It is custom at Wimbledon, the most tradition-bound of tennis tournaments, that past champions are invited, on occasion, to watch Centre Court matches from the Royal Box and stay for tea with lords, ladies and luminaries from the worlds of politics, business and the arts.
This fortnight, two notable past winners — Boris Becker and Amelie Mauresmo — will be drawing paychecks in the players’ guest boxes, making their respective Wimbledon debuts as the coach of Novak Djokovic, the tournament’s top seed and 2011 winner, and defending champion Andy Murray.
Djokovic, 27, hired Becker in December, frustrated by a pattern of stalling in the late stages of Grand Slam events. He reached out to the three-time Wimbledon champion largely because he was impressed by the way former No. 1 Ivan Lendl had elevated Murray’s play, guiding the Scot to the 2013 Wimbledon title that Britain had longed for since 1936.
Murray’s recent decision to hire Mauresmo, the Frenchwoman who won Wimbledon in 2006, created more of a stir.
It’s rare for male pros to be coached by women, although Murray was schooled by his mother, Judy, a former Scottish national coach, until age 17.
Twitter postings about Mauresmo’s hiring typically began with, “Not a joke” or “No, not April’s Fools.” Several of his competitors were similarly gob-smacked, Murray said.
“I don’t really care whether they think it’s a good or bad appointment,” Murray told the BBC earlier this month. “It’s whether it works well for me and my team, and hopefully it will be a good move for my career.”
There’s ample evidence that Grand Slam credentials aren’t required to help a great player win a major or reach No. 1.
Rafael Nadal, who has won 14 major titles, has been coached since age 4 by his uncle Toni, who never competed on the pro tour.
Jimmy Connors credits the coaching of his mother, Gloria, for his Hall of Fame career.
And John McEnroe, who claimed seven majors, had no use for coaching at all.
“I wasn’t one for coaches, male or female,” said McEnroe, 55, who owns a tennis academy in New York and provides commentary for ESPN. “Part of the way to succeed is you have to figure out a way to believe in yourself ultimately.”
But with Murray leading the way, tennis appears in the midst of a mini-trend of pros tapping former champions not simply for tactical expertise but for the insight of someone who knows firsthand what it takes for a No. 3, 4 or 5 player to close the gap on No. 1.
In Mauresmo, 34, who retired without adding a French Open to her Australian and Wimbledon titles, Murray has also hired a champion who understands the acute pressure of competing for a major on home soil, as well as a woman he feels will listen to his concerns.
“I have always had a strong female influence in my career,” Murray told the BBC. “I found that with my mum, especially, that she listened extremely well. That was something that I felt right now that I needed.”
Though Nadal enters Wimbledon with the No. 1 ranking, Djokovic was installed as the top seed by virtue of his recent results on grass. The Serb is drawn for a semifinal against Murray, the No. 3 seed, while Nadal could meet fourth-seeded Roger Federer in the semis.
It has been two years since Federer won a major title. But he opens his 2014 campaign with a credible shot at his eighth Wimbledon championship (and 18th major) despite his looming 33rd birthday.
“This year I feel all the options are there: return, serve, serve and volley, come in, my backhand — everything is working to my liking,” Federer said during Saturday’s pre-tournament news conference. “For that reason, I feel I’m a bit more relaxed mentally because I know it is there.”
Five-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams is favored on the women’s side despite her failure to reach the quarterfinals of the season’s first two majors.
“I have a couple words to describe it, but I think that would be really inappropriate,” Williams said Saturday, asked about her start to the season. “So I’m going to leave it at that.”