Tennis: Why Pickard is prize pick

Andrew Baker meets the man aiming to give England's No1 the winning edge; Coaches with horsepower: Britain's No1 gains from the Edberg experience as a Tour hero takes a new turn
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Newark, in Nottinghamshire, is not a glamorous town. There is a whiff of agriculture in the air and all the talk is of the new Waitrose superstore, where baked beans are said to retail at a scandalous 52p a tin, compared to 9p at Kwiksave and 7p at Aldi. There is a sugar refinery here, and a plant making pumps. There is also, incongruously, a man who makes tennis players. A short drive past the factories brings you to the handsome residence of Tony Pickard, mentor and motivator to Stefan Edberg, Petr Korda and, most recently, Greg Rusedski.

There is scaffolding all over the exterior, and bare boards in many of the rooms inside: subsidence, the curse of an ex- mining area. But in the cosy velvet-draped sitting-room, all is normal. Pickard, in a smart blazer and club tie, took his customary spot on the sofa opposite the giant television and explained how he came to link up with Rusedski.

"The big thing was that he asked me if I would help," he said. "It was quite out of the blue. We met for two and a half hours in London, and discussed how the relationship might be. And I thought, judged and decided that I would say 'OK'." Tony Pickard is not a spur-of-the- moment sort of man.

Domicile apart, he is a far from typical coach. He is middle-aged, grey- haired and instead of a Floridian perma-tan he has a healthily ruddy complexion that speaks of several hours a week in pursuit of a golf ball. But his tennis credentials are impeccable. Under Pickard's guidance Edberg became the most elegant and arguably the most effective player of his day, winning six Grand Slam titles and an enviable reputation for fair play. Pickard got as close as anyone has to extracting the best from the mercurial and injury-prone Korda. Now he will attempt to take Rusedski further into unknown territory for a British player.

"They are three totally different characters," Pickard reflected. "Edberg was an introvert, but once on a tennis court he was the finest athlete of his time. One could nurture, push and shove that talent into becoming the best player in the world. Korda has more talent in his little finger than most players in the world have in their entire bodies. But tragically he has not been able to harness that talent for more than six months at a time. Rusedski has enormous talent in his serve, and he has the appetite to be successful. He is a bit of an extrovert but right now he has the capacity to take on board what you furnish him with - and that is tremendously satisfying."

Pickard's former charges remain close to him. He speaks to Edberg at least twice a week, and Korda more often. "He's always going to be my second father," the Czech said in Basle last week. "I truly believe that if I ever need any advice I'll always be able to ask him - whoever he coaches, we're going to stay best pals."

The new relationship has got off to a flying start. Rusedski used Pickard's tactical advice to defeat the world No 4, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, in the Grand Slam Cup in Munich and after the match he was straight on the phone to his new coach, telling him: "God, that made a difference." Last week in Basle, Pickard's advice helped him to a semi-final against, of all people, Korda. "He's watching all my matches on TV and so far his advice has been spot on," Rusedski enthused. "I think it's the start of a great relationship."

Pickard is swift to applaud the achievements of his predecessor, Brian Teacher. "Teacher did an unbelievable job," he said. "He improved the young man's technique and groundstrokes. Rusedski's game has improved out of all recognition in recent months."

But Pickard refuted any suggestion that unlike Teacher he would be an arm's-length coach. "It's true that I have been watching Greg's games in Basle on television," he said. "But I intend to travel with him as often as possible. He is at a level where his playing life has to change dramatically. Every step upwards from No 10 in the world is a very big step indeed."

Pickard refers to his new employer as "the young man" in a manner reminiscent of his friend Brian Clough. And he was never once heard to refer to Edberg as "Stefan". But he sees no reason for a coach to be a softie. "I'm a hard taskmaster," Pickard admitted. "That young man is going to have to work harder than he ever has before."

As a former Davis Cup player and captain Pickard would be excused a flicker of patriotic pride at taking charge of the British No 1. But that did not come into it. "I like the young man," he said. "And I like his attitude. I've always said that if someone came along who set fire to me, it wouldn't matter to me if he was from Istanbul."