Friday, December 28, 2007

The Powers Behind the Thrones

by Savannah

As the 2008 season gets under way it's time to look back at 2007. Every blogger has posted his or her "Best OF" list for the past year in tennis. Players have been ranked and rated and like kids at Christmas judged to be naughty or nice.

But very little attention is given to the men and women who sit on the sidelines, many times in the broiling sun, watching the players they've birthed, either literally or figuratively, soar with the eagles or crash and burn. These men and women do the dirty work of motivation and preparation both physically or mentally, dealing with the fragile egos of those who have the stones to fight their way to the upper echelon of the tennis world.

This isn't a ranking and rating. I just want to recognize them for all the hard work they put in that largely goes unremarked upon by the average fan.

Oracene Price

I've been a critic of Ms Price in the past. It seemed to me that when she was in charge of her daughters things were a little softer, that on court play became lax and that her charges seemed to think all they had to do was walk on court and their opponent would roll over and play dead.
Well that all stopped with Melbourne 2007 when her youngest child beat the snot out of all comers.
Her "Get out of Melbourne" shout to Serena (coaching from the stands?) turned out to be the coaching advice of the year.
It was a difficult year but she was there in Madrid at the end of the year. She was also in Asia and got a weary and physically fragile Venus through that swing. I can't imagine being a parent and a coach. Some manage it. Some don't. Both Ms Price and her ex husband Richard Williams seem to have found a way to be both parents and coaches.

Carlos Rodriguez

Justine Henin's controversial coach has gotten her to their mutual goal - number one female player in the world. Until recently it didn't seem to matter to these two whether they were liked or not. All that mattered was the tennis. When Carlos felt something needed to be said he said it. Whether it was attacking a rival Belgian player or the WTA Carlos took the hits leaving Justine to be what she says she wants to be - just a tennis player.
Justine's dependence on Carlos - she looks to him after every single shot - has been remarked upon. At Wimbledon, when he had no answers for Marion Bartoli's stellar play Justine floundered. Against an obviously injured Serena Williams at the US Open and later an ill Venus Williams the pair was on top of their game. They saved their best for the YEC though when a rested and well coached Maria Sharapova put up more of a fight than was expected by many observers. In the end Justine overcame the woman who was her nemesis in more ways than one putting the cap on what had been a stellar year for her.

Yuri Sharapov

You either love him or hate him. This seemingly quiet and unassuming balding man who you would walk right by if you saw him in the street makes Carlos Rodriguez look ready for canonization. A father of modest means who had a big dream much like Richard Williams has made his progeny one of the top paid athletes in the world with name recognition many would kill to have. Whether waving a banana, gesticulating wildly or disappearing from the stands as he did famously during the Australian Open final and several other times in 2007 when his daughter lost the television cameras are never far from him. During an infamous match against Justine it's rumored Yuri shouted "Vamos" during Justine's service motion. When called on it Yuri pulled a "who me" and looked around with the rest of the crowd to see who would do such a thing. Like him or not he has achieved his goals.

Dr Walter Bartoli

This picture was taken in January 2007 after Marion Bartoli won the ASB championship in New Zealand. Doctor Bartoli has shown that he is a man of great emotion, and will. Developing his own training techniques for his daughter he has run afoul of the French Tennis Federation maintaining his independence from them. The Federation has struck back saying if Marion doesn't play Fed Cup for France - which means she won't have him coaching her - she can't play the Olympics in August 2008. The Bartoli's so far are holding firm in their resolve. Marion played herself into the top ten with her crucifix making serve and unusual style which is reminiscent of Monica Seles but is still all Marion. It was a year of adjustment for the Bartoli's - Marion didn't have such a great second half of the season - but January is almost here and we'll see if Dr Bartoli and his daughter will be able to continue to do things their way and win big.

Marian Vajda

People love his charges quirky on court personality and love of the camera. Marian Vajda is the man who prepares him to play the tennis that has taken Novak Djokovic to number three in the world. In a recent interview Martina Navratilova singled him out for his work with Novak and no tennishead could disagree with her remarks. Marian is not a family member - he joins Carlos Rodriguez in this regard - and his courtside manner can best be described as intense. He is seemingly playing every shot right along with his player exulting in his victories and suffering his defeats. He appears to be a throwback to the old school coaches who really didn't have cults of personality built around them the way some of the modern day coaches do.

