Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Coaching Carousel

Tennis coaching might be a great job, but long hours and very little job stability can be tough. Just ask Jiang Shan.

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Coaching in tennis is like dating on the internet. Kick the tires here, have some coffee or sushi there, maybe go for a three month trial run (with no strings attached), but never, ever, give your heart away! NEVER!

Currently two of the top six women on tour are in the midst of drastic coaching changes, and two of the top five men on tour are in limbo as well.

In the cases of Na Li and Vera Zvonareva, who have both exceeded expectations of late and reached Grand Slam finals under their recently dispatched coaches, it makes you wonder why.

Take Zvonareva for instance. Sergei Demekhin guided her to her first two Grand Slam finals, but when Zvonareva introduced a third coach into the equation (Karen Krotov) this spring, the 27-year-old Muscovite declined the arrangement. It's hard to assess the situation without knowing the dynamics of Zvonareva's and Demekhin's relationship, but taken at face value, it seems strange that Zvonareva would want to part (or even risk parting) ways with the coach who had helped her reach an unprecedented period of success in her career.

World No. 6 Na Li has also left her coach in the dust, but this story promises to be more funny than sad. It was Li, just 5 months ago, who promised she'd always love her husband in Australia no matter how fat and ugly he was. Well, don't quote me on that, but it was something to that effect. Now, Li, who seemed to have such a healthy relationship with Jiang Shan, has elected to ditch him for Denmark's Fed Cup Captain Michael Mortenson. Oh well, I'm sure she still loves him.

Li hadn't won a match since losing in the Australian Open final to Kim Clijsters until April, but I'm not so sure it was her coach who was to blame for that. In any case, he's out, and Li will look to rediscover her game with a new man at the helm.

The fact that neither move comes as a shock says a lot about the difficulties of coaching in professional tennis. Two players at the top of the game, reaching new highs, and firing their coaches? Of course. Been there done that.

The travel is insane, the pressure to win is beyond insane, and the job security is nowhere to be found. Add to that the intimacy and the intensity that characterizes each player-coach relationship and it's easy to see why these volatile pairings often explode.

Li and Zvonareva are well within their rights to seek new opinions, hire new help, and basically do whatever it takes to help them reach their goals. It's the nature of the business.

It's just a bummer that coaches haven't been able to find more lucrative or secure work, especially given that they are immensely important to their players, and to the quality of tennis offered by the tours.

The fact that Swede Magnus Norman left Robin Soderling at the end of last season says a lot about the rigors of the profession. Magnus and Sod appeared to be the perfect pair, but the reality of the situation is that often times there simply isn't enough in the deal for the coach. So Magnus went off to start a tennis academy, where he could make similar money and sleep in his own bed at night. He won't be the first and he wont be the last to leave a coaching post on tour for similar reasons.

Daren Cahill, who coached Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi knows the story. The only reason he even agreed to coaching Agassi was because Andre was happy to have him travel with his whole family in tow much of the time. But most players (see Lleyton Hewitt) aren't up for that, either due to financial or philosophical reasons.

So where does that leave the best players on tour who are without a coach? Andy Murray is working with Daren Cahill and his other Adidas development mates in Europe this spring, and he seems happy with the arrangement. Soderling has already parted ways with his trial coach, Claudio Pistolesi of Italy.

And the cycle continues.

Doesn't it reflect poorly on professional tennis that not even the top flight players are in a position to get full time attention from the sharpest minds in the sport? Wouldn't tennis be a better game -- for the players and the fans -- if world-class coaching wasn't such a hard-to-find commodity on tour?

I think it would.

4 comments:

  1. I'd say most coaches fit into the "trial coach" category, unless they are blood relatives. Henin's coach, Carlos Rodriguez, was probably one of the few exceptions. Coaching is tricky business, for sure, and requires a lot of give and take from both sides. A personality clash or a fragile ego can easily end a player/coach relationship. I think the Adidas Player Development program has the right idea with their approach to coaching.

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  2. Adidas is great, but the conflicts can be tricky, like was say with Murray playing Simon. Still, it's better for the coaches, because they have something steady and the travel can be minimized.

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  3. I think you could also add Ana Ivanovic on that list... She's changed about 7 coaches in 5 years.

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  4. Ana was doing great with Heinz, but Heinz didn't want to do the travel thing. Very unfortunate.

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