Kodes: Advantage Tim – coach or no coach

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The Independent Online

It is a measure of the task awaiting him that Tim Henman was not even born the last time a player won Wimbledon without the assistance of a coach. Several have tried, most notably Martina Hingis, who split from her mother on the eve of the 1999 event and was promptly dispatched in the first round. None, however, have yet managed to replicate the achievements of Jan Kodes, who lifted the men's singles trophy in the boycott year of 1973.

Many observers feel that Henman is foolish to enter the Championships on his own – following his split with David Felgate – particularly as the tournament seems relatively open this year. But Kodes disagrees. In fact, the 54-year-old, who will be playing in the seniors doubles with Manuel Santana at this year's event, believes that the role of the coach is too often over-played.

"Before the modern era," he says, "players did not have personal coaches. Until the mid-Seventies, most of the guys on Tour were pretty self-sufficient and we did OK. That's not to say that we were alone. I may not have had someone to look after me, but I made sure my friends were at the tournaments. Particularly the Grand Slams, where it's good to have familiar faces around."

Kodes adds: "That's why I don't think Tim is at any real disadvantage. He's at home at Wimbledon. He can talk to his parents and his friends, and, most of all, he can see people in the crowd who he recognises. That's enough. I think he's sufficiently confident not to need a coach, but once the tournament gets under way, it's up to him to deliver."

Kodes is speaking from experience. Never at any stage of his career, during which he won two French Opens, did he employ a coach; the sporting guru was a fad waiting to happen. There was a national tennis supremo from the Czech federation, but nobody specially assigned to him.

"I have never felt that you need a coach to win," he says. "Let's face it, the coach today is more often than not a slave – someone who is like a personal organiser and sorts out hotel bookings, racket restringings and practice sessions. What is the point in that? When I was in my prime, I always preferred to warm up with other players. Very rarely are coaches good enough. Of the current crop, only Brad Gilbert could give his protégé, Andre Agassi, a game. Look at Stefan Edberg, he used Tony Pickard as an adviser, not a hitting partner.

"I don't think a player wins Wimbledon because he has a coach; he wins because he's the best player. Where a coach can sometimes be useful is in discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. The year when I won, I was lucky enough to have my countryman, and a former Wimbledon winner [in 1954], Jaroslav Drobny, at hand."

Henman will have plenty of willing advisers in SW19, including the man Kodes defeated in the semi-finals on the way to his Wimbledon title, Roger Taylor. The Davis Cup captain is just one of the experienced national coaches who Henman could turn to for pointers. Another is Bill Knight, the man who first introduced him to Felgate.

"Everything's right for him to have a good tournament," Kodes observes. "He's a fine player, with a natural grass-court game and solid foundations. He will need a little luck, but there's no reason why he can't go far."

Kodes, who has followed in the footsteps of many retired players by opening a sports shop in his home city of Prague, won Wimbledon at the age of 26. Which just happens to beHenman's age today. "He's at the perfect moment in his career to win," Kodes says. "He's about to peak and I fancy he'll still be around late into the second week." As late as the Sunday, we hope.