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Indian Wells, California

March 9 - 22, 2020

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Simona Halep

Coaching Carousel Can Be a Dizzying Experience

by Melissa Isaacson

Jim Courier says he has absolutely no desire to coach, and the former World No. 1 and four-time Grand Slam champion has been asked “plenty.”

While the Tennis Channel analyst left it at that, the fact that many of his contemporaries either coach now or have dipped their toes into the profession does not so much as tempt him, he says, to join the fray.

You can hardly blame him.

A world fraught with more firings than hirings, rumor and innuendo, it puts those who are in demand because they achieved some level of success in their own careers in a position where the whims of a fickle athlete can be a demeaning experience.

Or they can fight back, as Darren Cahill did when he essentially fired his boss, Simona Halep, last year. Cahill, once the 10th-ranked doubles player in the world and a 1988 US Open semifinalist who coached Lleyton Hewitt, the youngest world No. 1, and Andre Agassi, the oldest, is certainly not the first coach who has walked away. But he might be the first to have the player later publicly admit she was wrong and ask him to come back.

“He never had something to complain about my game and about the work that I do…but just with my attitude,” Halep said in July, three months after he left her. “I knew that is the only one thing that I have to change to have him back. So I work hard, and I changed.

“Now I’m happy I can be positive on court, and I will never be negative. I felt ashamed about what I did.”

Halep still works on her attitude, but she hired a sports psychologist and became Cahill’s third student to ascend to the No. 1 ranking.

“Players hire and pay the coach,” Courier tells, “but Darren flipped the switch and took the power back when he said, ‘I’m the boss and the player is not going to tell me what to do.’ He earned her respect then. He demanded she listen to him and not everyone has that in the coaching business.

“It’s an awkward fact in tennis that coaches, unless they’re hired by corporations, are employed by the players and that creates a strange power structure.”

Grigor Dimitrov, now with Daniel Vallverdu, is on his sixth coach since 2009 and he is not at all unusual. Asked how he knows when it is time to make a change, he smiles.

“You feel it,” says the tournament’s No. 3 seed, drawing out the “ee’s. “Just like any relationship. It’s just the way it is. You feel that. It’s a tough one. I’ve gone through, yeah, quite a few coaches throughout my career but to be honest, I don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve taken.

“In a way, they were all collective decisions. We all sat down and spoke about the possibility of continuing. Basically, we always try to find ‘What’s the best for Grigor?’ And that’s how I developed as a person and that’s what made me realize what I really like in a coach, what I need right now. And step by step, you’re finding the right formula and once you have it, keep it.”

Grigor Dimitrov

Sometimes a change can be precipitated by an argument. No. 4 Alexander Zverev recently split with his coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, with reports saying Ferrero accused him of being unprofessional, often late to practice. There were also rumors that Zverev was considering hiring Boris Becker.

After arguing that he is never late to practice  “only dinner” — Zverev says he wouldn’t trade accusations with Ferrero. “Look, the relationship was good as long as it lasted,” he says. “I was happy with the work and unfortunately it had to end, but both of us have to move on. I will not say anything bad about him. It was always good.”

BNP Paribas Open semifinalist Borna Coric is funny but dead serious when he talks about why he changed his coach, agent and physio at the end of last year.

“I was in the same place for the last three years,” he says. “I was there between 40 and 50 [and] I think I can be better than that. So, obviously, I needed to change something and I can change myself, but I cannot fire myself.”

Borna Coric

Clearly, the decision is an individual one, as many reasons for changing or keeping a coach as there are players on tour.

“It’s whatever works,” says 18-time Grand Slam champion and Tennis Channel analyst Martina Navratilova. “But eventually, no matter how good a coach is, if you’ve been with them for a long time, they can’t tell you anything different or something new.

“It’s always good to have a different viewpoint but I don’t think that’s the case with most of these players because I don’t think they know enough to know that the coaches have already told them everything. But I think you have to take each case on an individual basis, how they get along, what they bring to the table, etc. So there’s no right reason or wrong reason.”

Courier says changing coaches is no different than any other relationship in life.

“My experience is the relationship has to be strong and if it gets fractured, if you lose trust in that person, then it’s time to move along,” he says. “But there are some relationships that last a long, long time — Tony Pickard and Stefan Edberg, they go whole careers. Rafa and his uncle. There are other players who like to change, change, change, change. They’re seekers and they try and extract information quickly and move along.”

Jack Sock is not one of those players. The No. 8 seed in Indian Wells says he views his team as extended family members, and as such he looks for different qualities in a coach than other players might.

“You have some guys who work with one, maybe two guys his whole career, then you have guys running through them pretty quick,” he says, snapping his fingers. “I can’t really answer for everyone else, it’s just who you’re most comfortable with, who will help provide you with some insight to improve your game.”

Sock made a change in August of last year, from Troy Hahn to Jay Berger, but the split was amicable, because Hahn wanted to spend time at home with a newborn and Berger had just moved on after 15 years as the head of men’s tennis for USTA Player Development. Sock also still has his childhood coach, Mike Wolf, who sees him when he’s home and occasionally comes on the road with him.

“My base are guys who are always there for me, who are going to be in my life forever,” Sock says. “I like having people who know me well. I’m not a guy [who’s going to go after someone, saying] ‘There’s a coach who took a guy to one in the world.’ I’m not going to ever hire somebody I don’t know and I’m not going to get along with well.

“A lot of the time with the coach and the team is outside the courts so for me, you have to be able to get along and have a good relationship and play cards and go to dinners and not butt heads. Some guys say, ‘I want to see you at the courts and then I’ll see you tomorrow.’ Very businesslike. But I like to spend time with my team.

“It’s a lonely world out here sometimes, so if you have a good team around you and people you enjoy being around, it makes it more fun.”

Jack Sock

Hale admits that even after the Cahill drama, she doesn’t know when it’s time to make a coaching change. “If something happens, you just make the decision in that moment,” she says. “But you cannot expect it. I can’t expect it.”

Zverev would like to avoid going that again and he thinks he has an easy solution.

“I have my dad,” he says, “and I still think my dad is the greatest coach tennis may have ever seen, so I’ll stick to that opinion.”

Alexander Zverev

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