Mark Petchey: Serving Andy - harsh truths at the start of an epic journey

A national hope's new full-time coach will not be afraid to talk tough and will not be afraid to fail. Nick Townsend meets the man minding the boy
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The Independent Online

Out into the rain we were directed, and no matter that my companion was a rodent's slap-up dinner when it came to the big cheeses of tennis; still, but only just, head of men's national training at the Lawn Tennis Association, but about to metamorphose into full-time coach to a teenage Scot who, within the last four weeks, has established himself securely in the affections of the British public. Mark Petchey, the former British No 1, all done up in his demob suit, accepted our admonishment without demur. And who could blame him?

The following day he was due to depart to Rhode Island in the United States with his protégé, Andrew Murray, who, following his progress to the third round in his first Grand Slam, has been awarded a wild-card entry into the Newport grass- court tournament - won by Greg Rusedski last year - at the start of an adventure which neither had contemplated a month ago. From there, the duo travel to Santa Cruz for the Aptos Challenger, followed by the RCA Championships in Indianapolis, possibly a Masters Series debut in Cincinnati, before the US Open qualifying tournament.

"Things have accelerated so fast for both of us," says the son of Loughton, Essex, whose 10-year playing career, in which he peaked with a ranking of 80, was terminated by injury in 1998. "It was never a case of me sitting down here with you now at the end of Wimbledon as Andy Murray's full-time coach. It was literally me helping him through the four weeks and then going back to being men's international manager and my Sky contract, and that was that. There was never some great plan."

All week here at Wimbledon the talk has been when and how, rather than if, Petchey would extricate himself from his responsibilities for Britain's men's game, in which role he has been employed for the last 21 months, and dedicate himself to the fortunes of the young man who possesses an unplundered vault-full of potential. A difficult decision? A diplomatic pause in deference to the LTA, then: "No, not really. It's too much of an opportunity."

Indeed, the prime obstacle to the job-swap was its effect on the family life he enjoys with his wife, Michele, and two daughters, Nicole, 6, and Myah, 3. "It was a massive consideration and, to be honest, the biggest in many ways when you think about the commitment I'm going to make to Andy," he says. "It's going to be a massive wrench for me as a dad, getting on the plane and disappearing for extended periods."

Nevertheless, the challenge proved too strong. "In life, you gravitate towards people you like and enjoy spending time with. That's no different with tennis," Petchey says. "There's a hell of a lot of good players out there, but they wouldn't pick me as their coach, and I probably wouldn't want to work with them. Personality is such a key part of it. Andy's always had that bit about him that I've enjoyed. He is pretty single-minded, and he's tough. But I like that about his character. He likes to see emotion from people who are working with him, and I guess I provide that."

Petchey adds: "The mental make-up of him is so strong that you feel like, 'Yeah, he's got it, if he just gets one or two things right, he's going to be a hell of a player'. Obviously, there's the fitness side, and one or two little tweaks in his game that I'd like to see, then the sky's the limit."

Petchey, an engaging communicator and a seer of positive portents, is the antithesis of Murray's predecessor, the 69-year-old Pato Alvarez, from whom the Scot parted acrimoniously in April, complaining about his negative attitude. However, the Dunblane teenager has acquired a coach who will not be deterred, if necessary, from subjecting his charge to some harsh truths. This was the man, who, along with the LTA performance director, David Felgate, banished Miles Kasiri, last summer's junior Wimbledon finalist, at Queen's Club and told him not to return for three months.

The former Great Britain Davis Cup player, who will work closely with Murray's mother, Judy, admits with a wry smile: "I've heard a rumour that I'm nicknamed 'The Judge' [by young British players]. I'm not certain whether to take that as a compliment, though I'm sure with a lot of people they know me by a lot worse than that. But I don't see another way. This game's too ruthless, and if you don't want to do it, I don't think the LTA should be funding your tennis. I don't think we should accommodate people who don't have the right attitude."

Petchey, 35, speaks as a character who insists he was not handled strongly enough himself as a youngster. "I have been tough because of my own experiences," he says. "I know that if my coach then had had the backing of somebody a little bit stronger, my career would maybe have begun a little bit earlier. Sure, I had my good, solid wins over [Michael] Chang and [Michael] Stich and [Pat] Rafter, when everything clicked on the day, but I still feel my game was a little lightweight. I wasn't shocking, but I could have been a lot better."

