Emma Raducanu’s caustic dismissals of tennis coaches have become one of her trademarks. Witness this recent comment to Amazon Prime: “I think on certain occasions they haven’t been able to keep up with the questions I asked. So maybe that’s why it ended.”
But what is the true role of a tennis coach? Telegraph Sport spoke to a few insiders about this often misunderstood position, and came up with ten insights that might surprise you.
A touring tennis coach is uniquely powerless
In team sport, the coach or manager is the one with the power to hire, fire and discipline. Whereas the tennis coach is at the mercy of his player, and can be jettisoned at any moment, as many of Raducanu’s previous coaches have found out. He (for it almost always is a he) rarely has any contractual protection and stands at risk of being blackballed by agents if he is seen to have acted disloyally. It is not a job for an anxious personality.
At the elite end of the game, most things are outsourced
In the old days, a tennis coach would be responsible for at least five different areas: the player’s physical health, their endurance, their mental resilience, their strategy and their technique. Today, four of those might be outsourced. Someone like world No1 Iga Swiatek, for example, might have a physio, a fitness trainer, a psychologist and a data analyst, so that technique becomes the only area of sole responsibility for her coach Tomasz Witkorowski. And how much tinkering does a player of Swiatek’s quality need?
Is the era of the “supercoach” fading?
At the very top of the game, what is a coach for? In this era of expanding entourages, the role almost becomes a managerial one of collating and communicating information. And then the question arises of whether a successful former player is necessarily the best fit? Is the “supercoach” trend started by Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl a decade ago starting to feel outdated? It’s true that many elite men still feel more comfortable with a legend in their player box. Think of Novak Djokovic hiring former Wimbledon champ Goran Ivanisevic, or Boris Becker returning from exile to guide Denmark’s Holger Rune. There is an ego boost in engaging a celebrity, as well as a reassuring feeling that you can rely on that person’s experience. But it is single-mindedness that makes a champion, rather than the broad-based organisational skills required by a team leader. You can’t exactly imagine these guys poring over a spreadsheet. Could the fact that Murray and Lendl have just split again (for the third time) be the canary in the coal mine?
It can be a menial role
A lot of the job involves sourcing balls, booking courts and organising practice partners. The supercoaches listed above might have a back-up to deal with the drudgery. It doesn’t always turn out that way, though. “I’m good at putting on diapers,” said a grumpy John McEnroe, after undistinguished spells coaching both Becker and Mark Philippoussis. “But not with people over 18.”
It’s hard to rate coaches with any confidence
You see this problem with football managers. How much is a manager responsible for his club’s success and how much does it come down to the technical director/club captain/depth of the owner’s wallet? It’s much worse in tennis, though, because you have one player and you’re totally dependent on them. Some think that Paul Annacone is the greatest coach of all time, because he worked with Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Others argue that Annacone had the easiest job of all time, because he worked with Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. For the sceptics, the contribution of someone like Esteban Carril – the little-known Spaniard who took Johanna Konta from outside the world’s top 100 into the top 10 – carries more weight.
Communication is key
To return to McEnroe, he complained that Becker and Philippoussis never listened to his instructions. But according to the British coach Calvin Betton, at least some of the responsibility must lie with McEnroe himself. “I hear coaches saying this all the time,” said Betton. “It’s their job, though, to find a way to get a message across. Imagine a piece of Velcro where the player is the hook – and you just want that hook to attach to something. It helps if you can keep the information short and to the point: no more than you could fit on a Post-It Note. When I hear a coach who talks and talks, I feel like it’s a performative thing, designed to make that guy look good rather than to help the player.”
A good coach is like a music producer
The Raducanu quote at the start of this piece makes it sound as if she quizzes coaches like Jeremy Paxman. If so, one wonders whether this is an effective method of rating their quality. It imagines the coach as being a sort of tennis professor, who should have all the answers in their head already. Whereas Betton suggests that a successful coaching relationship is more of a collaboration. “I’m a music fan,” he says, “so I like to compare it to being a music producer. If you don’t have good songs to work with – or a talented player – there isn’t much you can do. Different people have very different methods of going about the job, and it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what they’ve brought to the party. But when you find something that works – like George Martin with the Beatles – there is a sort of alchemy.”
Raducanu is unusual among female players
At least Raducanu is looking to have some agency. A much more common pattern on the women’s tour is for a young player to hand over all the decision-making to an older, experienced man, so that they can simply follow instructions from then on. “An awful lot of female players want someone to come in, take the reins, do it all,” said the former British No3 Naomi Cavaday. “I don’t think you see that as much with the male players.”
There are Mourinho-style “three-season wonder” coaches in tennis too
Although the timescales are shorter in tennis, we see these Mourinho-style coaches who have a sudden impact. They are usually expert motivators, either through being super-tough or through developing a close – and sometimes inappropriate – relationship with a player. Usually, though, the effect wears off after a while because the player’s game doesn’t actually improve.
So who are the best coaches?
This article should already have demonstrated that ranking coaches is a fool’s errand. Some (mostly in non-touring academy roles) are technical whizzes while others are motivators. Then there are the managerial types, as well as the bluffers who cosy up to players’ parents with a bunch of well-rehearsed (and annoyingly effective) stories about how great they are. Finally, on the WTA Tour, there are the creepy ones, who try to deal with the essential insecurity of their job in the most unfortunate way. “It helps the coach feel a bit more secure if he has created a much closer personal relationship,” Cavaday said. “I often see coaches leaning on that to make it harder for female players to get rid of them from their team.”
If we consider the two tours, then the Belgian Wim Fissette, who originally emerged as Kim Clijsters’s hitting partner, is surely the WTA’s top dog. He has overseen improvements in every player he has worked with, most recently Chinese No1 Qinwen Zheng, even if she berated him publicly for leaving her to reunite with Naomi Osaka.
Among the men, we could make a strong case for Darren Cahill, the understated Aussie who used to work with Andy Murray through his role at adidas. Cahill is now with Jannik Sinner, the gangling Italian who has been the form player of the second half of this season. On Tuesday night, Sinner scored his maiden victory over Novak Djokovic at the ATP Finals in Turin. In doing so, he showed off a raft of recent developments in his game: more touch, better variety, a stronger serve and a more resilient mental approach. Now that is coaching.