The Era of the Player-Coach

Over the past two weeks, the Australian Open, the first major tournament of the year, featured several storylines. Two that stood out were a pair of perennial favorites — Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — being eliminated early and a pair of young players — Nick Kyrgios and Madison Keys — making major breakthroughs. But for me, a third storyline existed: the validation of former No. 1 number one tennis players making their names as coaches.

Ivan Lendl and Andy Murray formed a partnership a few years back that helped bring Murray that elusive Wimbledon title. Madison Keys’ shining moment in Australia is, in part, due to having Lindsay Davenport coaching her. Boris Becker works with Novak Djokovic and Stefan Edberg is in Federer’s camp. Michael Chang helped Kei Nishikori get to the final of last year’s U.S. Open. Martina Navratilova is now working with Agnieszka Radwanska, and while it is still early, I think this could be a partnership that will turn her into a more serious threat.

The proof is in the partnership.

When a player has a chance to work with a coach who was at one time the best player in the world, there is nothing like it. I had that experience at 15 years old when I was coached by the great Alice Marble. It was life-changing. She taught me most matches are won and lost in the middle of the court around the service line. She was right and I carried that with me for my entire career.

As a player you can’t help but get caught up in the history. Hearing the stories of legends and understanding they’ve been where you want to go is incredibly valuable. Their greatness builds all around you. You reach a moment when you really start to understand what you need to do to be the best in the world.

Pete Sampras once told me how he spent one week, early in his career, with Ivan Lendl. That experience totally set his course to the top. One week with Lendl in Connecticut and Pete quickly learned that his physical and mental preparation wasn’t even close to where it needed to be. His time with Lendl helped make him the iconic champion he eventually became.

The Madison Keys/Lindsay Davenport relationship is the perfect pairing. There are similarities to their game and to their approach. They both have great timing, both are excellent strikers of the ball and both are big. But Lindsay — like so many of the other former top players — brings so much more to the conversation. Champions know how to finish. If you’ve watched Madison lately, she is finishing much better now than she was last year.

Success in coaching often comes down to making the most of teachable moments. Some players only need a quick jolt, while others need a longer term relationship. But there is something special about having a coach in your corner who at one time stood on top of the world in your sport.

This is a great time in tennis for the players, the coaches and especially for the fans and I love it!