Martinez means business

while the power of positive thinking is helping to stretch the reign of a once reluctant women's champion; Stan Hey talks to the Brazilian guru grooming a Spaniard for greatness
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The Independent Online
HOW do you improve a reigning Wimbledon champion? It may sound like one of those American management books, but it was the real challenge that faced the Brazilian coach Carlos Kirmayr in March of this year when he agreed to take on the 1994 Wimbledon women's singles champion, Conchita Martinez.

To the outsider it must have seemed like a no-win situation for Kirmayr, but Martinez's victory here last summer had been followed by an autumn of comparative failure on the court - she lost in the third round of the US Open - and a winter of personal acrimony with her business advisers, and her previous long-term coach, Erik Van Harpen.

In February, she finally split from the domineering Dutchman who had "discovered" her at a junior tournament in Le Touquet in 1987, and then coached her intensely at his tennis academy in Switzerland. So there was, as the racehorse trainers say, "plenty to work on" for Kirmayr when he took over. "Coaching a Wimbledon champion is not a problem in itself because, obviously, all the technique is already there," Kirmayr told me on Friday, immediately after his client had eased into the last 16 with a 6-1 6-1 victory over the tall and athletic American Shaun Stafford.

Standing in the shade of the Centre Court stand - a necessary refuge, even for a Brazilian - Kirmayr outlined the work he has put in since March, which has already delivered remarkable results.

"Conchie" - as he calls her affectionately - has won four tournaments in succession on the Women's Tennis Association tour. Victories over Manuela Maleeva and Gabriela Sabatini clinched the Hilton Head and Amelia Island tournaments in America. At Hamburg, she brushed aside the challenge of the tennis prodigy Martina Hingis 6-1 6-0 in the final and then, sweetest of all, defeated her compatriot Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the final of the Italian Open.

The run of 26 victories - which included two for Spain in the Federation Cup - was finally ended last month by Steffi Graf in the semi-final of the French Open. If Kirmayr is on a winning bonus system he must be a rich man by now. He laughs at the thought. "Conchie's success has simply been a case of me reminding her that as a champion she must defend her title, and go on to accomplish even more things." This suggests, though Kirmayr won't admit it, that the tennis circuit's perception of Martinez as a sometime reluctant trier might have had some truth in it. One of Martinez's former aides, Miguel Mir, said in 1991: "She lacks ambition. If she plays good for five or six weeks a year, she's satisfied. For Conchita, working very hard is impossible."

Her present form, however, would seem to consign this notion to the tramlines for good, but it is true that Martinez did not get enough recognition for her victory over Martina Navratilova last year. It was passed off as a fluke at best, and as a mirthless exploitation of a clapped-out champion at worst. The public's underwhelming response was matched by that of potential sponsors, and by the end of last year Martinez had virtually no big endorsements, an astonishing situation for a Wimbledon champion.

But the changes in business management which turned this neglect around are now being matched by Carlos Kirmayr's work on the practice courts and in the one-to-one consultations - Martinez is his only client - about her mental attitude. "I sense a new enthusiasm in her," said the Brazilian, who was a decent singles player in his own right in the 1970s. "She had a lot of turmoil over the winter but she has put all that behind her now. She is starting to take control of her life."

This rite of passage, from the production-line school of coaching to the more free-range style which Kirmayr exemplifies, seems to suit Martinez and her close friend, the American player Gigi Fernandez. In the nonstop road show which tennis has now become, tensions in any entourage usually find their way out in disappointing play on court.

During Friday's match against Stafford, Martinez constantly looked to the stands between games to where Kirmayr and Fernandez were sitting. And with little nods of reassurance, hand gestures and the occasional cry of "Vamos!", Kirmayr gently coaxed concentration and urgency into Martinez's game.

I asked him if he liked the idea, permitted in Davis Cup ties, of a coach being allowed to talk to his player between change-overs. Kirmayr nodded enthusiastically. "It would be great. A lot of coaches want it. We think it would improve the level of play if you can point out mistakes while they are happening, rather than after they've happened. We see things from the outside that the players can only feel."

This change may yet come, given the fact that virtually every player in the world rankings now carries a Madonna-sized caravan of advisers and gurus around with them. Much has been written about the ludicrous growth in the number of coaches the circuit has spawned with the critics suggesting that, as in other walks of life such as the National Health Service and the media, there now appear to be too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

But what they fail to appreciate is the sheer isolation a player must feel as the tennis circus rolls from town to town and hotel to hotel. With relationships distorted by separation or neglect it's no wonder that a culture of dependency on coaches is generated, and there are undoubtedly a fair number of zealots among them.

"Erik Van Harpen was controlling my life," Martinez has said. "It got too much; our relationship became suffocating."

Now when Martinez looks to Kirmayr in the stand and receives a smile or a nod of encouragement, she also gets something that no coaching manual could possibly deliver. It's the feeling that somebody cares. In the meantime Conchita and Carlos will prepare for tomorrow's fourth-round tie against the Dutch player Petra Kamstra. Beyond that lies the prospect of a quarter- final of some piquancy against Sabatini, whom Kirmayr coached for several years, including her only Grand Slam title in the US Open in 1990, before moving on.

"Obviously, we know exactly how to play Gabi if it comes to it," Kirmayr said, lifting his Ray-Bans on to his forehead for a moment of reflection, but he acknowledged that, against Stafford, some of Martinez's first serves and her usually formidable backhand returns were not as sharp as they needed to be. He clamped a fist into an open palm, in a rare gesture of animation.

During the match, only a full-blooded drive-volley from Martinez had drawn Kirmayr to his feet. The rest of the match was just sign language. But one shouldn't measure their relationship merely on the level of histrionics, or on the rare number of sorties Martinez is encouraged to make from her baseline retreat. Kirmayr says he has not changed the way she plays, but simply the way she thinks about playing.

More importantly, he has reminded her of the pride involved in defending her Wimbledon championship. Too many players - Sabatini included - promise a great deal more than they actually deliver to posterity. At just 23 years of age Conchita Martinez still has the potential to become a great Wimbledon champion but to do that, as Kirmayr emphasises, "she must win it again".

With Carlos Kirmayr in the background, the odds on a repeat victory are reducing by the hour.