Signs Of the Times

Tennis players now use everything from therapists to chefs to obtain legal and illegal advantages
September 11, 1988

Is that Steffi Graf trying to win the U.S. open? Or is it her father, Peter? Or her trainer, Pavel Slozil? Or her German shepherd, Max, whose chomp of her hand earlier this summer provided Graf with her most significant challenge? In the Era Of the Entourage in tennis, Graf's groupies are a mere bagatelle compared with Martina's minions or Pat Cash's brain-and-body health squad. The sheer voluminousness of tennis hangers-on has long since given the circuit the look of a traveling rock music tour—Sycophants Over the Universe—or, worse, a presidential campaign. And the struggle for the mind and soul of the candidate seems equally fierce along both trails.

Take, for example, Slozil, a former journeyman player from Czechoslovakia, a bright, kindhearted and popular guy who was hired to toughen up Graf's practice sessions and tend to the technical aspects of her game. But is he her coach? Or is he her "hitting partner"? Peter takes credit for restructuring his daughter's forehand. Dad goes out of his way to reiterate that "only I" know what's best for Steffi. He told the West German press that Graf had problems with Navratilova in this year's Wimbledon final only because she "misunderstood my signals."

That's the way it goes these days. What of the grand old individual battle that is tennis—one-on-one, just you and me, hit and think, by ourselves? Tennis, one sport that has rules forbidding any aid or succor during play, has become, in the world's neighborhood of games, a time-share co-op. Coaches, trainers, sports psychologists, hitting partners, fitness advisers, agents, managers, nutritionists, racket stringers, cooks, aerobics instructors, friends, family, bodyguards, drivers, publicists, therapists, spouses, lovers and pets—Navratilova once employed a woman who in some quarters went by the infamous handle of dog-walker—have made the locker rooms and hospitality suites along the tour so crowded that....

"All I know is, on every practice court now there are eight people." says Tom Gorman, captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. "During Wimbledon the players' tearoom was constantly packed, but every time I looked around I couldn't find any players."

In the natural march of progress, namely the spectacular advances in prize money, celebrityhood and ego fulfillment (and the attendant increase in pressures to win a match, earn a ranking and market oneself), it is not so astonishing that tennis players would leave no stone unturned, no helpologist unemployed in the search for the perfect backhand. And if they can afford it, why not? If the President and the First Lady can prepare for a summit by consulting an astrologer, why can't a tennis player hire somebody to boil a sack of dumplings before a quarterfinal?

The thing about tennis is that it doesn't matter if a player is No. 1 or No. 100, there's always a confidence drag, a concern about the demons breathing down his or her neck. The most human reaction is to call for help, and today's tennis stars have turned the loneliest of games into group therapy. But have they gone too far?

"I've never been an entourage type of guy. I don't want a lot of guys around me," says John McEnroe, who in his salad years consulted occasionally with his original coach, Tony Palafax, and traveled only with doubles partner Peter Fleming. Yet in his repeated comebacks, Mac has turned to yoga, fruits and nuts, sprint workouts, karate-with-chants and acupuncture under the aegis of "coaches" Paul Cohen, Seo Daeshik and Fleming. "I'm past all that now," says McEnroe, who has currently settled, more simply, on Robert Paar, Madonna's personal trainer.

"In the '80s there's been more pampering," says McEnroe. "More need for support, I guess. But Martina's group is absurd. Cash, the same: ridiculous. The younger players see this and get spoiled. These people have lost the appreciation for the individuality of tennis."

Coaches are one thing, an accepted notion; after all, everybody in tennis has a coach. It's the rest of the crowd—the psychodynamic, yeast-popping, guitar-banging, spatial-analytic, spaghetti-string, Jesus-grip, my-reflex-volley-is-my-friend, banzai therapists who want 15 courtside passes—who have become such a plague on the game.

Pam Shriver's coach, Don Candy, says (jokingly, of course): "Pammy got a young lady who taught her how to move. Therapy, theory, mind games? Who knows? She's got three different hitting partners around the world—unless she's refined this and got one for every country. In the meantime, I'm around to point out the fine points, not always in unison with the others."

Over the past year the gravest question in the game has not been, "How do you pronounce Andre Agassi's name?" but, "Who will be the next big player to change coaches?" Navratilova, McEnroe, Gabriela Sabatini, Boris Becker and Mats Wilander all experienced a sort of career crisis during which they brought on board a new coach. Or, in Wilander's case, an old friend. Matt Doyle, a graduate of Yale, a former president of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and a Davis Cup player for Ireland, doesn't so much coach Wilander as play golf with him. That, and impart his ideas on physical training.

