Bob Carmichael

Tennis coach who influenced a generation of Australian players
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The Independent Online

Robert Carmichael, tennis player and coach: born Melbourne, Victoria 4 July 1940; married (one son); died Melbourne 18 November 2003.

Bob Carmichael was one of Australia's best-loved sportsmen, despite never having won a grand slam title or represented his country at tennis. Among the hundreds of mourners at his funeral were the Australian Davis Cup team, former Wimbledon champions, leading coaches and administrators, club players and fans.

The funeral was held in Toorak, Melbourne's swankiest suburb and on the other side of the tracks from unfashionable Essendon to the city's north, where Carmichael was born in 1940. It was the final paradox in the story of a down-to-earth man of many contradictions. Rising above difficult circumstances, this son of a Scottish-born working man made himself a professional player of high calibre by hard work. Uncoached, he learned from watching others.

Carmichael claimed that in a playing career spanning two decades he beat, either in singles or doubles, every notable player of his time, from Pancho Gonzales and Björn Borg to Ken Rosewall and Jimmy Connors. In 1970, his best year, he counted among his scalps Rosewall, Arthur Ashe and Manuel Santana; reached the quarter-finals of the Wimbledon singles, men's doubles, and mixed doubles; and finished 10th in the grand prix.

His deeds were dwarfed, however, by his immense influence on the character of subsequent generations of Australian players. From 1980, as a coach, he guided players such as Darren Cahill, Mark Kratzmann, Patrick Rafter and Wally Masur in their formative years. Most agree that they learnt lessons about life as well as tennis. He demanded that his players fight to the last breath and, that if they lost, they should lose "like an Australian", looking the winner in the eye and proffering a firm handshake.

In 1999 Carmichael helped India's Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi to win three grand slam doubles titles. He gave other players, to whom he was not contracted, valuable tips. Many knew him as a crusty, though colourful, character famous for long-winded jokes, quirky behaviour in restaurants and infuriating slowness on golf courses

Carmichael was a club player of average ability when, in 1963 at the age of 22, he chanced his arm on the international circuit. He had tried his hand at boxing and toyed with the idea of playing Australian football, but earned his living as an apprentice carpenter - hence his nickname "Nails". The pseudonym was peculiarly apt: Carmichael seemed as hard as the nails he hammered into timber floors and what he lacked in tennis finesse he made up for in mental toughness.

The high-profile Australian players of that era travelled in official teams under Harry Hopman and had all expenses paid. For Aussie battlers, trying to survive on the tour wasn't so simple. Carmichael was obliged to sign an Australian Lawn Tennis Association instruction limiting him to expense money for only 210 days of the year. "I was five weeks at sea," he once recalled, "so I did something everyone did in those days. On my form I put the date I was leaving as actually the day I was arriving in England, otherwise I would have wasted 35 precious days."

After his first Wimbledon, he worked as a mail boy at Simpson's of Piccadilly to make enough to travel to tournaments on the continent. Back in London during the winter, he took jobs on building sites, getting up at 6.30am and earning £14 a week.

Australian officials expected all Australian players to return home to their own summer circuit, and suspected those who didn't of living illicitly in the lap of luxury. They quickly clamped down on Carmichael. During an indoor tournament, he was called to the office of the British LTA secretary Basil Reay and shown a telegram from home forbidding him from receiving a promised £150 to cover his hotel room and meals. In an attempt to escape the LTAA's clutches, Carmichael settled in France, joined a club at Versailles and eventually rose to second in the French rankings.

There was a sequel to the British indoor episode when, three years later, after the introduction of open tennis, Carmichael entered the British clay-court championships and duly collected prize money in Reay's office. "When I got outside," he recalled,

I found he'd overpaid me £150. I knew the mistake would come up when they did the audit, so I went back and told Reay he'd given me too much. He was a pretty dour character, this bloke. He hardly looked up from what he was doing and said, "Everything is in order. There's an amount I wasn't able to give you a few years ago. I'm sorry it took so long." I never forgot that gesture.

Taciturn and occasionally gruff, Carmichael often berated himself when playing, and exasperated officials with complaints. Players, like officials, always knew where they stood with the plain-speaking Carmichael. At Las Vegas, in 1978, when playing doubles with Kim Warwick against John McEnroe and Peter Fleming, he became tired of McEnroe's antics, and at a changeover grabbed him by the collar. "If you keep that up, I'll just have to knock you out," he said. McEnroe heeded the warning - and the Aussies won the match.

Alan Trengove