Tennis: Henman's park and ride team

Coach Felgate: 'I know it sounds corny but the stick he and I have come in for has brought us closer'
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The Independent Online
ONLY one man would have been more relieved than Tim Henman at the signs of recovery spotted quite appropriately amid the first daffodils of spring in Battersea Park. The coach, like the football manager, is a ready lightning conductor. The player wins, the coach loses. If David Felgate did not understand the coach's epitaph before, he will do now at the end of a desperate month. "Suddenly you're a good player again," Felgate told Henman after his three-set victory over Richard Krajicek in the first round of the Guardian Direct Cup last week. "But don't ever forget what you've gone through."

It is unlikely Felgate will. Each ricocheting defeat has exposed a hitherto smooth relationship to unprecedented strain. "I know it sounds corny," Felgate says, "but the stick he and I have come in for has brought us closer, made us tighter." Either that or the bullet. When a player starts looking for excuses, the coach is usually the first in the firing line. For the first time in his five-year professional partnership with Felgate, the British No 2 had to combat speculation about a change of coach, which he did with conviction and humour. If the coach was taking all the flak for his bad tennis, that was fine by him, Henman said. But he would take responsibility himself for losing, just as he did for winning, thank you very much.

Only boxing has a greater capacity than tennis for souring relationships. Money undermines the essential trust between player and coach; the attention span for failure shortens with each successive generation. "The coach has to be totally committed to what he is doing," Tony Pickard says. "All his energies have to be channelled into making his player better. But what happens is that a coach sees opportunities to do other things and make a bit more money and he starts being sidetracked. That's more of a danger today than it was 10 years ago."

Pickard, who now coaches Greg Rusedski, developed a bond with Stefan Edberg which acts as a blueprint for survival. "We never set down any rules and regulations," Pickard says. "We travelled together and were committed to doing a job. The great strength of our relationship was that we trusted one another. We discussed everything right down to his press and television appearances. I always went to his press conferences because it was important he said the right things. We had the balance right from the start. We could get down to business and then switch business off straightaway and be pals again. If that meant I had to listen to Tina Turner, I'd do it. It was a matter of give and take. We never really changed our approach in 12 years."

Part of the coach's skill is to recognise the changes in his player and make the appropriate compromise. Even the trivial matter of eating out can be a source of tension when the player decides he wants to snap the umbilical cord and eat dinner with someone other than his coach every evening. At the Australian Open in 1987, a defeat by Wally Masur triggered the end of the seemingly unbreakable bond between Boris Becker and Gunther Bosch. Bosch's dictatorial methods no longer suited Becker, who said that he did not want a coach 24 hours a day. "I only saw that from the outside," Pickard recalls. "But that was emotional. Gunther was not prepared to bend and Boris wanted to show who was boss." Becker moved to Bob Brett, then dispensed with a coach altogether and employed a series of hitting partners. "I think I know all there is to know about my game now," he would say.

When Felgate first coached Henman, he was just one of four players in the junior Lawn Tennis Association squad. "The attitude was slightly dictatorial," Felgate recalls. "It was a case of like it or lump it." The roles of employer and employee are more delicate. "When a coach is being paid by a player, there is a tendency for the coach to say what the player wants to hear," Felgate says. "But I've never shied away from telling the truth. At times, I won't say too much. Sometimes, if he's lost, nothing needs to be said at all. Coaching in any sport is about timing, when to speak and what to say.

"Tim's matured now. He's not the same guy he was when he was 20. He's got his own house and he's in a nice relationship. It's not something a coach plans for, but you adapt to it. He goes and has dinner with someone else, if he wants to. So do I. Sometimes before a match I'll say nothing more than 'good luck' because he's a big boy now and he can take care of himself. I saw my role described as like a 'big brother'. That made me sick. That's not my role at all. But I'm there if he wants to talk to me." As he was after Henman's eventual exit in the third round.

No two players demand the same from their coach. Bjorn Borg had a conventional coaching relationship with Lenhard Bergelin. John McEnroe often travelled alone, sorting out his own problems. The modern trend is away from technical coaching and towards companionship. "The role of the coach has changed," Pickard says. "When I started I had to know about everything - fitness, rackets, shoes, injuries, tactics. Now there are specialists to do all that, so the coach doesn't have to bother too much."

Pat Rafter travels with an old friend; Goran Ivanisevic has dispensed with Brett and employed a friend from his days at Split tennis club. Paul Annacone does not tell Pete Sampras how to play. "It's nice when you have been around a while to have an eye on the outside looking in," explains Cedric Pioline. "Someone who can set you new goals or look at your technique and attitude because sometimes you don't feel like practising." Felgate believes that coaching comes first and friendship second. "I wouldn't be doing this if I was just a mate."

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