Wimbledon's off-court winners
When Andre Agassi wanted to save his career, he turned to Brad Gilbert. Now, like every other contender this week, he'd be lost without his guru. By Bud Collins
Monday 26 June 1995
The No 1 seed could not do it without them, as virtually every tennis player will tell you about his or her own handlers, cornermen, hand-holders and gofers who writhe in empathetic angst and clamour for victory from their bunker. Becker has Nick Bollettieri, Conchita Martinez has Carlos Kirmayr and Martina Hingis has her mother, Melanie Zogg-Hingis. This is the way of the tennis universe, particularly at the fountainhead, Wimbledon, where soothsayers and swamis abound for all needs and deeds - bodily, mental and technical.
It is not a requirement that a guru be able to play and teach tennis. Brad Gilbert can do both, though he laughs at the thought of increasing Agassi's armament. "I saw long ago that nobody could hit the ball with Andre," Gilbert says, "but he wasn't getting enough from what he did. You have to be able to win when you're playing bad, not overwhelming the other guy with sheer talent, which Andre depended on."
In Gilbert's view it's called Winning Ugly, the title of a book he just happens to have written. Gilbert won a bronze medal for tennis at the 1988 Olympics - a surprise Olympian, who was admitted thanks to Agassi declining a place in the US team. He won a lot of other matches and money that seemed beyond the reach of his gifts.
"Brad was winning matches over better guys who shoulda beaten him," Agassi says. "I was losing matches to guys I shoulda beat. I needed a coach who'd been out there on the court, doing it" [a backhand at Andre's boyhood mentor, Bollettieri, who appears to prefer playing golf to tennis], "and Brad was the guy. For the first time I was intellectualising about the game."
However taken he is with Gilbert, who has him thinking about the other players' games, Andre makes it plain that it's the troika of Gilbert, Reyes - who built Agassi a gym at his Las Vegas home - and Shields that accounts for his "believing in myself". Like Agassi with Bollettieri, Conchita Martinez - Wimbledon winner in 1994 and No 3 seed this year - had been with Dutch coach Erik van Harpen since adolescence, for "what seems all my life". She decided to lose him recently, as Agassi did with Bollettieri, and knew that peppery little Carlos Kirmayr was at large, a guru-for-hire. Theirs was a "great" confluence of talents, she says. "Carlos makes me feel good, and when I do, I am my best. It just works. He has me working harder, going to the net more."
Kirmayr, a playful little guy not bothered, as Van Harpen was, by Conchita's tight friendship with fellow player Gigi Fernandez, says, "I could sense and see her change in attitude the first tournament we were together." It was their defining match, at Hilton Head, South Carolina, in March. Martinez was lagging behind Iva Majoli, 6-3, 3-0. "At the changeover I slipped behind Conchita's chair and whispered to her," Kirmayr recalls. "I said Majoli was playing so well, hitting so many lines there wasn't much she could do: 'If she keeps it up, you probably lose. That doesn't matter. Just keep trying, maybe she'll cool off'."
Conchita smiles when she remembers this. "All of a sudden I was fighting. My attitude got better. It was a career win." Carlos and Conchita are almost unbeaten, their six-tournament run marred only by a close semi- final loss to champ Steffi Graf at the French Open.
As recently as 20 years ago gurus were nowhere to be seen and rugged individualism was pretty much the rule. Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King - who as US Federation Cup captain and assistant to Martina Navratilova now holds a guru licence herself - carried their own bags (and whatever psychic baggage) and figured out how to win Wimbledon on their own. Chris Evert's mum showed up in 1976 to provide championship home-cooking and iron the dresses, but it was also in 1976 that the most successful of male Wimbledon runs began beneath the plimsolled Swedish feet of Bjorn Borg, no loner he. Accompanied by preceptor-trainer Lennart Bergelin, and wife-for-a-time-to-be Mariana Simonescu, Bjorn did the upscale swatting, they the urgent sweating with eye contact. Voila: five straight titles.
