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Steve Flink: A Conversation with Todd Martin

8/30/2009 8:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Ten years ago, the estimable American Todd Martin reached the final of the United States Open, and was not far away from coming through at his nation’s premier event. Martin’s signature attacking style carried him to a two sets to one lead over Andre Agassi. He lost that high quality contest in five sets, but won the admiration of a crowd who fully appreciated how purposefully he had played and how honorably he had comported himself. Now, a decade later, the 39-year-old Martin is in the embryonic stages of a new coaching relationship with world No. 4 Novak Djokovic, and will join Djokovic’s longtime coach Marian Vajda during the upcoming Open as they try to bring out the best out in a gifted yet unfulfilled player.

Martin did not start working with Djokovic until this past week, following the Serbian’s impressive run to the final of Cincinnati. He did travel to Montreal the previous week to get better acquainted with not only Djokovic but Vajda and physiotherapist Milan Amanovic. But this all came out of the blue for most of us. How and when did Martin and Djokovic start joining forces? When I spoke with Martin over the telephone last week, he had the answer.

“Frankly,” he said, “it was surprising to me as well [as everyone else]. I was not out there looking but agent contacted agent and then I got involved. When I spoke with Novak on the phone [about ten days before Montreal] I found that our thoughts about his game lined up pretty well with one another. The reason I was in Montreal was to get some firsthand viewing in  and also to be able to meet face to face and make sure that we all understood how to make this work properly and fast, especially considering the timing with the U.S. Open so close.”

It was during that week in Montreal that Martin had the opportunity to see how effectively he could fit in with Vajda and Amanovic. As he reflected, “I spent a good deal of time that week with Marian and Milan and Novak. It is the nature of things right now that everything is more complete than it used to be in the way of a support team and how it is constructed for a player. But with more completeness, there is also responsibility for understanding and communication within, so it was important for me to have a good amount of time with Novak, because he is the object of everybody’s work. But it was also important that I was able to get some time with his coach and physiotherapist.”

Any time there is a dual coaching arrangement for a top flight player, there is a need for both men to express themselves freely while remaining largely in accord. Have the lines been drawn clearly about how he and Vajda will work together toward the same goals? “No,” responds Martin. “I don’t think the lines can be drawn clearly yet. We are trying this out over the next couple of weeks and I think we are both confident that it will all work out. But the way I see it, I can do more harm than good right now because the US Open is only five days away and new information is challenging and not necessarily appropriate at this stage. Also, Novak is playing well and has had some good results the last couple of weeks and he has had a very solid year up to this point. With the addition of somebody new like me, there is an element of risk so I am still very much in the observation and analyzing stage. That is not to say that I am not interested in contributing some feedback but there are areas where you can chime in right away, yet other areas that will require a process to work into. A new coach especially has to be very careful about when and how those processes are launched.”

Martin is well aware that he will not always reach the same conclusions as Vajda about what makes most sense for Djokovic as a player and tactician, but he is confident that they will see most issues in the same light. When they differ philosophically on occasion, Martin realizes that those issues can be resolved without Djokovic suffering any competitive wounds. As Martin puts it, “The responsibility for Marian and me is be in constant communication and for us to share the expression of concepts so that we understand each other. When Marian talks to me, it helps me understand what he has stressed to Novak for the past three-and-a-half years that they have worked together. And when I have something to say, I need Marian to know specifically what I mean and where that might align or contradict information that he is using or has shared with Novak in the past. Fortunately, we both have a lot of common opinions already, but without having just one mind.”

The way Martin sees it, different points of view can be a useful thing for a player, as long as they are conveyed by the coaches in the right way at the right times. As he explains, “You can have some contradictory opinions on different things. Sometimes it can be just the way things are communicated to the player. If somebody says, ‘Hey, get your front foot forward more on the forehand’, the player hears that differently than ‘Transfer your weight more.’ You might be looking at the same result, but saying it in a different way, one might be heard more clearly than the other.”

Recently, Martin coached the American Mardy Fish on the ATP Tour. How does he feel that experience will enhance him as he moves forward with Djokovic? “The first lesson I learned with Mardy,” he replies, “is that no matter how much information you have, information that a coach shares doesn’t create improvement in a player. It is how information is relayed, when it is relayed and how much of it is relayed. Each player is different. Some players will let you write the book, they will read it in one night, and they are fine. Others might want morsels here and there. So my experience with Mardy was a great learning experience. It is not about the coach; it is about the player. And it can only help if the player is ready and if it is an appropriate time and an appropriate bit of information that is being shared.”

During my interview with Martin, I mentioned an article written in 1995 about Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. In that piece, the two icons discussed their contrasting philosophies about the role of a coach in an individual sport like tennis. Agassi and Sampras had taken a flight that year together for a Davis Cup tie against Italy, and Agassi spoke earnestly about the expert guidance he felt he had received from his coach Brad Gilbert. Sampras countered that coaching was important and beneficial, but in the end it was up to the player to carve out the hard triumphs under stressful circumstances.

How does Martin view the role of the coach as he sets forth on a new journey with Djokovic? Does he see it more along the lines of Agassi or Sampras? “Each player is different,” he answers. “But the role of the coach in tennis is to prepare the player well enough so that they can be the coach, so that they can understand their own game and their opponent’s game and then make the adjustments that need to be made on the fly. I believe that when Andre started working with Brad, Andre needed the information that Brad was providing him, and then it was just a matter of time until he could apply that on the court himself. With Pete, his game was a little bit simpler than Andre’s and Pete was probably aware of being his own coach and being responsive to the situation. My work with Novak will be geared toward arming him with information, but working and allowing and enabling him to use his skills appropriately on the court.”

