Holding court: The American shaping future of British tennis

Brad Gilbert's coaching has catapulted Andy Murray into the world's top 20. However, he was also hired by the LTA to deliver at grass roots. In a rare interview, he tells Paul Newman of his love of working with kids
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Brad Gilbert was in his trademark tennis clothes - black tracksuit, black shirt, black cap and black glasses - and all was well with the world. The American coach, having been warned about the all-white clothes ruling for Queen's Club members, had arrived in Britain for his first day's work at the Lawn Tennis Association's headquarters this week with his suitcase appropriately packed, only to discover that there was a decidedly more relaxed atmosphere over at the indoor courts where the elite players work.

Gilbert was recruited by the LTA this summer primarily to work as Andy Murray's coach, but the 45-year-old will be doing much more than that for his money (said to be nearly £700,000 a year). He will be expected to spend at least 15 of his 40 working weeks of the year working with other British players and coaches.

If this week is any indication, the money has been well spent. Gilbert flew into London on Sunday from Tokyo, where Murray had been playing, and was ready and waiting to start work at Queen's Club well before the first sessions on the indoor courts began at 8am the following day.

"I really enjoy working with young kids," Gilbert said during a break from work with the LTA's latest intake of budding professional players. "You have a real chance to make an impression with them. I like being on the tennis courts. That's what I do best."

There is quite a contrast between the restrained atmosphere of Queen's and the aura surrounding Gilbert, a self-confessed "redneck Jew" who can - and frequently does - talk for hours about his passion for Cadillacs, the Oakland Raiders American football team and sporting trivia in general, not to mention the art of winning tennis matches.

He had his limitations as a player, but Gilbert's credentials as a coach have never been in doubt since he helped Andre Agassi to win six Grand Slam tournaments in eight years. He has already guided Murray to the fourth round of the US Open, victory over Roger Federer and a place in the world's top 20.

His enthusiasm is infectious. While Murray might have been the only one bold enough to enjoy a joke at his coach's expense, mocking Gilbert's £100 bet with him that Peter Crouch will score 25 goals for Liverpool this season, there was an evident sparkle in the eyes of the other youngsters as they worked with the effervescent Californian.

Amongst those who have benefited from his expert eye have been the British No 7, Josh Goodall, and the No 3, Alex Bogdanovic, who was on court on Thursday practising with Murray before the Scot flew with Gilbert to Madrid yesterday for next week's Masters series tournament.

This has been Gilbert's first visit to Queen's other than during the annual pre-Wimbledon Stella Artois tournament. Sitting outside the main clubhouse as he looked across the wide expanse of courts - in early June the view is only of the temporary stands erected around three sides of the main show court - he expressed welcome surprise at the facilities available there.

Nevertheless, Gilbert believes the move in February to the LTA's new £40m national tennis centre at Roehampton will be a huge step forward. The facility will boast 16 outdoor courts - including the surfaces used at all four Grand Slam tournaments - and six indoors, compared with the two currently available at Queen's.

"Everything's a bit crowded here," Gilbert said. "They sneak in early in the morning and have to work around the club. Sometimes you have to have more people on one court than you would like. Going to a bigger and better facility must help the game here to grow.

"I've been looking at the 16-year-olds this week, but with only two courts it's restricted. With the new facilities there will be the chance to do much more, to see more players on more courts. I'll be able to do some work with some of the younger kids as well.

"More than anything, when Roehampton opens it will be possible to get all the best players in one place. That will make it much easier to assess what talent is available. When you centralise you have the chance to see players grow really quickly. You get a level of competition that you can't get elsewhere."

Gilbert has been casting his eye this week over new LTA recruits such as Andrew Fitzpatrick and Dan Evans, as well as relatively more experienced players such as David Rice and Naomi Cavaday. They are the youngsters who represent the best chance of providing Murray with some British company in the years ahead. Apart from the 32-year-old Tim Henman and the 33-year-old Greg Rusedski, Bogdanovic is the only other British male in the world's top 200. There are no Britons in the world's top 130 women.