Since Borg's day almost nobody has felt secure enough to go out of the house alone. John McEnroe was an exception. But since Junior's press conferences were such rapids-running streams of consciousness and mea culpaism - he should have paid reporters the customary Freudian fee to listen - the thrice king apparently felt no need to employ a confessor, sports psychologist or any other crutch.
It was Martina Navratilova, self-orphaned by her defection to the US, who made guruism a pluralistic enterprise. "She lost her family when she left Czechoslovakia," says the most recent steadying influence, Billie Jean King. "So she rounded up a new one to meet various needs. But she's become much more self-reliant."
As a public service, Martina's crowd of gurus should have worn names and numbers like an American basketball team. Coaches, trainers, sparring partners, dietitians, doctors, dog-walkers, physios, office help, soulmates came and went. Among them were a famous novelist (Rita Mae Brown), a famous golfer (Sandra Haynie), a famous trans-sexual (Renee Richards). Haynie, in vogue for the first of Martina's nine Wimbledon titles in 1978, "taught me professionalism"; Richards was a strategist, Brown presumably in charge of reading lists.
The guru of all gurus was Ion Tiriac, nicknamed Count Dracula, whose malevolent Romanian visage radiated inspirational brainwaves at such acolytes as Ilie Nastase, Guillermo Vilas and a rosy-cheeked Boris Becker. Tiriac spoke in the first-person argot of a prizefighter's manager. In 1977, lamenting the plight of his tiger, Vilas, he growled, "I win the French and US Opens ... I win a record 50 straight matches ... and still they don't make me No. 1. What more can I do?"
Not much, because Tiriac was the transcendent all-purpose guru whose like hasn't been seen before or since: agent-coach-manager-sparmate-battle planner-defender-witch doctor. When he and the great female counterpart, Gloria Connors, mother of Jimmy, shot evil eyes like heat-seeking missiles at each other during the 1977 US Open final, it seemed Forest Hills would explode. Instead, Vilas took away Connors' title. Ion waited eight more years to win another major, his first Wimbledon, in the person of his 17-year-old find, Becker, from whom he parted some time ago.
Tiriac's heart still beats for tennis - Goran Ivanisevic is his disciple and he runs circuit tournaments in Italy and Germany - but now he spends most time involved with his banking, car rental and other entrepreneurial interests. Gurus who aren't just surrogate parents but the real thing can be "troublesome", says American sports psychologist Jim Loehr, who specialises in tennis. "We've seen a lot of that lately, usually overbearing fathers - Stefano Capriati and Jim Pierce, to name a couple. A parent has to provide love and support, but when he becomes the coach, too, there's the danger of his ego getting confused with the child's results, and his getting carried away in the glitzily dangerous world of pro tennis."
Ma Connors made her presence known on the circuit, waking the All England Club with her cries of "Come on, Jimbo!". Now there is another power mum: Ma Zogg-Hingis, ambitious parent of 14-year-old Martina, whom she's groomed from the cradle for stardom, naming her, of course, after Navratilova. The former Melanie Hingis left first husband and her Czech homeland for a more favourable domestic and tennis situation in Switzerland. Her moves have paid off fabulously, at least in terms of money.
Hingis's first-round opponent at Wimbledon, Steffi Graf, who was thrown into the depths of pro tennis at 13 by her ambitious father, seems to have matured well, nicely outgrowing his reach and the neural bruises inflicted by his escapades. Peter Graf, who tried to punch an adherent of Monica Seles at the French Open five years ago, is seldom seen today and acts calmer when he is. To go with Steffi's independent air she employs the gentlemanly Swiss Heinz Gunthardt, one-time Wimbledon doubles ruler, for scrimmaging and scouting.
What worries players is the thought that the guru-ing might stop. Carlos Kirmayr, a quick-fixer, took over a lackadaisical Gaby Sabatini in the summer of 1990 and soon drove her to the US Open title. That guru-ing wore out after a while. As all do.