For years Wilander was coached within the Swedish team system by John-Anders Sjogren. However, as one player notes, "I've seen Sjogren at practice with Wilander maybe 500 times, and he's never said one word to Mats. He's a glorified gofer." In truth, nobody "coaches" a consummate percentage player and wily thinker like Wilander. But when the 24-year-old Swede decided that he had enough money and recognition, that he wanted to win more majors and, according to Doyle, "play for history," Wilander went to his friend for help in gaining the power to contend with the world's No. 1, Ivan Lendl. Voilà! In the first half of 1988 Wilander won the Australian and French opens, the first two legs of the Grand Slam.

Patient nurturing by 51-year-old Londoner Tony Pickard of another immensely talented Swede, Stefan Edberg, resulted in Edberg's winning Wimbledon this year. Moreover, that victory silenced the critics of Pickard, whose lowkey handling of Edberg's career had been questioned in light of the screaming-comet rise of Becker. If Becker's manager, Ion Tiriac, is tennis's Whitey Herzog, Pickard is the game's Tom Kelly. And Wimbledon was the World Series all over again.

"Everything is 'We this, we that' with Pickard," says Arthur Ashe. "But that's the ideal situation for a coach-player relationship. Stefan listens to him; he trusts him completely."

The professor emeritus of coaching is the 49-year-old Tiriac, der Blitzableiter (the lightning rod) that tries to keep the evil spirits from Becker. Early in his work with Becker, Tiriac flattened Boom Boom's second serve and shifted his feet on delivery, but Tiriac has never been Becker's "coach." Becker's boyhood teacher, Gunther Bosch, held that title until Boris chafed under his regimentation. In '86, Bosch was still requiring Becker, already twice Wimbledon champion, to dress up and accompany him to dinner in lieu of fraternizing with his peers.

Now Becker's coach is Bob Brett, 34, a self-effacing Australian who, after seeing the young McEnroe eat cake before a big match, predicted he would never make it. "At this level a coach's duties consist of fine-tuning and strategy, and that's about it," says Brett. "I should have influence but not be a dictator."

The forerunners of today's personalized coaches were Tiriac and Lennart Bergelin, the lockjawed Svengali who did everything for Bjorn Borg, including carry his rackets. Mariana, Borg's wife at the time, once said, "[Lennart] is Bjorn's home. He is Sweden." Bergelin used to drive the champ through the streets of London in a blue Saab, working the window like a robot: down at stoplights, up and shut tight when moving. "Bjorn must not take the breeze," Bergelin explained.

As for Tiriac, the self-described "greatest player who couldn't play" has guided Ilie Nastase, Manuel Orantes, Adriano Panatta, Guillermo Vilas, Henri Leconte and Becker to the championships of two Wimbledons, two Australian Opens, three U.S. Opens, three French Opens and six Masters. "Look it up. I win a bunch of majors," says Tiriac in the familiar idiom of the old-time boxing manager.

Most players know what shots to hit; they just don't know when or why. Good coaches reveal tendencies and flaws in both their players' games and the opponents'. They scout the foe, suggest game plans, teach percentages, explain strategy. They shore up weaknesses, boost confidence, act as sounding board and crying towel.

"I'm ready at the whipping post every morning," says Candy, who has overseen the career of his cherished "Shrive" since 1978, when Pam, at 16, got to the U.S. Open finals. "If something goes wrong, if it rains—'Don, why is it raining?'—I'm at fault," he says.

In the global geography of the coaching ranks, we have seen:

•Australia's lefthanded veteran Tony Roche help Lendl overcome his southpaw nemesis, McEnroe.

•Spain's tiny (5'4") dancer, Angel Giminez, whip a once-too-lazy Sabatini into fighting trim sufficient to beat both Navratilova and Graf, twice.

•Holland's Betty Stove turn Hana Mandlikova from a No. 1 contender into a whining, early-round washout. The two have been together forever, arguing over the slightest detail, including who should sit in what chair at dinner.

•Florida's Nick Bollettieri get rescued from a horrible death in the cross hairs of his beloved baseline—where the Jimmy Ariases and Aaron Kricksteins had left him to suffer—by the laser forehand and the all-court savoir faire of his latest product, Agassi.

•Ski America's Andy Mill suddenly become Handy Andy Groundstroke in his daily monitoring of wife Chris Evert's practices. Recently, spying Mill's animated conversation with her father, Jimmy, Chris stopped play, went into her adorable scrunched-up nose routine and said, "Dad, is he talking about my game again?"

•America's Brett Connors, age 9, succeed his mother, Patti, his grandmother, Gloria, and his great-grandmother, Two Mom, as well as his father's ex-manager, Bill Riordan, ex-coach, Pancho Segura, ex-bodyguard, Doug Henderson, ex-Vegas-walk-around-guy, Lornie Kuhle, and the good folks at Paine Webber in helping his old man, Jimbo, to his first tournament victory in almost four years (Washington, July 25).

