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Steve Flink: The Coaching Conundrum

10/12/2010 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Not long after the conclusion of the U.S. Open, an unnecessary uproar took place on the sports pages of many newspapers and all across the internet. Rafael Nadal did an interview with a Spanish publication, and spoke candidly when he was asked about an incident toward the end of his final round contest at Flushing Meadows against Novak Djokovic. Nadal was ahead two sets to one, and leading 5-2 in the fourth set. He looked up at his entourage. They were sitting behind him, urging him on, realizing he was on the verge of a mighty accomplishment. Nadal was only moments away from recording a career Grand Slam with his first ever tournament triumph on the hard courts in New York.

As he served for the match, Nadal was simultaneously exhilarated and apprehensive. As he explained it to the Spanish reporter, “It was in the last game, when I was serving for the match… I didn’t know where to serve: down the center, to the middle or to try the classic play of the wide serve and then try to hit the forehand. They told me to serve wide and that’s where I served.”

Nadal safely served out the match to complete a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 triumph over Djokovic, capturing his third Grand Slam championship of the season, capping a stupendous 2010 campaign by securing a ninth major singles title. But his candor regarding the advice he received from his Uncle Toni and others in that courtside box caused the Spaniard some grief. Columnists, bloggers and assorted observers from every corner of tennis weighed in. Some accused him of cheating. Others went after Uncle Toni for breaking the rules and coaching during a match. Many expressed outrage that the world No. 1 could supposedly compromise his integrity by disregarding the game’s laws.

To me, those points of view are ludicrous, and what Nadal did was far from a sin. For decades now, coaches have sent signals to players during matches.  They have constantly found ways to circumvent the rules and help their players in the heat of intense battles.  They have easily discovered avenues to periodically get their thoughts across to their charges. What happened with Nadal when he closed out Djokovic at the U.S. Open was not uncommon in the least; it occurs frequently, with a wide range of players, in all kinds of settings, on all types of stages, by both good and great competitors. The coaching rule has been broken for ages on the ATP World Tour; it is exceedingly difficult to police, and arduous to prove. It is impossible to eliminate coaching, no matter how hard officials may try.

The time has come for the ATP World Tour to revisit the issue of coaching. On the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, coaching has been permitted since July of 2007, and it has added an element of intrigue to the tournaments. The coaches come down from their seats to visit with their players on the court once each set, and they are given microphones so the television audience can hear what they are saying. It has been a step in the right direction for tennis, and my feeling is that the women’s game has benefitted significantly from the altering of the rules. The players can often develop clouded minds when they are competing, and a few words of wisdom from their coaches can allow them to clear up their thinking and raise the level of their games.

I applaud the WTA for having the forthrightness to bring coaching out into the open in such a constructive way. From what I have observed, the system is working and the players are benefitting. The ATP Tour experimented with something similar in 1998 at a few tournaments but the concept never gained the same acceptance it has with the women. It was quickly cast aside, and the men seem to prefer it that way. I wish that was not the case. The women have taken an important step, but I would like to see both tours try something more audacious yet entirely sensible. They should allow the coaches to sit at the changeovers with their players, just the way Davis Cup and Fed Cup captains do. A player could get as much advice as he or she wants at every changeover, and it would all be completely within the rules.

I spoke by telephone the other day with Peter Lundgren, one of the game’s foremost coaches. An accomplished player from Sweden who was ranked as high as No.25 in the world back in 1985 and again in 1987, Lundgren coached Roger Federer from 1997-2003, worked with Marat Safin for a couple of years starting in 2004, and is now aligned with Stanislas Wawrinka. Lundgren’s credentials as a coach are unassailable; he helped Federer to rise to the forefront of the game in 2003 when the Swiss captured his first major at Wimbledon; he guided Safin during some of the Russian’s salad days, including a Grand Slam championship run at the Australian Open in 2005; and he has done fine work with Wawrinka, who made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in September, the first time he had gone that far at a Grand Slam event.

I bounced my idea off Lundgren about taking coaching during matches out into the arena on a much larger scale. He was thoughtful in responding. “It is very frustrating sometimes,” he said, “because as a coach you have so much in your head that you want to tell the player. I would like to have it but the players don’t seem to want it, so it is a strange feeling for a coach. You want to talk to them during matches but you can’t. You watch the match and are not allowed to say anything. If I speak too loud I can get a warning or Stan can get a warning and maybe lose the match because of that. When I coached Marat he always told me, ‘I don’t care. If you see something I want you to tell me. Scream. I will take the warning.’ So I think some guys would like the coaching but I don’t know if they would like to have their coach on the bench beside them during a match.”

Lundgren was gratified that Safin was so receptive to hearing from him during matches. As he recalls, “Marat loved it when I said something and he wanted help all of the time. That is a nice feeling for a coach to know the player wants that from you. I would tell Marat that sometimes I was going to scream something whether he liked it or not. We had a great relationship and Marat always wanted me to tell him more things. Marat was not sure what to do all of the time himself so it was nice. If an opponent was hitting winners off his forehand, I would say, ‘Go to the backhand.’ I would tell him to change things up, to try to serve-and-volley, be more aggressive and to change tactics. But he had to watch out because the umpires started to know that he was doing that. I only remember one time when I got kind of a warning without it being an official warning.”