Nevertheless, the ever-positive Gilbert - who seems to stumble only over whether to talk of Britain as "us" or "them" - says he is interested only in improving the country's tennis fortunes, not in its past problems.

"As far as I'm concerned whatever British tennis was before doesn't matter," he said. "Now it's about what the country has got and about trying to improve. We need to assess where they're at and accept that they need to get better. They need more guys in the world's top 250. They need to get better at junior level, so those players can move on to the pro level. The girls need to get better. They need to get better at everything.

"What I want to do is what I do best, getting out on the court and working with some kids. We need to get more guys playing at the tour level, which is why I think the LTA is focusing on the players who are 15, 16 or 17. Maybe in three, four or five years they'll be able to step up."

Is Gilbert concerned that, in the meantime, Murray will carry the nation's expectations on his shoulders? "You can't worry about all that stuff. If you worry about it, it certainly won't get any easier. As a tennis player everybody has pressure. Most of us have pressure from ourselves because we want to do better. But the last time I checked, every tennis court in the world is the same dimensions. Sometimes it's a different colour and a different surface, but, when you're playing, the greatest thing is that just two of you walk on the court and one of you leaves as a winner. You get the chance every time to control your destiny."

Two indifferent weeks in Bangkok and Tokyo have left Murray struggling to achieve his end-of-season goal of a place at the Tennis Masters Cup - Gilbert believes he would need to win two of the tournaments over the next three weeks in Madrid, Basle and Paris - but he can still book a place among the top 16 seeds for the Australian Open in January.

Before that Murray will spend time at the Bollettieri academy in Florida, where Gilbert wants to work on the Scot's physical strength and conditioning, as well as aspects of his game. "At 19 years old, everything is about just getting better," Gilbert said. "Even Rafael Nadal, who's 20, says that he has loads to work on. You just have to keep doing that - because everybody else is doing it. There's no magic pills, no guarantees. All you know is that if you work hard and get better good things can happen.

"As a tennis player there are sometimes four or five days a year when you wake up and can't do anything wrong. There are also four or five days when you wake up and, honest to God, you can't kick it in the ocean, there's nothing you can do right. All the rest of the matches in between are what make you a tennis player.

"You're not right most days. You have to learn to win when you're only 60 or 70 per cent. You have to learn to play when you're not playing so well. You have to give yourself that opportunity to win by just toughing it out. You can't always go out and have a dream day."

Murray likes hard courts best, but Gilbert thinks grass might prove his most productive surface. "He has the ability to return serve and move well. It's sometimes a question of your mindset. At the moment he thinks it's not his favourite surface, but as he gets older and more experienced I think he'll show how well he can play on grass.

"The thing that's surprised me more than anything is that I didn't realise his hands were as good as they are. He looks like he has the ability to become a great net player."

Would Gilbert like to see him volley more? "Possibly. But I think that's more a question of maturity. By the time he's in his early twenties I think he'll probably start coming into the net more." Does Gilbert consider the Scot's short fuse and regular self-criticism on court counter-productive? "He is what he is. He's never going to be a choirboy. That's not his personality. Sometimes when he's flat it does help him to get fired up. Sometimes it doesn't. He was flat against [Fernando] Gonzalez [at the US Open], but all of a sudden he got fired up over a couple of things and his game went to another level.

"Everything is about balance. I think it's a lot better to express your anger than to sit there holding it in. You're just like a simmering pot, waiting to boil. He's got a bit of a fiery personality and if he tried to hold it in all the time maybe he would really explode."

Had Gilbert, a former world No 4, ever tried to play a set against his young charge? "I'm 45 years old," he said. "That's the furthest thing from my mind. My sole purpose when I'm out there is to think how he's going to get better and what we're working on. I don't care about myself. I had my run as a tennis player."

Gilbert believes that having an 18-year-old son of his own - who is at Bollettieri's academy - helps him to understand Murray. "The thing you have to remember is that Andy isn't your average 19-year-old," he said. "Guys who play on the tennis tour do not go out doing things that other 19-year-olds do. He's pretty disciplined and focused on what he's doing. For a kid who's 19 Andy has a pretty solid head on his shoulders. He's not a wild and crazy guy."