In the Gilbert zone: New challenge for man who inspired Agassi

Brad Gilbert is Andy Murray's new coach and the LTA's hope for the future. Paul Newman looks at an unorthodox mind
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John McEnroe, the defending champion, was playing in the 1987 Masters tournament at Madison Square Garden and was getting more and more angry as he struggled to overcome his troublesome opponent. "You don't deserve to be on the same court with me," McEnroe told him during a change of ends. "You are the worst!"

The opponent was Brad Gilbert, a player who maximised his limited talent like no other. His 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 victory prompted an utterly frustrated McEnroe to take a break from tennis. "When I start losing to players like him I've got to reconsider what I'm doing even playing this game," McEnroe said.

Gilbert, a bits-and-pieces player who got under opponents' skin by denying them the chance to play their own game, went on to reach a career-high No 4 in the world three years later. He was never going to become the best - and did not get beyond the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam tournament - but since his retirement 12 years ago has indisputably reached the top as a coach. He made his name with Andre Agassi, guiding him to six Grand Slam titles over eight years from 1994, before helping Andy Roddick to win the 2003 US Open.

Since Roddick dismissed him late in 2004 Gilbert has been working as an American television commentator, but from next week's hard-court tournament in Washington the 44-year-old's talents will be at the disposal of Andy Murray after agreement was finally reached on a contract yesterday after weeks of negotiation. The deal, believed to be over three years, is a major coup both for the British No 1, who parted company with Mark Petchey in April, and for Roger Draper, who joined the Lawn Tennis Association as chief executive earlier this year.

Draper has been promising to bring in the best world talent in an attempt to end years of under-achievement in British tennis and has put the governing body's money where his mouth is by recruiting Gilbert as an employee of the LTA. Gilbert will work for around 25 weeks of the year with Murray, who is expected to fund at least a third of the coach's salary. Gilbert's deal is thought to be worth around £500,000.

The LTA estimates that Gilbert will be free for other duties for about 40 per cent of his time, which he will spend coaching juniors and working with other coaches. When in Britain he will be based mainly at the LTA's new national tennis centre at Roehampton, although he is not uprooting his wife and three children from California. He will report directly to Draper.

The LTA stresses that Gilbert is not a replacement for the performance director, Draper having parted company with David Felgate within weeks of taking charge. More high-profile coaching appointments are expected in the coming weeks.

"Brad will be fully focused on front-line coaching," Draper said yesterday. "As part of our new strategy for British tennis we want the best people in the world actually on the ground, helping create more tennis champions."

He added: "The confidence and belief levels in British tennis at the moment are very low and we have got to raise them by surrounding ourselves with proven winners and tough taskmasters on and off the court. We have undoubtedly got the talent but maybe we have not had the right attitude. We need to be more focused, more determined and more ruthless in what we want to achieve."

Murray had always insisted that he would wait for the right man. "I set a very high standard for what my next coach needed to have in terms of experience and Brad meets all the requirements," he said yesterday. "While growing up, Agassi was one of the players I looked up to. He won several Grand Slams and reached No 1 in the world with Brad."

Gilbert, who said he was looking forward to working with "one of the most talented young players on the tour", explained his tennis philosophy in his acclaimed book Winning Ugly, which is aimed at recreational players as much as professionals. The book covers everything from how to conquer nerves ("breathe like you've got asthma," Gilbert advises) to dealing with slow players ("When they've finally gotten round to beginning play, just before they serve, it's your turn to slow things down. Hold up your hand and step away from the line. Tie your shoe... adjust your strings or wipe off the sweat.")

Agassi, who once described Gilbert as "the greatest coach of all time", wrote a chapter in a later edition of Winning Ugly in which he said that the Californian "understands the mental part of tennis better than anyone I have ever met". Agassi added: "He has a tremendous understanding of the whole deal - strategy, tactics, match dynamics and how to apply them to beat players."

One of Gilbert's greatest strengths on the court was his unpredictability. In Murray he knows that he will be working with a player who is already a master of the change of pace. Few use the drop shot to such good effect: in beating Roddick at Wimbledon earlier this month Murray regularly drew the American forward before passing him at the net.

Gilbert needs to make Murray more consistent. After beating Roddick at Wimbledon, for example, Murray was a shadow of himself in losing to Marcos Baghdatis. There have been other substantially below-par performances this year, such as the defeat to Juan Ignacio Chela at the Australian Open.

"I need to try to cut matches like that out, especially in Grand Slams," Murray admitted recently. "I'm not sure exactly why it happens."

Gilbert believes that a player should go into every match with a different strategy according to the opponent. He is particularly adept at pinpointing an opponent's weaknesses at the times of greatest pressure and considers everyone beatable. Agassi says Gilbert taught him that your opponent is "in the zone" and unbeatable for five per cent of a match, you are in the same position yourself for another five per cent, but the other 90 per cent is up for grabs.

It was said that one of the major areas of disagreement Murray had with Petchey was the coach's desire for him to be less of a counter-puncher in the Lleyton Hewitt mould and to play more of an attacking game. Gilbert, however, likes the comparison with Hewitt and appreciates the way that Murray, like the Australian, can play so many winning shots when pulled wide into the tramlines. Murray thinks he has his best chances on hard courts, while Gilbert believes grass could be his best surface.

Gilbert said Murray needed to train like a boxer. "He needs to get really physically fit," he said. "Nothing magic happens in a day. It's going to be a lot of hard work." It remains to be seen how well the two men's relationship will work on a personal level. Murray, who is barely 19 but has already dispensed with two coaches in his senior career, is a laid-back and sometimes taciturn character with a dry sense of humour, while Gilbert is an in-your-face Californian.

"He's always talking," Agassi wrote. "He's got an opinion on everybody and everything."

Some have questioned whether it is right for the LTA to fund the appointment of a coach for a player who stands to make millions from his career, but the fact is that a successful Murray would provide the greatest possible boost for a sport which still struggles to shake off its stuffy middle-class image in this country.

In Murray, a teenager who combines great talent with plenty of "attitude" and youthful defiance, the game has a player who can appeal to a whole new generation. Murray winning a Grand Slam tournament - with the help of an outstanding coach - would give greater impetus to British tennis than any number of LTA youth initiatives.

Nick Bollettieri, who was behind the early rise of Agassi and is probably the only coach in tennis more recognised than Gilbert, said: "I think the LTA is completely justified in funding Brad's appointment. Giving him that broader role across the whole of British tennis can only be a good thing and if part of the deal leads to Andy becoming a major player then that can only be a bonus for the country.

"He's absolutely the right man for Murray and for British tennis. He knows all you need to know about technique but there's also nobody who knows better than him about winning."

Winning Ugly: Tennis for thinkers

In 'Winning Ugly', Brad Gilbert reveals his game plan for getting the best out of your talent:

"In its most basic form your plan evolves as you answer these questions:

1. What is my opponent's best weapon?

2. Where is my opponent weak?

3. What is my best shot and how can I direct it at my opponent's weakness?

4. What can I do to keep my opponent away from my own weakness?"