I asked Lundgren if he was surprised that the players are not more inclined to stand up and make a stand for coaching while matches are in progress. He replied, “These guys are really good and they know what they are doing on the court, but sometimes they are confused and a coach could help. The problem we have is that not everybody has a coach. If everybody had a coach, it would be fairer that way.”

Lundgren reflects on how he handled his coaching years with Federer, and says, “Roger was different. We would speak before his matches and usually I had a pretty good feel that he knew what he was doing, especially as he got a bit older. When he was 17, 18 and 19 his problem was his temper, not his tennis. Everybody knew he was great and could do anything from the baseline but if he got a bad call at 5-5 in a set or made a bad shot, he would lose his mind a bit. So I would tell him before matches to try to stay calm, be focused and play point by point. Then he got too mellow for a while. In some matches, it was not like he tanked but he looked at times like he didn’t know what to do out there. After a while he found a way to pump himself up at the right times. You can see it now that he gets pissed off at times but on the next point he is back in the match.”

I have no doubt that Federer would be firmly against any move to incorporate coaching into the competitive arena. He is convinced he can solve his own problems, and his self sufficient side is inordinately large. But Lundgren believes even the highly self assured Federer could help his own cause if he had the chance to be coached when competing. “I am sure Roger like everyone else could use help sometimes. Everybody needs help. Roger is a great player and everybody knows that, but four eyes are better than two. That is for sure.”

Addressing the fact that the women have allowed coaching on the WTA Tour, Lundgren is asked why they would differ from the men. He answers, “I don’t know. Women’s tennis and men’s tennis is a completely different game. Maybe the women feel like they want the help and a lot of the guys think it is too much of a distraction. The only thing I don’t like with the way the women are doing it is the microphone being put on the coaches. What the coach is telling the player should be something private. As a coach you go out on the court and if you know you have a microphone you won’t speak the way you do normally. I understand that television loves it this way because the people watching can hear what the coach is saying. I have seen Sharapova’s coach [Michael Joyce] out there a few times talking with her and he is doing it well. Maybe he is used to it but for me if I started doing it now it would be tough to relax and be myself if I had a microphone.”

Lundgren has been around the circuit for a considerable period of time as a competitor and in the coaching arena. I wanted to know how he felt allowing coaches to operate like Davis Cup captains might alter the face of the game. Would it change the outcome of some matches? “That is a hard question to answer,” he responds, “It is nice for a player to get some information from a coach and you get pumped up at every changeover, so I am sure that would change some things, but how much I don’t really know. It depends on the player. Some guys would love it and others would not want it. For me, if I was still a player, I would say for sure I would want this. I like Davis Cup and the feeling of having somebody on the chair next to me. You have that guy there saying, ‘Come on, man, let’s take the next point.’ Sometimes you would talk about the match but other times you might talk about something else. That’s why I think the microphone is not so good.”

The way Lundgren approaches his job as a coach, he places a substantial premium on conferring with his players and making certain that they resolve issues together. As he explains, “When I work with my players I listen to their opinions also. That is how you get to know them. With Stan we have an amazing relationship because he has his opinions and I have told him I want to hear what he has to say but he needs to understand what I am saying as well. Sometimes we go half and half and that is really good. For example, Stan plays really good from far back in the court and I tell him he needs to be more aggressive so he would practice that. But he was forcing himself too much to go forward. So I said we have to find something in between. He did that at the U.S. Open. He found his balance of not going too far back and not being too aggressive so he would not miss too much.”

I would like for a Peter Lundgren to have a chance to share his views with a Stanislas Wawrinka in the midst of a stirring contest, to make more of a difference in shaping the outcome of a big match. Wawrinka was beaten narrowly at the U.S. Open in the quarterfinals by Mikhail Youzhny in five sets. Maybe, just maybe, Wawrinka could have prevailed in that contest had he been able to listen to Lundgren during a crucial late match changeover. A timely remark from Lundgren might have tipped the balance of a hard fought encounter back to Wawrinka.

Those who oppose coaching argue coherently that tennis is an individual sport designed for players who must deal with pressure on their own.  I fully understand that point of view, but strongly disagree with the notion that the game would lose something of value if coaches were allowed to expand their roles by strategizing at regular intervals with players while a match is still being contested. The bottom line is that the player would still need to conduct business largely on his own. At 3-4, 30-40, second serve in the final set of a tense skirmish at an important event, it will still be up to the player to display immense poise under pressure and find a way to succeed.

Moreover, what the coach tells the player will not always work. As Lundgren points out, “I would never do signals to a player because that can confuse them and maybe I would do a mistake and say, ‘Hey, go wide with your serve’. And then the opponent might hit a winner return.’ “

That could easily have happened to Nadal at the U.S. Open when he looked up to his supporters in the box.  The coach will not be right every time, and a player could get burned even when the coach has made an educated guess. But, in the ultimate analysis, I am convinced that coaching must be permitted on a much wider scale across the board. There is no need to wait any longer.

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