There has been much talk recently about Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer hiring former champions to be their coaches. There are several reasons why this is probably a good idea, most obvious is the credibility and respect former champions bring to the relationship. Their ideas are going to get a considerate hearing from the champions they coach, who all have strong personalities themselves and are not easily convinced to do anything by just anyone.
For example, coaches had, for many years, been telling Roger Federer to come to net more. Under Edberg he’s now doing it. Andy Murray’s previous coaches found that his contrary personality made him difficult to influence. Brad Gilbert, who coached him for 18 months starting in 2006, said he repeatedly pushed Murray to attack more and hit less slices and tricky drop-shots. According to Brad, it resulted in Murray doing just the opposite. Now under Lendl, Murray hits both his forehand and backhand more aggressively and attacks at net more often. Finally, Djokovic, who is generally able to dominate baseline rallies, has been working, in the past year, on finishing more points at the net. Becker, who was quite adept at net himself, will be helpful in the process of improvement.
This is all interesting, but equally so is the meshing of personalities. Champions tend to be realistic, observant, and practical, and these traits show in their choice of coach. It would seem that each has hired the iconic coach whose personality is most similar to his own.
Take Murray and Lendl, for example. Both appear to be dour, emotionally reserved, non-garrulous, and even boring. (In private, both are highly intelligent and both can be quite funny.) But neither give scintillating press interviews, and both had difficulties breaking through in the finals of majors and winning them. But both eventually figured it out, Lendl first, of course, and then Murray. Some of Murray’s improvement was technical, but much was psychological, and this was enough, apparently, to push him over the hump. This process was certainly facilitated by their congenial meshing of personalities, and we must admire the practicality of both in finding each other.
As valuable as stroking/strategy improvements might be, winning major championships in the face of today’s well-balanced competition requires key help in the psychological realm. This is where the iconic coach can be of the most value, particularly when the player’s personality engages amiably with that of the coach. With this in mind, let’s take a further look at the player-coach combinations: Murray finds Lendl; Federer finds Edberg; and Djokovic finds Becker; each seeming to be the player’s most suitable counterpart.
Consider Federer and Edberg. Both are extraordinarily classy, self-less, and gentlemen on and off the court. Both are considerate of others and seem to have gentle, non-confrontational, unaggressive personalities. Both give substantially of themselves to promote the game, and both are renowned for their extraordinary sportsmanship. For example, in 1985 Edberg played Paul Annacone in the finals of the tournament in Los Angeles. In the last set Edberg reversed a bad call against Annacone at 5-all that cost him the game, and possibly the match, which Annacone eventually won at 7-6 in the third. Very classy and selfless of Edberg. Likewise selfless and against his own interests, Federer has fought to increase the prize money for the lower-ranked players who are struggling to make ends meet. Federer wants to ease their burdens. Because of incidents like these, Edberg won the ATP Sportsmanship Award five times, in recognition of which the ATP renamed the award the “Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award.” Not surprisingly, Federer has won the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award eight times! All in all, Edberg and Federer would seem to very suitably matched.
Finally we get to Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker. Compared with Murray and Federer, Djokovic is by far the most emotional and expressive on court. He has an outsized sense of humor that occasionally gets him into trouble, as when he publically mimicked the strokes and mannerisms of his fellow pros a few years ago. I thought these impressions were awfully funny but many of his contemporaries didn’t. Recently he’s been shown on television doing a hilarious imitation of Becker’s own court mannerisms, with Becker watching and heartily laughing at it. Obviously, their senses of humor mesh, which is a good start. And like Djokovic, Becker also has an outsized, eclectic personality, and he was much more emotionally expressive on court than either Edberg or Lendl, making him a better match for Djokovic.
We don’t yet know how well these relationships will stand the test of time, but at present they appear to be off to quite a good start.