Roger Federer and Miroslava Vavrinec

They're doing it for themselves. Tony Roche was listed as Roger's coach for most of 2007 but in a less than amicable split Roger and Mirka have gone on to end the year at number one. True there were those stunning losses to David Nalbandian at the end of the year and that gift at Wimbledon but who can argue with success? Tennis uber-couple has shown that hiring a separate coach may not be a necessity for some players. I say some because while I do call Roger on his ego he has shown that at the present time he doesn't need any outsider telling him what to do. He and Mirka are doing quite well thank you and I don't see this changing in 2008 unless something drastic happens.

Antoni Nadal

Uncle Toni is never mentioned as being among the superstars of coaches outside of Mallorca or Spain. He sits quietly in the stands, an enigmatic look on his face while his nephew plays. The emotion is seen when the match is over. During the US Open he was seen singing along to "YMCA" including participating in the arm gestures. I observed him and Rafa up close on the practice courts at the US Open. Quiet intensity from both men was what I observed. Does he coach from the stands? He seemingly talks to himself quite a bit but he's a minor leaguer when compared to big timers Yuri Sharapov and Carlos Rodriguez. It came out at the end of the year that Rafa played a lot of 2007 on one foot and bad knees and somehow still managed to hold his position at the top of his sport. Good, solid coaching kept him there.

Richard Williams

My tennis moment of the year is the one posted above of Richard Williams and Dr Walter Bartoli embracing each other after their daughters played the Wimbledon 2007 Final. No tennis father has been more criticized than Richard Williams. He was criticized for keeping his daughters off the junior circuit full time. He was criticized for not letting them compete on the main tour earlier in their careers. He was criticized for engaging in that most African American way of celebrating at Wimbledon. And yet he's still around, still in tennis, and still sitting courtside at Wimbledon finals. He loves the persona he's created for himself, a not too swift on the uptake shuckin' and jivin' son of Louisiana sharecroppers who had a big dream, and it's served him well. As American tennis stares into the abyss that will be created when his daughters retire from the sport the mainstream is finally seeing him for the what he is - a first class tennis mind.

End Note

As you can see coaching has become a family affair. What with rumors of coaching abuse hovering around the edges of tennis maybe today's tennis parents are less willing to turn their children over to some smooth talking "I'll make your kid a star" wannabe coach. Does marrying a tennis player make you a coach? Does siring one or giving birth to one allow you to enter the coaching ranks? What about being an ex superstar? Can you impart what was inborn to someone who may or may not be inclined to listen? Why are so few women in the coaching ranks? Shahar Pe'er has hired Conchita Martinez as one of her coaches and it made news because it's so rare.

Family coaching is not always benign. Damir Dokic, Jim Pierce, and Stefano Capriati are among the most infamous coaching dads. And I'm sure anyone who wants to coach Andy Murray has to deal with his mum Judy Murray. The Djokovics are very much involved in the careers of all their sons. Meanwhile Betty Blake seems as normal as the parent of a sports star can be.

What to look for in 2008? Andy Murray seems to be trying to go the Roger/Mirka route but is he succombing to the the legend he is in his own mind or being practical? He says he'll hire coaches as he sees a need for them. Andy Roddick's association with Jimmy Connors seems to be over and his brother is the man in charge. 2008 will be crucial to both men. Will Roger and Mirka continue their winning ways?

I'm sure people will argue with my choices and maybe supply information that adds or subtracts from someone being on the list. Maybe I forgot someone. Feel free to contribute. As I said this isn't a ranking and rating. It's just giving props to those who make the phrase "...those that can't do teach" a less disparaging one.


Karen said...

Excellent post as usual Savannah. I would add to that Jelena's mother. I dont know if she is the coach or just the support system but she is one of the few parents who I admire on the circuit. Also David Ferrer's coach for believing in him when he seemed to not believe in himself. Nalby's new coach who has basically taught him how to believe in himself. Also, it would be good to talk about the teams that surround the players. Again, in this respect we have to give props to Mirka and Uncle Toni. They seem to exist just to please their charges and that is basically what every athlete needs. Perhaps that is why people like Maria are the way they are because say what you will about Yuri, it is all about Maria and nothing else.

Savannah said...

I wasn't sure if JJ's mom is part of her support system or a coach so I didn't mention her.

There are a few I'm holding back on - James Blake's long time coach, Nicole Stepankova's step dad among them. If Nalby and Ferrer keep it up their coaches will definitely make the list next year.

Where the support system is good and suits the player you have a top player.

Craig Hickman said...

Savannah, your choices are spot on. But more than that, so is your reasoning. You know I can't stand Carlos, but you make a good argument for his inclusion here.

Djoke's coach is very intense and calm at the same time. Not so easy to pull off.