Brad Gilbert: Mr Motivator finds his niche calling the shots for champions

Click to follow
The Independent Online

As a player, Andy Roddick's coach, Brad Gilbert, only once reached the last eight at Wimbledon. His quarter-final opponent was Boris Becker. "We were supposed to play on Centre Court and I was so pumped, but it rained all day and at seven o'clock we were put on the graveyard court [No 2 Court]. He kicked my ass."

As a player, Andy Roddick's coach, Brad Gilbert, only once reached the last eight at Wimbledon. His quarter-final opponent was Boris Becker. "We were supposed to play on Centre Court and I was so pumped, but it rained all day and at seven o'clock we were put on the graveyard court [No 2 Court]. He kicked my ass."

Nevertheless, Gilbert knows how the men's singles title at Wimbledon can be won, and on the players' terrace at the All-England Club, he lets me into the secret. It is not, disappointingly, much of a secret. Tomorrow's victor in the final "has to find a way to win three sets. That's the great thing about these majors. Seven times you've got to find a way of winning three sets. It's all about winning 21 sets."

There are some tennis coaches who all but ensure that their man knows the laws of Brownian Motion before he steps out on court. Gilbert is not one of them. He likes to keep things simple, and never gets angry with his guy after a match, even if it has gone horribly wrong. "If he's upset and I'm upset, we're two guys upset," he says. Whatever it was that got Gilbert where he is today, it wasn't over-analysis.

Where he is today is at the summit of the coaching profession. Before he hired Gilbert, Roddick had a 70 per cent success rate; with Gilbert in his camp it was 85 per cent, and the 85 per cent included the US Open title, which he defends next month. On grass, the improvement was even starker. Before Gilbert, 64 per cent. After Gilbert, 95 per cent.

It is 13 months since Roddick called Gilbert to ask if he would consider coaching him. Since Gilbert had split, amicably, with his previous charge Andre Agassi, he had been catching up on some time at home in San Francisco - time that was rather overdue after 20-odd years on the road.

"I felt I'd been kind of selfish to my wife and kids, so although a bunch of people had asked me to coach them, I preferred to take some time out and wait for the right situation. When Andy called, that was the right situation. He was in London, and he called at around midday on a Saturday. I was on the 2.40pm flight to London the following day. We rapped a little bit when I arrived, had a little bite to eat, then I said, 'See you tomorrow,' and the next day we had our first practice, which went really well. Things pretty much clicked right away; we both talk a lot, we both love sports."

He's not kidding about talking a lot. Gilbert hardly ever stops. Three months ago, watching Roddick playing in the US Clay Court Championships in Houston, Texas, he was seated next to former President Bush and his wife Barbara. According to someone who was there, the Bushes manifestly wanted just to enjoy the tennis. But Gilbert wouldn't stop chattering.

And here on the terrace he is similarly loquacious, at one point holding a conversation with me and three passers-by simultaneously. When finally I see an opportunity to slip in a question, I ask him whether he knew Roddick before the call arrived?

"Not really. He'd been the only practice partner at the Davis Cup in 2000 and they worked him like a dog. He was having to hit with Andre and Pete [Sampras] every day, and I could see then that the kid had a lot of talent. So I followed his game a little when I was off for those 16 months, and I was hoping he'd be the one to call. He was the one who interested me the most, because he was young, impressionable and American. He was the one I wanted to work with."

With Agassi, Gilbert had already worked wonders, in 1994 guiding him from No 32 in the world to No 1. He and Agassi stayed together for eight more years, during which time the Las Vegan won six Grand Slams. I ask Gilbert what Agassi and Roddick have in common.

"They are both good people persons," he says. "They have infectious personalities, they're gregarious. Andre had already been on tour for eight years when I started with him, whereas Andy has a little more youthful exuberance. They both have an unbelievably intense will to win, but Andy is a little more 24-7 on. Even when he's relaxing, he likes to be crushing somebody on Game Boy, or playing basketball.

"Andre has the same intensity on court, but off court he's a little more laid back. It's my job to understand that. The key to coaching is that I need to adjust to them, not expect them to adjust to me. I have to look through their eyes. There's no point in me even thinking what a player Andy would be if he had Andre's groundstrokes, or how good Andre would be if he had Andy's serve. You have to work with what you've got."

The world of sport is full of great coaches who weren't great players, Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson to name only two. Ditto Gilbert, although he had one characteristic as a player that has served him brilliantly as a coach, the ability to maximise his potential. Despite an indifferent backhand and a weak second serve, he briefly rose to fourth in the world rankings. Famously, at least famously in tennis circles, John McEnroe quit the game for six months in 1986, because he was so disgusted to have been beaten by Gilbert. They still have a spiky relationship.

"But that was just one time when I hung in there and beat him," Gilbert recalls. "Otherwise, he kicked my ass. Him and [Ivan] Lendl were the worst guys I ever stepped on court with, because even playing my best, I could still get thrashed by those guys.

"I played Andre, Pete, Becker, but none of them killed me like those two guys. Lendl was the worst. He was my Freddie Kruger, nothing I could do would hurt him. I never went on court with anyone better than Lendl. Once, I was 4-1 up in the third, my one chance, and he still beat me. Afterwards he comes into the locker room and says, 'I was on my death bed, with a 110 degree fever, I was still going to kick your ass'. He was ruthless."

