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Coach Prepares Pupil, Then Can Only Watch

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009

Magnus Norman sat along the railing in the third row of a four-row bleacher, a former tennis standout now coaching a promising pupil. Norman watched rising star Robin Soderling with a serene focus, chin seated in his right hand and eyes seldom straying from Soderling's match.

Per tennis rules, Norman cannot directly coach Soderling during the match. His level of involvement during the two hours was no different than a paying spectator -- or at least one whom Soderling glanced toward after masterful and frustrating shots alike.

Norman barely quivered. He clapped on occasion, but only in unison with the crowd. The amount of times he spoke could be counted on two hands, and when words did come out, they were curt bursts of encouragement.

Such is the life of a tennis coach, whose duties are important up until the moment the match is actually played.

"A coach's responsibility is to teach the player, educate the player, get the player to a point where the player can problem solve efficiently," said ESPN commentator Darren Cahill, who coached such stars as Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt, in a telephone interview. "If a coach is doing their job properly, you're teaching the player to problem solve him or herself."

That is what Norman expected during Soderling's 7-5, 5-7, 6-3, win over Marc Gicquel at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic on Thursday. Soderling, the tournament's fifth seed, advanced to play second-seeded Juan Martín del Potro on Friday.

In the less than 24 hours from the end of the match against Gicquel to the beginning of the match against del Potro, Norman's work began again.

He stretched Soderling minutes after Soderling left the court and went over mental notes accumulated throughout the match. Norman made sure Soderling ate. He prepared the rackets for the del Potro match, leaving four or five with a stringer. Then, he booked practice and transportation for Friday.

On Friday morning, Norman will massage Soderling as part of his physical therapy. They will hit for 30 minutes, followed by more stretching. Norman will go over the strategy for del Potro before the match.

"There's a lot of things we do, and it's not only the technique and the coaching," Norman said. "I try to prepare him as good as possible, and the only thing he should think about is the tennis. I'll take care of everything else."

Once the match begins, Norman will resume silence. Some coaches evade the rules and work hand gestures. Technology has even allowed in-match text messaging to become an issue, although Cahill believes such a strategy could accomplish only so much.

"It's pretty easy sitting in the coaches box or in the commentator's booth talking about the match," Cahill said, "but in the heat of the battle, small adjustments seem like huge adjustments on the court."

Friday's match will provide Norman with a better vantage point, because the stadium includes a coaching box. Thursday's match was played on a side court, where fans sat on three sides of Norman.

Soderling still knew where to find his coach, because a bad back from Norman's playing days means Norman searches for a railing to lean against. Soderling often glances over, and Norman just claps and offers support. Sometimes, Soderling wishes the words were allowed to be of more substance.

"Not necessarily being coached, but having someone to talk to," Soderling said. "Tell him how you feel, and he can give you his opinion. It would be good."

But Norman, once the world's second-ranked player, appreciates the insular existence that a tennis player lives. He enjoys the responsibility leading up to the match, but insists that what makes tennis great is that the player's fate is entirely in his own hands once the match begins.

"It's man-to-man," Norman said. "There's no coaching allowed, and I think it's a great thing."

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