us that will be updated at different times. You get those live chats and stuff being put up on the site all the time and you can have access to us personally if you choose. So it is pretty cool and unique. We all love talking about the game with whoever and my feeling along with my mates is that we need to be able to get to more people. There is a big world of tennis people out there we would love to get to. We can also work with their coaches in their clubs. There are a couple of academies who are coming aboard with us. We will do all sorts of things.”
That venture will surely be successful for Rasheed and company. But, of course, his highest priority over the next year--and probably well beyond—will be advancing the cause of Grigor Dimitrov. As Rasheed asserts, “When you have natural talent like he does, if you can add components to it he will create his own results and his own success. Where does that lead? I can’t really put a finger on it to be perfectly honest. I have said to him that he must be patient but do the work and have high expectations of yourself daily, and he will find his place. He is one of those guys who in the next three or four years can put himself we all think probably near the top of the game.”
Understandably, Rasheed does not want to get ahead of himself, and he would like the Bulgarian to progress on his own timetable, whatever that may be. As we reach the end of our conversation, Rasheed says, “I feel Grigor has learned a lot, hit some hurdles, done some good things. All the people that worked with him prior have done some good things for him. They have helped him through the pathway, but now it is time for him to step up and decide what he wants to do, and what his legacy will be. How does he want people to see him at the end of his career? Does he want them to see someone who came on the tour and played some good matches but didn’t really get it, or does he want to be someone who did everything in his power to become the player he wants to be, or dreamt about being? Whether that means he ends up at No. 20 or No. 7 or whatever, at least you can walk away knowing you have left a strong impact of how you went about it. You want to be proud of the effort that you have given in your career. I believe Grigor wants to give this game everything he has.”
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.