Against most other players, however, Gilbert found a way of winning ugly. Even Agassi had only a 50 per cent success rate against him. So when he wrote a book about the mental side of tennis, he called it just that: Winning Ugly. It has become a best-seller, and he has similar hopes for his next book, I've Got Your Back, which is due out in the autumn.

"It's not Winning Ugly 2," he explains. "It's basically lots of stories about me, Andre, Andy and my own coach, the three guys in tennis who impacted most on me."

He believes that he learned from Agassi at least as much as Agassi learned from him. Not least, that he could coach. Gilbert was still on the circuit as a player when Agassi invited him to become his coach. "He knew I was going to be a coach before I did," he recalls.

"And before Andre, I didn't understand about training and peaking. As a player, I treated every tournament like Wimbledon or the US Open. I learned so much from Andre about peaking for the majors, about preparing right. Now, I totally understand how. Now I can do that for Andy."

As well as learning from what Agassi did right, he also learned from what he himself did wrong. When he played at Wimbledon, he tried to adjust his game to suit the grass. "I tried to serve-volley every single point. And because I wasn't a natural serve-volleyer, I would always get hurt. I'd hurt my ass, my hamstrings, I got shinsplints one time. If I had to do it over again, jeez, I would play my normal game.

"That's what I wanted Andy to do here. His game is to serve big and just crack the ball. It would have been a mistake for him to play a different game."

With each tournament that passes, Gilbert says he is becoming a better coach. "And you know what else has made me a better coach?" It is a rhetorical question, his favourite kind. "Coaching girls. I worked with [Mary] Pierce briefly in '96, and I have been working with [Tatiana] Golovin, and before I think I was too sexist. I didn't appreciate the women's game. But coaching girls, as well as having two of my own, taught me to think about what I had to work with, helped me to understand the game even better. Because girls can't just serve aces. That makes you focus more on what else you can do to help them to keep improving."

He has no doubt that Roddick can keep improving.

"He'll be the first to tell you. He can get better at everything. He can learn to volley better, hit his forehand better, his backhand, his approach shots. He can get physically stronger, mentally stronger. And if he keeps improving then good things will happen. I think he can be better than anybody. I can't listen to people who say [Roger] Federer is potentially the greatest. Imagine if I conveyed that to Andy in some way."

At 42, Gilbert is exactly twice Roddick's age. But a father figure he ain't. An indulgent older brother, more like. At Wimbledon they have shared a house with Gilbert's son Zach, with Roddick's fitness trainer Doug Spreen, and with his racket stringer Grant Morgan. "And let me tell you, there's been a little too much testosterone flying around there."

As befits a 21-year-old weighed down with testosterone, Roddick has spent the fortnight waking up no earlier than 9.30am. "That's where we're different. I wake as soon as the light's up, at four. But he goes to bed much later than me. He thinks I'm senile. When he does get up, he loves to read the papers. The day we got here I went to the paper shop and ordered five papers: The Independent, The Times, the Daily Mail, The Sun and USA Today. He reads them all. And we talk about sports all the time."

Despite being a sports nut, football - soccer - had never captivated Gilbert. Not until he started watching Euro 2004. He hasn't missed a game.

"But I don't like games ending on a penalty shoot-out," he says. "You should have to win games. Even if they start dying out there you should have to win a game on a goal.

"I was bummed for England. That [Wayne] Rooney kid is awesome. England wins that game for sure if he doesn't get hurt. He has unbelievable energy and passion, in fact he reminds me of [Lleyton] Hewitt a little bit. He's a true English hero. He looks like the guy in the pub having a few beers, then he gets on the field and he's just a dynamo.

"But the sport I'm really into here is cricket. I don't like five-day cricket because it takes five days. But one-day cricket, 300 balls, that's really grown on me. My favourite ever player was Ian Botham, that great all-arounder ( sic). But I love to watch Shane Warne. And those little guys, [Brian] Lara and [Sachin] Tendulkar. They're tiny, but they're lethal. Yeah, cricket's really grown on me. The googly!"

A rhapsodic expression crosses Gilbert's face as he considers the googly. It takes an effort to steer him back to tennis, and the post-Wimbledon year. Surprisingly, it is not the US Open which most excites him.

"No, it's the Olympics. I won bronze in '88 and that was the most fun I ever had playing tennis. I was with with Andre when he won gold in '96. Andy would have told you even before the year began that the Olympic gold was his No 1 goal. He's keen like nobody."

Except, perhaps, his coach.

Brad Gilbert life and times

1961 Born in California.

1982 Turns professional. No remarkable talent, but tenacity and a shrewd tennis brain help him to 20 singles titles.

1986 "You don't deserve to be on the same court with me," John McEnroe raged as Gilbert beat him in the Masters Cup.

1987 Quarter-finalist at the US Open.

1988 Wins a bronze medal at the Seoul Olympics.

1989 Wins three ATP tournaments. First of two successive years in the world top 10.

1990 Wimbledon quarter-finalist, losing in straight sets to Boris Becker. Secures his highest world ranking, No 4.

1994 Over dinner, agrees to coach Andre Agassi, although he continues to play professionally himself. Within a year his protégé wins the US Open and Australian Open, and moves from world No 32 to No 1. Gilbert publishes Winning Ugly.

2002 Amicable split with Agassi, after eight years and six grand slam victories.

2003 Begins coaching Andy Roddick. US Open victory and a brief tenure as world No 1 follow for Gilbert's compatriot.