Brad Gilbert: 'Andy is two years away from being best player he can be'

Murray's tennis career is on the rise - thanks to 'BG'. Ronald Atkin meets a coach with the gift of the gab and a very gifted client
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There were people in tennis, quite a lot of people, who spent the latter part of the 2006 season writing off the teaming of Brad Gilbert and Andy Murray as an arrangement destined for the rocks: Mr Garrulous meets Mr Grumpy. As the curtain rises on 2007, the doom merchants are distinctly thinner on the ground.

The 45-year-old Mr Garrulous is impressively embarked on talking a third client, after Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, towards the glittering peak of the sport where repose Grand Slam titles and the world No 1 ranking, while Mr Grumpy, or rather Young Master Grumpy, is looking increasingly capable of scaling that summit.

Team Gilbert-Murray will celebrate their half-year mark during the second week of the Australian Open later this month, bedded in, flourishing and more closely knit than ever following their first concentrated spell of conditioning training in Gilbert's home state of California and then a week of court work at the Florida academy run by Nick Bollettieri. "This was the first time Andy and I had any off-time to work together," said Gilbert when we spoke in advance of this past week's opening event of the ATP year in Doha, where Murray reached the final only to lose 6-4 6-4 yesterday to Ivan Ljubicic, the world No 5, his second defeat in three meetings with the Croat.

"What we were really looking at was his fitness, the key thing every player needs today. When I was playing on the tour I told myself that no matter how hard I was working, somebody else had to be working harder than me. So Andy had 10 days with his conditioning trainer, Mark Grabow, in California, though he knows the improvement in fitness is not going to come overnight but through hard work and over time. It's going to take 18 months and he's going to have to put in the hard yards."

In Florida, working in perfect conditions, the 19-year-old Murray tested himself against locally resident fellow pros such as Tommy Haas, Max Mirnyi and Radek Stepanek. Then, after five days at home in Scotland over Christmas, he missed out on Hogmanay to rejoin Gilbert in Doha. This week, on Gilbert's advice, Murray will compete in the round-robin exhibition tournament at Kooyong as a warm-up for the year's first Grand Slam. "I was there a bunch of times with Andre," Gilbert added. "It's a really nice event; you are only 10 minutes from the Australian Open [location] in the same city and you get to play three guaranteed matches."

Thus will Gilbert, known as "BG" on the tour and "The Beej" to close friends, go about furthering the maturing of Murray in 2007. He refuses to predict how much higher Andy can rise in the rankings: "If you put numbers on something, everyone is going to expect too much, but my aim is for him to improve enough to make Shanghai at the end of the year." Since the Masters Cup in Shanghai features only the world's top eight, it is safe to assume this is probably Murray's goal too. Having soared from 514 to 65 in the rankings in 2004, Murray had climbed to 36th when the Lawn Tennis Association boldly appointed, and funded, Gilbert to be his coach on 26 July last year. Under The Beej, he became the only player other than Rafael Nadal to beat Roger Federer in 2006 and ended the year 17th.

"Andy is incredibly driven, he wants to do better," said Gilbert, stressing that such an improvement is virtually certain as Murray matures. "You grow up early in tennis. To be successful you have to be mature, able to handle things out there. The maturity is coming, but you have to measure it in tournaments.

"At 19, Andy is two years away from being the best player he can be. If you become too good too young you can become set in your ways, but when he's fully grown physically, he will blossom even more. He's bright, a good thinker. What is fascinating about Andy is that mentally he is unbelievably strong, and I believe it's easier to mature physically than mentally."

The mental side was also Gilbert's strongest as a player, illustrated by the statistics that someone regularly written off as a lumbering journeyman with the self-styled DRM approach ("Don't Rush Me") peaked at fourth in the world rankings, won 20 singles titles and pocketed $5 million (£2.6m) in prize money. A million dollars of this was picked up in a single week as the runner-up to Pete Sampras at the 1990 Grand Slam Cup, where Gilbert's skills at nettling the opposition resulted in David Wheaton squaring up to him in a testy semi-final.

If that was perhaps the closest ever to a punch-up on court, Gilbert's nettlesome abilities will be best remembered for driving John McEnroe into six months' retirement after Gilbert beat him in the 1986 Masters at Madison Square Garden, McEnroe storming out with the bitter comment: "You can't lose to the Brad Gilberts of this world."

