Three decades later, the 61-year-old Connors and 53-year-old Lendl are laboring on the same playing field again. But in this arena, as tennis coaches, Lendl is crushing his rival of old.
Since signing on as coach of Andy Murray in December 2011, the Czech-born Lendl has led the gifted Scot to his first major title, the 2012 U.S. Open; an Olympic gold medal; and national-hero status upon winning Wimbledon in July, snapping Britain’s 77-year drought of homegrown men’s champions.
Connors, by contrast, made no discernible improvement in Andy Roddick’s game in two years coaching the former world No. 1. Last month, he was fired by Maria Sharapova, herself a former No. 1, after their one match together ended in defeat.
Coaches of top tennis players get plenty of TV airtime during high-stakes matches, telegraphing encouragement, calm and confidence, as needed, with a glance or subtle gesture. But their role is little understood.
It is a job with no job description. Ask 10 coaches what they do, and you’ll get 100 different answers.
Similarly, it demands no standard skill set.
It’s not necessary to have been the world’s best player, as Connors and Lendl were. But it is necessary to sublimate one’s own ego, however outsize, in the interest of nurturing the next champion-in-the-making — perhaps one whose résuméwill eclipse the coach’s own.
That’s what Hall of Famer Cliff Drysdale suspects is tripping up Connors, whom he faced as a player in the late 1970s.
“Jimmy is a loner,” says Drysdale, now an ESPN analyst. “Coaching by its definition, there’s somebody else at stake. I don’t think he’s cut out to be a coach, bottom line.”
Back when Connors dominated men’s tennis, players didn’t travel with full-time coaches, although Connors’s mother, Gloria, filled that role, as well. Sweden’s Bjorn Borg, who won his first major at age 18, was the first of consequence to do so, accompanied by former Swedish champion Lennart Bergelin, who also served as a father-figure, masseur and publicist.
But as prize money increased, the practice became common. And today, a full-time coach isn’t enough to shepherd a world-class contender’s career.
Murray, the defending U.S. Open champion and current world No. 3, travels with an entourage that includes not only Lendl but also a fitness coach, a hitting partner and a strength and conditioning coach.
But for the bulk of tennis pros, men and women of lesser means, a single coach is all they can afford. That means the coach’s job demands a dizzying array of tasks, such as reserving practice courts, arranging practice partners, getting rackets restrung, scheduling and rescheduling flights and, at the U.S. Open, procuring restaurant reservations and tickets to Broadway hits through the players’ concierge service.
Coaches also impart actual tennis expertise.
Some focus on match strategy. Others fine-tune the mechanics of particular strokes. The best, according to John McEnroe, bolster the mental game. That’s what Lendl is credited with, above all, in analyzing Murray’s breakthrough.
“The most important thing is making you a bigger believer in yourself,” McEnroe says.
Former Australian touring pro Darren Cahill holds the distinction of coaching the youngest man to reach No. 1, compatriot Lleyton Hewitt, as well as the oldest, Andre Agassi.
According to Cahill, Hewitt was destined for greatness, compelled by a fierce work ethic and fighting spirit even at 13, when they started hitting together on Cahill’s backyard court.
Agassi’s greatness was already established when Cahill signed on late in his career. The challenge of nurturing a youngster’s career and extending that of a veteran couldn’t have been more different. But the key to any successful coaching relationship never varies, Cahill believes.
It’s a willingness to start with a blank slate and build trust, he says.
“For it to really work, the coach has to be open-minded and look through that particular player’s eyes at what he wants to achieve,” says Cahill, an ESPN analyst.
Not every former champion is suited to the job, of course.
Chris Evert, a mother of three, has no interest in traveling 35 weeks a year as a full-time coach. Her own children are her priority.
“You’re like a therapist, a baby-sitter,” Evert says of the modern-day coach. “It’s an emotional as well as a physical job. It’s a tougher job than it looks.”
And it makes Drysdale wonder, at least from a personal standpoint, why so many want to do it.
“The job of a coach is so wide-ranging,” Drysdale says. “It’s not as simple as being in the stands and shaking your head or nodding your head.”