Do coaches really make a difference?

Andy Murray has hit peak form in perfect time for the US Open. The key could be the timely sacking of his trainer
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The Independent Online

Andy Murray sacks his coach and promptly wins his first title for nine months at the Toronto Masters.

Roger Federer, who has not had a full-time coach for seven years, seeks the help of Paul Annacone, who used to work with Pete Sampras and Tim Henman, and wins his first title for six months at the Cincinnati Masters.

It will not be until the end of the US Open, which starts on Monday, that we will have a more definitive answer to the question that has been on many minds this summer: just how much difference does a coach make? John McEnroe, who did not have a coach for much of his own career, thinks he already knows. "I think they're overrated," he said. "These guys don't need a coach. Look at them. Federer could play with a dog telling him what to do and he could still win a couple of majors. And Murray may be better off too. He has a lot of guys around him. Maybe it's too many people."

Murray, having parted company with Miles Maclagan, does not expect to appoint a new coach until after the US Open and will work in New York with Alex Corretja, who has been a part-time member of his entourage for the last two years. The world No 4 has also been accompanied recently by, among others, Daniel Vallverdu, a hitting partner and friend from their teenage days together at the Sanchez-Casal academy in Barcelona, and his mother, Judy, who has been scouting future opponents.

Henman, who had his own period without a coach before appointing Annacone, can appreciate how Murray has felt during a summer in which he has come out of his shell to play the more attacking tennis that his critics have long advocated.

"I certainly remember when I stopped working with David Felgate that I had a period where I was on my own and enjoyed it," Henman said. "It was a good opportunity to work things out for myself and enjoy that independence." Although Murray is a natural counter-puncher, he is at his best when mixing defence with attack, as he did when playing the best tennis of his life en route to the Australian Open final earlier this year. Henman believes that Maclagan, Brad Gilbert and Mark Petchey, the Scot's last three coaches, all put across the same message.

"They've all said he has to step up and play aggressively," Henman said. "If Andy's more committed when he's on his own and he hasn't got a coach telling him that, then great, because that's the right way for him to play. When he gets too reactive then he's not as effective, because the other guys are too good. When he's the one who is proactive and dictates and uses his weapons, he's one of the favourites in any tournament." Is there any danger Murray might forget that he has enjoyed most of his success on the counter? "That's where he has to get the balance right," Henman said. "If he suddenly stands up and tries to crush every ball and makes a whole host of errors then he's gone too far, but if he gets several feet behind the baseline and is just keeping the ball in then he's gone too far the other way. In Toronto he got the balance spot on."

Henman, nevertheless, believes that Federer's recent experience shows the benefits of working with a top coach like Annacone, whose current trial with the Swiss could lead to a more long-term relationship. "Federer has so many weapons, so many attributes, but I think in the last 12 months he hasn't been using them as much and as well as he can, which is where Paul's experience and knowledge can come in," Henman said.

Henman has seen the fruits of Annacone's work in the variation Federer is using again on his serve and the renewed aggression on his returns. "I think he got very one-dimensional on second-serve returns," Henman said. "He was just chipping his backhand return into the court to start a rally.

"When you talk about coaching it's not about trying to teach players something or trying to change a backhand or a serve. It's about making players aware of how they can be most effective, the strategies to play against different opponents.

"A good example was Federer's match against [Tomas] Berdych at Wimbledon. Berdych was playing phenomenally well, but Federer let him play well. That's where I think a coach like Paul can have an impact, because he can say, 'This is the strategy, this is what you really need to implement in your game so that you can be the one dictating.' In the last couple of weeks Federer has been positioning himself up the court a little bit more and playing very aggressively from both sides." Henman considers Annacone to be one of the best, along with Darren Cahill and Gilbert. Cahill, who had a trial with Federer last year that did not lead to anything permanent, has been seen as the ideal man to work with Murray, though he said he does not want to be a full-time touring coach.

McEnroe, who will be commentating for ESPN at the US Open alongside his brother Patrick, remains cynical about the value of a coach. "I don't necessarily think it has a damned bit of difference," he said when asked about Murray's situation. "Then again perhaps he might tap into someone. It seems like they recycle the same guys. Is all of a sudden something magically different going to come from one of the same guys who's coached another guy? Maybe I'm missing something there." Could McEnroe ever see himself working with Murray? "I don't know what I could bring to him, but I would certainly be interested," the American said. "Somehow I don't think he's going to be calling me, though."

Patrick McEnroe noted that Federer had had a number of short-term arrangements with coaches, sometimes on a trial basis. "Maybe Roger has got the way to do it," he said. "Why pay these guys all this money when you can just bring them in for a week or two, pick their brains and then send them off on their way?"

Tim Henman is an ambassador for the HSBC Road to Wimbledon National 14 and Under Challenge (www.hsbcroadto