Pete Sampras worries that his has. His missing man, big-brotherly coach Tim Gullikson, fights a brain tumour at home, and Pete, agonisingly concerned, has declined as a player since becoming aware of his friend's plight six months ago. "Pete has to work this out on his own," says Tom Gullikson, Tim's twin. "The best encouragement he can give Tim is to play well again."
On his own? No guru likes to hear that.
1. The Agassi Troika Blend of new-found stablemates - Brad Gilbert, Gil Reyes, Brooke Shields - has worked wonders for Andre over the past 10 months: ascent from No 30 to No 1, US and Australian titles.
2. Nick Bollettieri Housemother at his Florida academy to vast array of luminaries, currently Mary Pierce and Becker. Has claim to early success of Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Agassi.
3. Dr Pete Fischer and Tim Gullikson California paediatrician Fischer applied starting touches to Pete Sampras; the finishing coats to Gullikson.
4. Carlos Kirmayr The Brazilian ladies' man turned Gabriela Sabatini around (to the US title in 1990), and is now reconstructing Conchita Martinez with markedly fast results, winning their first five tournaments in tandum.
5. The Chang Gang A closed mom-and-pop corporation steer their boy Michael. Betty taught him to play, Joe refined his game and brother Carl is his present coach.
6. John Wilkerson Gentle, astute Texan who chaperoned the improbable rise of Zina Garrison-Jackson and Lori McNeil from difficult Houston neighbourhood to worldwide renown and riches.
7. Yulia Berberian Mother of the incredible Maleeva sisters, Manuela, Katerina and Maggie, who have all been in the world top ten, earning enough to buy their hometown, Sofia.
8. Jose Higueras Low-key Spanish expatriate coaching in California. Directed most extraordinary of all triumphs - 17-year-old Chang's at 1989 French. Also Courier's two Australian and French victories.
9. Gabriel Urpi and Roland Garros Spanish coach and Yorkshire terrier respectively of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. Gabriel steered her to No 1 in 1994; Roland may be reason she bombs at Wimbledon, as quarantine laws keep him out.
10. Ian Hamilton Front man for Nike who assured Agassi, Courier, Sampras and Pierce's peace of mind with millions for their duties as clothes horses.
Aces high: the all-time top ten gurus of tennis
1. Ion (Count Dracula) Tiriac Called himself, accurately, the "best tennis player in the world who can't play tennis". Nurtured younger Ilie Nastase, piloted Guillermo Vilas to Hall of Fame, discovered Becker. Won 10 major titles with them.
2. Charles Lenglen The first big daddy: drove his daughter, Suzanne, to stardom, helping to create present Wimbledon, built in 1922 because crowds were desperate to see her.
3. Harry Hopman Godfather of Australian Mafia 1950-68, when his Down Underlings (Hoad, Rosewall, Laver, Roche, Stolle, Newcombe) ruled the world. Most successful ever Davis Cup captain (16 wins).
4. Ma Connors Raised offspring Jimmy to win eight major titles (Wimbledon 1974 and 1982) and advised him in all affairs.
5. Team Navratilova Back-up band through the years was never accurately censored, but Martina profited from contact with most, including Mike Estep, Renee Richards, Billie Jean King, Judy Nelson et al.
6. Lennart Bergelin and Mariana Simonescu Kept Borg's spirits and loopy strokes high enough to win five straight Wimbledons, 1976-1980.
7. Dr Walter Johnson Black Virginian physician; patron and early coach to both Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, the only blacks to win Wimbledon.
8. Thomas Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury. Counselled and comforted the heavyweight champ of Hampton Court, Henry VIII.
9. Perry Jones Tsar of Southern California Tennis Association, 1930s- 60s; made that area the tennis vineyard, nurturing Riggs, Kramer, Connolly, Billie Jean King, Stan Smith.
10. Eleanor ("Teach") Tennant Californian martinet who developed two of the greatest, Alice Marble and Maureen Connolly. Would be called a control freak today.
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