You hang around this game long enough and you come across an impressive array of coaching types. You have the controversial Svengalis, among whom the outstanding model is Ion Tiriac. Early in his young career, Guillermo Vilas essentially said: "Here I am, make of me what you will." And Tiriac, with a great feeling for Vilas's character and appetite for work, transformed the young Argentine into a clay-court master who would be eclipsed, historically, only by Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal.
Hugs Then you have the tennis nuts, among whom Nick Bollettieri stands out. Operating on the powerful platform of his tennis academy, Bollettieri left his imprint on the contemporary game by articulating what I ultimately came to call the New World Game, based on aggressive baseline play with an emphasis on the forehand and taking the ball on the rise; Bollettieri down-sized the game, more or less eliminating the approach shot in favor of the sizzling placement hit from inside the baseline, usually with the forehand. His proteges are well known, starting with Jimmy Arias and on through Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Monica Seles and others. And, more than any other coach of a top player, Bollettieri has been a general tennis evangelist, spreading the gospel of tennis near and far with his eponymous academy serving as a kind of Vatican for his converts.
You have sports nuts: Brad Gilbert is a sports nut who happened to gravitate to tennis, both as a player and a coach. One of the greatest assets of this type of coach is the ability to put tennis into a general context, enabling players to ramp up their ability as competitors. Gilbert knows his X's and O's as well as anyone - yet one of his most telling coaching ploys was convincing Andy Roddick to dump that dorky visor he used to wear in favor of the more muscular, duck-bill cap. It helped Roddick earn the world no. 1 ranking.
You also have the purists: Think Paul Annacone. Although Annacone had a healthy passion for all sports, he was a true connisseur of tennis in all of its strategic, technical, and psychological dimensions. He was the perfect fit for Pete Sampras, a great believer in the less-is-more approach to most things, including his tennis. Annacone's thoughtful but never overly cerebral or byzantine analyses resonated with Sampras in what might be the most productive, successful, and, well, dignified coach-protege relationship of our time.
And then there are the mentors, the coaches who shape and mold players the way that a favorite college professor, minister, or immediate superior at your first full time job influenced you. These men and women aren't Svengalis, painting their own portraits on the canvas of a player's soul in a process that's often a tame and sunny version of that literary staple, the deal with the devil. The mentors are first and foremost tennis coaches, yet they're wise, discreet, principled and, ultimate, caring. They're just as interested in shaping young minds as exuberantly and sometimes wildly youthful games. They try to develop character, and not always for selfless reasons, because they are masters of understanding the relationship character can have to a player's results and motivations.
Bob Brett, who at various times coached Andres Gomez, Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic, Mario Ancic (he's currently working with Marin Cilic), is one of the great mentors - and still one of my favorite people in tennis. An old-school disciple of Harry Hopman, Brett left Australia because he was spurned and shut out of the official cabal comprised of former Grand Slam champions and lifelong bureaucrats, Brett believed in tennis, character is destiny. He felt that if he could shape and improve the character of his players, it would produce results on the tennis court.
Bob once told me a long story about a discussion he had with Goran Ivanisevic about. . . towels. The details are insignificant, but they had to do with the way Goran disposed of the official tournament towels he used, and Brett's intent was to get Ivanisevic to think about actions and consequences, profligacy and trusteeship. It was about towels, sure, but it was also about holding serve and about realizing that you have only so many chances to throw away - or capitalize upon - in your career. For a young player who sees nothing but future, and therefore knows nothing about regret, who never has to pay a dime for anything, and to whom everything is replaceable (by someone else, of course) at the snap of a finger, understanding about towels is a kind of doorway to understanding about digging a little deeper when you're about to lose a first-rounder in Vienna, or to getting over your disgruntlement because the drinks in the court-side cooler aren't cold enough for your taste.
Toni Nadal is a mentor, perhaps to an even greater degree than Brett. When El Jon Wertheim and I sat down with him at the US Open to plumb his coaching philosophy and background, neither of us knew exactly what to expect. Even to us as journalists, Toni has been a somewhat enigmatic figure - was he support team, family member, minder, tactician, strategist, emotional anchor? Although he's been a bona fide tennis coach for decades (he once coached the no. 2 junior in Spain), it's almost impossible to get Toni to focus on the X's and O's - so much so that neither El Jon nor I even thought to ask him about strategic or technical issues, except in terms of Nadal's development (Did anybody ever try to change his radical style, we asked?).
When we opened the conversation with a broad question about his strengths and assets as a coach, it opened the floodgates on philosophy of life, rather than philosophy of tennis. And the two most striking words in Toni's first answer were "normal" and "discipline."
You'll have to wait until the January-February issue of Tennis to read the interview and some of Toni's most revealing and interesting replies to our questions. But I feel safe saying that you'll be nothing less than astonished at the degree to which Rafael's (Toni never calls his nephew and protege "Rafa") development was more like basic training in life than an advanced education in tennis, with an emphasis on all the bells and whistles currently attached to our views of fitness, technique, nutrition and even equipment. Hail, Toni actually chose to practice on lousy courts with bad balls, just to teach young Rafael that winning or losing isn't about good balls or courts or strings or lights. It's about attitude, discipline, and perhaps most importantly, perspective.
The latter is such a signficant component precisely because perspective may be the hardest of all things to maintain once you hit a certain level in tennis - and players of far lesser talent than Nadal routinely hit that level at the age of 16, 17 - a time in young lives when the concept of perspective is about as familiar as quantum physics. If Toni Nadal has an outstanding virtue, it may be his fidelity to what you might call a grounded, normal life. He has fiercely resisted what might be called the decadence (with a small "d") that lays low so many players - and their coaches, who become accustomed to the cushy life of the tour. In this regard, it really helps Toni that he doesn't collect a paycheck from his nephew - and he knows it.