Tennis: Felgate the fall guy for the nation

COUNTDOWN TO WIMBLEDON: Tim Henman's success has turned life upside down for his coach, as he tells John Roberts
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The Independent Online
When the nation expects, heaven help anybody who fails to deliver. Not long ago that dictum scarcely applied to tennis, chiefly because the nation had forgotten what it was supposed to be expecting. A memo was issued once a year along with a list of the British wild card entries for Wimbledon.

The advent of Tim Henman has changed the perception. The nation probably expects too much of the young man from Oxford, who has become one of the world's top 20 players since advancing to the quarter-finals at the All England Club last year.

Accordingly, Henman's coach, David Felgate, has acquired guru status. Although not quite elevated to the win-or-bust prominence of a national football manager or coach, he does carry a weight of responsibility. While Felgate is unlikely to be depicted as a turnip, a strawberry cannot be ruled out.

"Pressure," the 33-year-old Felgate says, savouring the word. "That's the fun part, isn't it. I'm quite happy to take all the success with Tim, but if things go badly I know... well, not that my head's on the block, because Tim and I have a good relationship, but you [media] guys, or whatever, are going to say things. And that's fine, because that's what drives me on, personally.

"If Tim starts losing, they'll all want to know why. And they'll look at Tim first. And then is it me? Or then, is he spending too much time for his contracts? All of those things. The most important thing is Tim and I know where we're headed and the reasons behind it. We're honest with each other."

Two particular memories of Felgate are called to mind, the first from his time as a player, the second when he was a budding coach.

The opening day at Wimbledon in 1988 saw 20 aces from Boris Becker against Australia's John Frawley and a service return from the German which struck the netcord judge, Rachael Boley, in the ribs. Becker chivalrously tended to her.

Felgate, meanwhile, was aced 20 times on Court No 1 while playing his first, and last, match in the Wimbledon singles. The British No 9 from Essex was defeated by Ivan Lendl, runner-up for the previous two years, 6-4, 6-1, 6-3, in 83 minutes.

Par for the course for a Brit with a wild card? "Yes, it was," Felgate says. "I don't look back on my career, or indeed that particular occasion, with any great delight, to be really honest.

"You sit in a pub with somebody. `What did you do?' `Well, I played professional tennis'. `Did you ever play Wimbledon?' `Yes, I played Wimbledon, played the Australian Open, where I qualified on merit, played the top 100 in doubles'.

"So I did achieve. If you put it in the context of professional footballers, there's 200 players in the First Division alone, aren't there. So there's a chance I might have been on a squad there, or played in the Second Division or something.

"I was an athlete, a sportsman. But I don't look back. I'm a coach now. And they have no bearing on each other in a lot of ways. I mean, I learnt a lot from it, and I was always interested in coaching.

"Yes, it was par for the course, and I can get angry a little bit when I look back on it, because I was so ill-prepared, in my opinion. I wouldn't lay blame with the LTA [Lawn Tennis Association]. Everybody was doing the best they knew how at the time, I think, for everybody concerned. But I was so ill-prepared, not just for that occasion, but things in general. And we didn't view ourselves confidently enough. I only realise it now. I didn't view myself negatively at the time.

"I went out there [to play Lendl] believing that I could win that day. I know I did, because I know my feelings. I said, `Well, if you're ever going to get him, it's first round'. But there wasn't the real conviction. And I don't think people around me, the coaches, really believed I could, so nobody's really instilling it in you. Whereas I think that the group who will be out to play at Wimbledon this year, no matter who they play, will have the coaches around them wholeheartedly believing, `Hey, we've got a shot!'

"Let's not forget that Jeremy [Bates] had three or four pretty good years at the end his career, so he was always the standard bearer, and Mark [Petchey] has dabbled with the top 100 for a little bit.

"It was Greg [Rusedski] and Tim who gave us a feelgood factor. People might say, `Yes, but take those two away...' But you can't take them away. It's like saying take Becker and Stich away from Germany. It's a stupid argument."

While Felgate was developing his coaching career with the LTA at Bisham Abbey, he would take the opportunity to watch England's footballers train there. It was around that time that Graham Taylor's reign as the national team manager was beginning to show signs of stress.