Elaborating on his notions of how a coach can be as valuable as possible to a player, Martin points out, “The worst thing that I could have done as a player----- after I had been trained so much and taught so much----- would have been to say to myself at a certain point in a match: ‘What would Jose [Higueras] say I should do now?’ It is instinctive and a player has to see that. If you teach a player well out on the court they can apply what you have said without much conscious thought. That is the idea. It would be great if, after a year, Novak were to be a much better player -----and more successful than he even is now---- without seeing the value in my time with him. As I said, it is not about the coach; it is about the player. And if you can get the player to do what is right and do what releases their potential, at the end of the day there might not be an appreciation for the coach because the player should feel it has been done by him.”

Martin accomplished significantly during his time as a player. He reached a high of No. 4 in the world in September of 1999. He fought his way into two major finals. He played on a victorious United States Davis Cup team. He competed at the highest levels of the game. How will all of that success translate as he moves through his coaching assignment with Djokovic, who has already secured one major and has the capacity to take some more in the years ahead?

Martin answers that query swiftly and humbly, saying, “Well, he is 22 and my accomplishments already pale in comparison to his. But where I may have value is that despite coming up short and being frustrated with the ultimate result more frequently in my time as a player than Novak has in his, I continued to get the pick ax out and try to mine for some more minerals, or what have you. When there is an abundance of talent, there is a responsibility that comes with it to maximize the efficiency with which the talent is developed. I know what it felt like to play fifth fiddle in my country, much less third or fourth fiddle in the world like Novak has done. But that didn’t stop me from continuing to figure out solutions to problems and to recover and rebound from disappointments.”

Clearly, Martin has powerful recollections of his setbacks as well as his triumphs, and has tried to keep it all in perspective. That is something else he will bring to the table with Djokovic:  it is called equanimity. As he recalls, “When I made it to the final of the 1994 Australian Open [losing to Sampras], I won six matches and I didn’t understand why I shouldn’t be able to win seven. When I got to that final, despite not making it to another Grand Slam final over the next five years, I still had the belief that I would have another opportunity. Every indication tells me that there are more opportunities ahead for Novak at the majors. The more you get there, the more often the right result will happen. In my case, I just needed a third chance, but I didn’t get it.”

That was sadly the case for Martin. But he has the chance now to share in some large and lasting triumphs with Djokovic. How much better does he believe his player can get? “He can get a lot better,” asserts Martin. “It is up to him. He understands himself well and nobody knows better than the guy himself what his potential is. I see great potential and he has got a great opportunity to develop that potential. But he could hire 17 coaches and hire Sampras and Agassi together to coach him, and that doesn’t mean there is going to be a result. A champion--- as Lance Armstrong says--- comes from within. The coach’s job is to help the player figure out how the champion gets out. In the end, it is up to him.”

Since capturing the 2008 Australian Open, Djokovic has not infrequently battled in vain to control his nerves, and he has been guilty at times of getting in his own way. On the other side of the coin, he has often been a ferocious and unwavering competitor.  Can Martin contribute to making Djokovic’s temperament an asset?

“My time with Mardy, “answers Martin, “helped me understand that you can’t fight nature. Everybody has got their own personality, especially when it is a stage of their lives when they are no longer in a ‘Change Course Completely’ period as far as their personalities are concerned. You want that emotion and that energy that Novak has, but you also want to be able to control it and manage the amount and the type of energy that is being used. I think Novak understands that.”

Now that Martin has spent some time with Djokovic up close after observing him from a considerable distance for so long, how have his impressions changed?  “One of the things I have seen is there is a lot more explosiveness of shot than I had seen on television. I liked it when the ball exploded off my racket and I love seeing that with Novak. I also think with his great defensive skills and neutral skills in being able to change the pace up, it is all exciting. He has a lot of talent.”

Plainly and irrefutably, that is indeed the case. But Martin will be looking to help Djokovic harness that talent and take it to another level. Meanwhile, as he joins forces with Vajda and Amanovic, Martin will call on his own history to fit into the fabric of the Djokovic team, and find his place as a leader. As he sums up the coaching experiences he had, Martin points out, “I was the product of the ‘Perfect Storm’ of instruction. I was taught very analytically by Rick Ferman when I was young, logged a lot of information, and was fortunately able to process that information. When I turned pro, I went out to see Jose Higueras and I had a much different approach to training that I had to learn. I was hit with that at the right time when I needed to increase my volume and the physical nature of what I was embarking on in professional tennis. And then when Dean Goldfine became involved in 1996, I didn’t depart Rick’s guidance or Jose’s guidance.”

Martin has a similar challenge now as a coach: to blend his views with Vajda’s in an effort to allow Djokovic to fully realize his capabilities. He explains his deal with Djokovic this way: “Let’s say we are planning on working for the next 12 months but trying things out over the next few weeks.” In the eyes of Martin, “trying things out” does not mean he will impose his own aggressive, net rushing style on that of his charge. As he says of Djokovic, “ He is not going to end up being a net rusher but if there are a handful of points every match when there is a greater willingness on his part and an ability to defend the net, that can be very important for him. That is, I guess, one of the areas that will be important for Novak, but I don’t know that I am prepared to say that will be the area where I am most impactful, or what have you.”

As the interview was nearly over, I asked Martin how big a difference he felt Larry Stefanki had made as a coach for Andy Roddick across 2009. He responded, “ I am basing this on what I have seen and one conversation I had with Larry at Wimbledon, but I think he has made a significant difference and he has got Andy believing in some different ways to go about his business that have helped Andy immeasurably.”

It could well be that in the summer of 2009, after Martin has had time to put his ideas in motion, after he has established a growing influence with Djokovic, Stefanki would tell the world that Todd Martin has made Novak Djokovic a much better player than he has ever been before. That would really be saying something.

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