•Texas's Mike Estep earn MVCD (Most Valuable Coach of the Decade) honors for his contributions to Navratilova's 74-and 58-match winning streaks and her six straight Grand Slam titles. Navratilova hired Estep, another journeyman player who got by on guts and guile, after her shocking loss to Kathy Horvath in the '83 French Open. "Martina was already No. 1, and I thought, Right, where did that leave us to go?" says Estep. "Then she said her goal was to win the Grand Slam and be the greatest player who ever lived. That seemed like a sufficient, uh, challenge."

Estep changed Martina's service grip, and she learned a kick second serve in three days. On her forehand volley Navratilova held her racket too high; Estep brought it down. Renee Richards had convinced Martina that she was the best athlete on the tour (which she was) and that she could beat anybody from the baseline. "I changed that," says Estep. "Martina is the best woman volleyer ever. I had her come in on everything. We started from zero, and she was unbelievable in response. It was never 'I think' but 'You think and I'll do.' "

Navratilova lost only 10 matches in 3½ years, under Estep, but until very late in their association, he says, she didn't win any from 4-all in the third set. "It wasn't that Martina choked," Estep says. "She just got that far in a match and her mind-set was disappointment that she hadn't won already. That's how Helena Sukova halted the 74-match streak in Australia [7-5 in the third].

"I finally convinced Martina just to forget about everything that went before and in a third-set tiebreak just to play seven solid points and we'd go home." In the 1986 U.S. Open semifinals Navratilova beat Graf 6-1, 6-7, 7-6 and "turned it around," says Estep. "For me that was the final piece in the puzzle."

Estep and Navratilova did not renew their contract in '87. Friends say Estep's wife, Barbara, and Martina's companion, Judy Nelson, were continually at each other's throats, but Estep says he initiated the parting because he wanted to do other things. "The split was amicable," says Estep. Since then Martina has gone through a couple of other coaching regimes and found happiness with former tour player Tim Gullikson and the previously deposed Nancy Lieberman.

"Is coaching valuable?" says Estep. "We learn so much over the years of a career. God, would I have loved at 20 to have the tennis head of a 40-year-old. I wish I had been able to coach me."

So why isn't on-court tennis coaching legal in tour tournaments the way it is in the Davis and Federation cups? For one reason, the game's pooh-bahs are afraid that such a ruling would unduly benefit the top players, who can afford the service. "I'm too expensive," says Estep, an ATP board member who continues to vote against legalizing coaching. For another, tennis is terrified that strong-willed coaches—say, Tiriac doing a Romanian rendition of baseball's Billy Martin—would take over matches with squawking, posturing and intimidation.

The rule prohibiting coaching signals in tennis is about as silly as the NBA taboo against zone defenses. "We all signaled," says Fred Stolle, who has coached, among others, Vitas Gerulaitis. "I might touch my nose or scratch my ear to tell Vitas to go to the backhand on an approach. There were signals all the time. Tiriac would hold his cigarette in either hand depending on where he wanted his guys to serve."

After Lendl amassed 27 aces and 18 double faults against Leconte at Wimbledon a few years ago, he attributed his inconsistency to "misunderstanding Tony," who was sitting in the stands. Graf was penalized in the 1986 Amelia Island finals after officials caught her father making enough weird gesticulations to Steffi to suggest an attack of ticks. In March 1987 in Brussels, Willie (Pato) Alvarez—one of the tour's bizarre characters in the early '60s, a guy who lived out of a battered Volkswagen and predated (some say invented) Nastasian mischief—was doing some coaching. Specifically, Pato was engaged in one of his typical semaphore displays while helping his prize wards, the Spanish duo of Emilio Sanchez and Sergio Casal, in a doubles match against Brian Levine and Laurie Warder. Says Alvarez, "I am greatest unknown coach in world." But this time he was caught, and Sanchez and Casal were penalized. The Spaniards won anyway, but upon leaving the court, Warder yelled at Alvarez, "Pato, you are a cheater."

"What?" said Alvarez.

"You are a cheater. You cheat."

Reports on what happened next vary, but Alvarez says, "I have to hit Warder." Sanchez and Casal, after originally denying having ever seen Alvarez—they all happened to be living together in the same hotel room at the time—ultimately owned up to the coaching and were fined for unsportsmanlike conduct. Warder was fined for coach abuse. Alvarez got off scot-free.

However, largely as a result of the Brussels incident, coaches also are held to the ATP's uniform code of conduct. Of course, coaching still is not allowed during a match. "I just be very quiet now," says Alvarez. "I find a way."

ILLUSTRATIONPATRICK MILBOURNAt times, Peter Graff's signs to his daughter during matches have been less than subtle. ILLUSTRATIONPATRICK MILBOURNDo Tiriac's charges look to his cigarettes for guidance? ILLUSTRATIONPATRICK MILBOURNMartina's minions are multitudinous and ever-changing. ILLUSTRATIONPATRICK MILBOURNLuckily for Evert and her father, Mill's skiing background prepared him for coaching tennis.