"You can learn from every sport," Felgate, a keen Arsenal supporter, says. "I like to watch how they go about it. I watch the tactics, I watch people's skills. And I watch the interaction. That's fascinating. You read in the papers that X doesn't get along with Y. I say to myself, `Does he not? Well, that's interesting', and take a look for myself."

His view of those England sessions? "I suppose what struck me was they weren't as advanced as I thought they would be. And being from a sport where personal trainers were coming in, and diets are taken very seriously, I thought, `God, this is very basic'. You only read about it, but maybe things have moved on."

Did he imagine that his coaching would take on such a high profile? "I dreamt of it, and was working towards it. I knew that if I was going to stay in coaching I wanted to be on the international tour, which is no disrespect to the coaches who work with some of the youngsters. I knew where I wanted to be and where I could be best used. It comes back to my view that the tour is not just about how you hit your forehand or how you hit your backhand."

Stefan Edberg's long and fruitful association with Tony Pickard, from Nottingham, is a good example of the blending of technical and psychological skills.

"Exactly," Felgate says. "It's quite amusing sometimes to watch matches and a few of you [media] guys around say, `His serve let him down today, didn't it?' And I'm just going to go along with, `Yeah, it did, didn't it.' But I know it had nothing to do with that. I know it's something internal. That's something you develop. You can't force it. That's why some coaching relationships don't work on the tour.

"It's important, for example, to know when to say what in certain situations, at certain times and in certain moods within a tournament. There are times when I might want to analyse something, but he's got a match the next day, and he's still won, and I think to myself, `David, just shut up. Just get him built up for tomorrow'."

Has it become increasingly difficult to rationalise the external demands created by Henman's progress? "That's what you play for," Felgate says. "You know if you're going to be good, you're going to have fame. It's a little bit irritating when sportsmen say, `Oh, I didn't know all this was going to go with it', or `I don't like the limelight'. Well, don't play it. Play for fun, if you want to, because in the world of sport today, if you're successful, that's what goes with it.

"Everybody wants more [of Tim's time], which is fine, which is understandable. What makes us laugh is that you almost sense with the British that a player could win the other three Grand Slams in a year and they would say, `But he didn't win Wimbledon'. It's like unless you win the sacred crock, it doesn't matter. That is wrong.

"It all comes back to, `But can he win Wimbledon? Will he win Wimbledon? When will he win Wimbledon?' It should be about enjoying everything else that's going on [in tennis], and if he does it, great.

"It's getting blown out of proportion, and that's fine, because it's not worrying me or Tim. He's a known entity now, so, yes, his odds will be a lot shorter than they were last year. If people would talk about it in terms of his career - has he got a chance in his career to do it? - for me that's acceptable. The build-up to this year is a little bit silly."

Felgate endeavours to make light of talk that Henman will eventually outgrow his coach and be persuaded to seek guidance elsewhere.

"I used to get upset by it, but it makes me laugh, because the people who make those comments are not very factual. What was Tony Pickard before he met Stefan Edberg? Had he ever been a great player? Had he ever coached anybody? Bob Brett? He was never even a player. Who did Tim Gullikson coach before he coached Sampras? Who did Annacone coach before he coached Sampras. Who did Higueras coach before he coached Courier?"

Who coaches Michael Chang?

"His brother."

Who coached Chang before his brother?

"His father. We most probably could go through them all...

"The comments that hurt most, that irritate me, are when they are very close to home - ex-players of a bygone era at home. `Oh, Tim's got to get rid of him', or `I'd go out and see who the best coach is out there'. All that makes you realise these people haven't a clue about the game of tennis. They're legends in their own minds, I'm afraid to say.

"I'm sure we'll get it around Wimbledon. Somebody will say, `I always knew Tim was going to be a champion'. They didn't know diddly. They just didn't. Because if they did they should have stood up when he was 14 or 15 and told you all. And nobody did.

"When I first started with Tim, I suppose a place in the top 100 was a goal for the players. We didn't have many there. But I didn't know, and he didn't know, whether he was going to be good, bad or indifferent. It was just a case of, `Let's go to work each day and do what it takes to be a professional'. And, honestly, that's all we've done, and the ball started rolling."

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