Marian Vajda, the man who has guided Novak Djokovic to his six Grand Slam titles, never enjoyed fame like this. Djokovic, the champion here for the last three years, was one of the guests at yesterday’s draw ceremony for next week’s Australian Open, but the star of the show was undoubtedly Boris Becker, who has replaced Vajda as the head of the world No 2’s coaching team.
If local media interest was fuelled by the fact that this was Becker’s first visit Down Under for more than a decade, it was probably also a sign of things to come. Celebrity coaches have become as fashionable as the shades of grey, red and blue that the leading players will be wearing at Melbourne Park over the next fortnight.
Andy Murray’s appointment of Ivan Lendl as his coach two years ago started a trend which has become a major fashion statement. Goran Ivanisevic started working with Marin Cilic before the end of last season and in recent weeks Becker and Stefan Edberg have teamed up with Djokovic and Roger Federer respectively.
Kei Nishikori, who has recruited Michael Chang, and Richard Gasquet, who has turned to Sergi Bruguera, have followed similar paths. At this rate the music of Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton will soon be replacing Rihanna and Bruno Mars in the major locker rooms around the world.
Legion of legends: The new breed of celebrity coaches
Legion of legends: The new breed of celebrity coaches
1/6 Boris Becker
(Germany, aged 46) Grand Slam titles: 6 Australian Open 2 Wimbledon 3 US Open 1 Celebrity rating: 5 stars Player: Novak Djokovic (Serbia, aged 26, world No 2, 6 Grand Slam titles)
2/6 Van Lendl
(Czech Republic, aged 53) Grand Slam titles: 8 Australian Open 2 French Open 3 US Open 3 Celebrity rating: 5 stars Player: Andy Murray (Britain, aged 26, world No 4, 2 Grand Slam titles)
3/6 Stefan Edberg
(Sweden, aged 47) Grand Slam titles: 6 Australian Open 2 Wimbledon 2 US Open 2 Celebrity rating: 4 stars Player: Roger Federer (Switzerland, aged 32, world No 6, 17 Grand Slam titles)
4/6 Goran Ivanisevic
(Croatia, aged 42) Grand Slam titles: 1 Wimbledon Celebrity rating: 4 stars Player: Marin Cilic (Croatia, aged 25, world No 37, 0 Grand Slam titles)
5/6 Michael Chang
(United States, aged 41) Grand Slam titles: 1 French Open Celebrity rating: 2 stars Player: Kei Nishikori (Japan, aged 24, world No 17, 0 Grand Slam titles)
6/6 Sergi Bruguera
(Spain, aged 42) Grand Slam titles: 2 French Open 2 Celebrity rating: 1 star Player: Richard Gasquet (France, aged 27, world No 9, 0 Grand Slam titles)
One of the most striking aspects of the recent appointments is the former champions’ lack of coaching experience. Chang has done some coaching in Asia and had a brief spell working with China’s Peng Shuai, but the other escapees from the 1980s and 1990s have been virtually starting from scratch.
Although Becker has worked with some German youngsters and Lendl set up his own junior academy in South Carolina before joining forces with Murray, the new wave of coaches are almost all re-entering the game at the top without first learning the job at a more modest level.
Their arrival might be to the despair of some of those coaches like Vajda who have achieved success after years of hard graft on the practice courts. Vajda, nevertheless, remains part of Djokovic’s entourage and was involved at the Serb’s pre-season training camp in Marbella. “He’s a friend of mine and knows Novak better than anybody,” Becker said. “I would be a fool if I wouldn’t take a lot of advice from him as well.”
If there was logic behind Murray’s recruitment of Lendl, who joined the Scot before he had won a Grand Slam title and knew from experience how to convert narrow failure into ultimate success, eyebrows have been raised at some of the other appointments.
Edberg and Becker both won six Grand Slam titles, but what more are they going to bring to Federer and Djokovic, who have already won 17 and six respectively?
Djokovic said yesterday that Becker “understands our sport very well and Grand Slams in particular” and added that he had “a champion’s mentality”.
Becker was reluctant to go into detail about what he hopes to add to Djokovic’s game, but he pointed out: “I’ve been in 10 Grand Slam finals. I know exactly what a player feels like when he’s in the later stages of a tournament.”
He added: “It’s been a trend in tennis ever since the relationship between Lendl and Murray worked. We have other former greats, the likes of Stefan Edberg, Michael Chang, Goran Ivanisevic and Sergi Bruguera.
“It’s smart because when we played in the mid-Eighties to late Nineties it was a little bit slower, but we still had graphite rackets. It wasn’t all wood. The game is not that different to when we played and I think it’s a smart move by the current players.
“The competition never sleeps. You have to improve consistently. You have to watch over your shoulder what is coming around. Some of the things that worked five years ago don’t work anymore.
“It was the same thing in my time. When I played, I consistently had to perform and I had to improve my game because your opponents don’t sleep. I think it’s similar with the top players today. You want to consistently improve and you have to find ways to do that.”
Edberg has been out of the game for the last 15 years, but after spending some time with Federer in Dubai in the off season has agreed to work with the former world No 1 for 10 weeks this year. Federer hopes Edberg would be “fresh, new and inspiring”.
He added: “Him being the legend he is and someone I look up to so much, anything he will say will mean very much to me and my team. I think we can build on that.”
Murray said that the players do not necessarily look for technical expertise from their coaches. “For some guys, having that personality who has been there and done it can help at certain stages of tournaments and matches, but you will not see massively technical changes to any of those guys’ games because it’s pretty much their first coaching job, the same as Ivan.”
He added: “Just having the ex-players around is great and exciting for the players. When you go into a players’ lounge and Becker is there, Edberg, Lendl, Chang, Ivanisevic, it’s cool, nice for a player. But the reality is that the player still needs to put in the work.”
Rafael Nadal is now the only member of the game’s “Fab Four” without a celebrity coach, but his uncle Toni, who has coached him throughout his career, can sleep easy. “I’ve never fired anybody in my team since the start of my career,” the world No 1 said. “I feel comfortable like this.
“If I haven’t changed anything until now, when I’m 27 and half years old, I’m probably not going to change. I’m a person who thinks that if something is going wrong, 95 or 99 per cent of the time it’s because of me, not anybody else.”