Agassi considered Gilbert's qualities impressive enough to persuade him to swap playing for coaching in 1994, to the benefit of both men. In eight years with Gilbert, Agassi won six more Slams and became the world No 1 before an amicable parting.

Gilbert's next coaching assignment, with Roddick in the summer of 2003, lasted just 18 months, the split exacerbated by Gilbert's all-hours volubility and public ridiculing of Roddick's penchant for clothing oddities such as playing in an orange visor. Even so, Gilbert coached the other Andy to his first - and so far only - Grand Slam at the 2003 US Open, and lifted him to world No 1 spot too.

For someone who, according to John Lloyd, "can talk under water" and of whom Pat Cash said, "Rumour has it there was once 30 seconds when he wasn't talking, but nobody was around to see it", the way forward for Gilbert was commentating for the American sports channel ESPN - until the LTA came calling last summer. Now Gilbert is being paid £700,000 to coach the British No 1 and to inspire other youngsters of this country for eight months a year.

Having first become aware of Murray as a 17-year-old winning the US Open junior title in 2004, Gilbert took much more notice as the Scot pushed into the fourth round at his first Wimbledon in 2005, and was intrigued by the offer to coach him.

"My impression then was that he walked really slowly but moved really quickly. I thought, 'How is this guy doing all of this?' The answer was that he reads the play really well, has great eyes, changes his pace and angles, and plays with great intelligence."

The wonder is that two people of such pronounced personalities with an age difference of 26 years rub along so well. "It's a tough dynamic," says Gilbert, "because you're working, travelling and eating with the guy and that's why there's a high turnover in this business." Gilbert feels that the fact of the LTA, rather than Murray himself, being his employer is a big help.

For the moment at least, Murray is full of enthusiasm about the set-up: "Brad is probably the most positive guy that I've met. He's always on good form, never in a bad mood. I love people like that. In that respect he has helped me a lot." The two share a deep love of sports and their shared passion is for boxing. It is an analogy from the fight game which Gilbert brings to bear in his tennis: "Two enter, one leaves, it's as stark as that."

With that in mind, Gilbert is invariably a silent courtside witness in his wraparound shades, black cap and dark clothing, insisting: "I'm not a yeller or a screamer. That doesn't get you anywhere. Nor do I clap too loudly or act disgusted, because Andy is the one doing it.

"That's why I'm not going to show my emotions when Andy vents his, though I'd like to see him curtail it a little. Apart from Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, I don't know anyone who plays better when angry."

Gilbert comes closest to open despair when Murray, as he did in Doha on Wednesday, overdoes the drop shot at potentially tight moments. "He knows I'm not a big fan of the drop shot. Roddick sent me grey and the more Andy does that, the balder I'll get."

So, finally, to the thing everyone in Britain wants to know. Is Gilbert excited about the possibility of Murray winning Wimbledon this year? "I would like to think we are getting excited about the Australian Open," he countered. "England and the grass is six months away. If you start thinking about that, you start forgetting about what's upcoming. I will get excited about Wimbledon after the clay-court season. As a coach I want to think about what we are doing now.

"Andy is most comfortable on hard courts, he has had his best results there, but ultimately he is going to become a great grass- court player because there are so few of them around."

So, if the memory of Fred Perry being the last Briton to win Wimbledon in 1936 is banished by a young Scot wearing a Fred Perry shirt, you can bank on a smile from Mr Grumpy and a few words from Mr Garrulous.

Life & Times: Motor mouth to Mr Motivator

NAME: Bradley Gilbert.

BORN: 9 August 1961, Oakland, California.


VITAL STATS: 6ft 1in, 12st 7lb.

PLAYING CAREER: Turned pro: 1982. Singles titles: 20 (runner-up in 20); doubles: 3. Quarter-finalist at US Open '87, Wimbledon '90. US Davis Cup '86, '89-91. Highest world ranking, Jan '90: fourth. Bronze medallist at Seoul Olympics '88.

COACHING CAREER: Andre Agassi '94-2002; No 1 in rankings in '94; six Grand Slams - Open era's joint most successful partnership (along with Tony Roche and Ivan Lendl). Andy Roddick '03-04; No 1 in rankings in '03, winning US Open. Andy Murray and LTA junior programmes since July '06. Author of Winning Ugly.

AND ANOTHER THING: Sister Dana played on women's tour.