The player whose pinnacle at Wimbledon was the third round in 1997, when he was demolished by Boris Becker, may not, to borrow from football parlance, be able to show us his Grand Slam medals, but his initial experience of coaching and overseeing the young Croatian Silvija Tilaja bodes well for Murray. Petchey helped advance her ranking from the late 80s to 17.

"If Andy didn't have respect for me, he wouldn't have asked me to do the job," he says. "I have utmost belief in his game. He's a pretty special kid. He's going to have to work harder to go and mix it with the big boys, week in, week out. But I believe that, having been around long enough and mixed with the sort of players that I have, hopefully I'll bring enough to the table for Andy to fulfil what he wants to do in this game."

He adds: "Having said that, you're right when you say that there will be people who will say, 'OK, he [Petchey] reached 80 in the world. Does he have enough to tell Andy what to do when he's out on the Arthur Ashe Court in the semi-finals of a Grand Slam?' Ultimately, I'm not going to be afraid to fail with Andy. It's a business at the end of the day, and Andy's got to make business decisions. If I end up in six months, 12 months, not being the right guy, it's not going to be personal. As a nation, we've all got to get behind and nurture him and I'm certainly not going to stand in his way if he turns round and says, 'Petch, look, I need to move on. There's this other guy I want to go to'. That's fine."

I put it to him that, although Murray appears well capable of handling public acclaim, Petchey had already burdened him with unnecessary expectation with his observation that the teenager could be bigger than Wayne Rooney. "I work on the other side [the media] as well. I could have played a straight bat. Instead, what I said was that if England did not win the World Cup, and Andy won Wimbledon, he'd be bigger [than Rooney]. That is the truth. But, in reality that's a long way away. I always knew that it would be impossible to keep the lid on the expectations; everybody's clamouring for a new success, a new Tim Henman, but as I've said all along, two years from now, we'll judge whether Andy's on the right path or not to be a top 10 player - not on the basis of three-and-a-half weeks on the grass, where he's shown that his tennis is certainly good enough."

If his fitness can sustain it? The words went unspoken. On Friday, countering criticism of his lack of stamina, Murray himself had maintained that he had nearly beaten David Nalbandian over four sets. Maybe we were making too much of that apparent frailty in his game?

"Andy's a junior still, with a lot of emotional and nervous energy and, if he looked at some of the training that Lleyton Hewitt does, he'd say he's not doing that yet. But remember, he had that [knee] injury last year, and the ankle problem at the moment; he can't just go out and pound the streets," says Petchey. "I can't pull him out of the tournaments to get fitter."

Petchey adds: "We have Lisa Eyre, the former world champion rower, who's worked with him for the last four weeks, and she's been fantastic, especially with rehab on the ankle. If the kid's still growing, then next year's a little too soon for him to be in peak physical condition. The year after that he will be as strong as everyone else out on the tour. But we'll find a way [financially] to put in place whatever Andy needs. If he needs a full-time fitness trainer on the road, then we'll make it happen."

They appear to complement each other splendidly. The only differences Petchey can envisage are musical ones. Murray's appreciation for the Black Eyed Peas is already well-chronicled. In contrast, says his coach, "I'm a bit more Maroon 5, U2. I'm on a hiding, because I know he'll rip my tastes apart."

They may not share their iPods. Fortunately, where tennis is concerned, they have already demonstrated they are bonded by a common cause.

BIOGRAPHY

Mark Petchey

Born: 8 January 1970 in Essex.

Family: wife Michele, and two daughters, Nicole, 6, and Myah, 3.

As a player: turned pro in 1988. Highest world singles ranking: 80 (Aug 1994). Represented Great Britain in the Davis Cup 11 times and spent 10 years on the international circuit. As a junior, he claimed four singles and eight national doubles titles, and as a professional won three Challenger singles and three doubles events. Retired in 1998.

On retirement: took up coaching and media duties. In September 2003 was named as the LTA's manager of men's national training. Resigned last week to accept role as Andy Murray's new coach.

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