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Tennis

Big-name coaches add intrigue to new season; more mail

Photo: Julian Smith/EPA

Novak Djokovic (left) has started working with another multiple Grand Slam winner in Boris Becker.

A quick mailbag in advance of the first Grand Slam tournament of 2014. We'll be back soon with Australian Open seed reports and then filing daily from Melbourne. Good media soldier that I am, I will also report that Tennis Channel will be on the air daily.

Novak and Boris (Noris? Bovack? Sorry, I'm not very good at this) has me wondering exactly what tennis coaches do. How much do they really help a top pro?
-- Brandon, Chicago

• Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal won titles. Roger Federer reached a final -- with a larger racket. A distressingly large cohort of players went down with injuries. And yet, most the of the questions over the past two weeks pertain to '80s/'90s stars such as Boris Becker (who is working with Novak Djokovic), Stefan Edberg (Federer), Michael Chang (Kei Nishikori) and others returning to coach, tennis' past meeting its present.

Some of these moves are head-scratchers. Some may work out. Some may not. Some of this reminds me of the Soap Box Derby, dads living vicariously through their kids. Some of this seems like a behavioral bias, whereby we prefer to do something rather than do nothing. We'll know more in three weeks, still more in three months and by the summer, we'll all be able to assess which of these hires made a difference. For now, if nothing else, it provides us with another talking point heading into the Australian Open.

Anyway, to Brandon's question. First, I agree: We need some reductive nicknames. Fedberg? Bovak? Ivandy (for Ivan Lendl's partnership with Andy Murray)?

How much do these coaches help? Here's our continuum: Jimmy Connors/Maria Sharapova was a punchline, an abject failure that didn't last as long as some Scorsese movies. Lendl is the secret sauce that helped Murray break through. Which is to say: Let's keep open minds and see how it goes.

Lendl, Becker and now Edberg. Are these semi-p.r. stunts or half-serious decisions? What does the coaching business hold for the career coaches like Darren Cahill and Brad Gilbert who seem to have been marginalized by these former greats? Have they been ignored because they've diluted their brands via their media gigs that afforded them excessive visibility to air their views?
-- Tim Barlow, New York

• I think you're reading too much into it. Four points:

1. Let's be clear: Gilbert and Cahill were fine players, but they weren't in the same league as Lendl, Edberg and Becker, each of them multiple Grand Slam winners. In some cases, the playing caliber of the coach doesn't matter. In others, I think it can create a credibility gap. "What do you know about playing in a Grand Slam final?"

2. In some cases, there are logistical issues. I suspect that Cahill and Federer would have done well together. But Cahill has kids, lives in Las Vegas and, yes, works in television. Hard to ask him to give that up to spend months and months on the road with a player based in Europe.

3. In other cases, it's about the mix of personalities. Gilbert and Federer?

"Brad, how do you feel about Sancerre?"

"Remind me again, Roger: Where did he play his college ball?"

4. I don't think that the "media gig" is a deterrent. Some commentators have coached concomitantly, such as Cahill with various Adidas players, Gilbert with Nishikori and Patrick McEnroe with the USTA.

What are the chances of Serena Williams hiring Steffi Graf to surpass Graf's Open era record of 22 Grand Slam titles? Not that Serena needs any help, but it's always great to have someone who did that in your corner. Also, how about Maria Sharapova hiring Monica Seles (to beat Serena); Victoria Azarenka hiring Martina Navratilova (to work on her fitness so that she can avoid retirements/withdrawals and be consistent all year); and Aga Radwanska hiring Gabriela Sabatini (to help her win her first Slam; Martina Hingis would be a good fit for Aga's game, but wanted to stick to the '80s)? I know the answers -- especially the first scenario, as Graf on the WTA circuit again, even as a coach, is never going to happen -- but it's a fun exercise to think through.
-- Anonymous

• Well played. Imagine, a few years ago, you were asked the following: Which one of these coach-player columns is factual and which is fake?

A

Edberg-Federer
Lendl-Murray
Becker-Djokovic
Chang-Nishikori
Sharapova-Connors

B

Graf-Williams
Sabatini-Radwanska
Seles-Sharapova
Navratilova-Azarenka

Who among us would have gotten the right answer? (Not I.) Back to Anon's question (and while we generally resist anonymous questions, this one was both innocuous and tantalizing): We all know that Graf traveling the WTA circuit to coach a player is about as likely as Dennis Rodman serving as an international diplomat. Wait, bad example. But it's inconceivable. Like Mike Tyson writing an op-ed in The New York Times.

Wait.

Anyway, I cannot imagine Graf -- mother of two, devoted spouse, intensely private, never a tennis-phile -- returning to coach. I like Hingis and Radwanska. And I really like Navratilova and Azarenka. In general, I like the idea of more female coaches.

I have always wanted to ask your opinion about this, but I was sure you would sit this one out. However, the timing is perfect. First, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin, then the Greenpeace activists are granted amnesty and leave Russia and, finally, Pussy Riot walks free from a Russian prison -- all in the span of a fortnight. And here is my question: Given how proud Sharapova is of her Russian heritage (and rightfully so), shouldn't she be doing more in terms of taking a public stance on some of the issues that are painfully holding back her country? And is it unjust when I don't expect the same from a Vera Zvonareva or a Svetlana Kuznetsova?

Granted, Sharapova is a professional athlete who is here to play tennis, but to be a constant presence/force on a massive public platform, with a voice that could be loud and unedited -- why waste away?!? I know, I know -- her life, her choice. I may be in the minority here, but it just doesn't feel right to be one of the most famous Russians alive today and not make a comment -- even in passing -- while you sit and play the role of NBC correspondent for the Sochi Winter Olympics, which, to no one's surprise, are marred by controversy.
-- Charith, India

• Her life. Her choice.

Charith asks a fair question. But I think it has to stop at that: a question. As opposed to an expectation, or a demand.

Yes, you and I might wish that athletes, generically, made better use of their platforms and influence and were more willing to take political, social and cultural stands, even if that meant jeopardizing some commercial relationships. In the case of Sharapova, she is well-positioned -- maybe even singularly so -- to speak out about issues. Can you imagine the impact of her saying something to the effect of: "While I spend the majority of my time in the United States, I still chose to play under the Russian flag. Which tells you all you need to know about my unwavering fondness and loyalty to the country. But this also underscores why I am so disappointed that Pussy Riot goes to jail/anti-gays laws are on the books/Kremlin-connected companies dominate 'independent' media/whatever."

At the same time, Sharapova has 30 million reasons to stay out of the political fray. (Random aside: Who determined that one reason = $1?) Less cynically, she may have innumerable valid personal reasons for remaining quiet and declining to use her platform for this purpose. She has family in Russia. She has friends in Russia. She might not want the time and energy suck that would automatically come with being a high-profile political activist.

We applaud the Navratilova types (left and right) who aren't afraid to take stands, endorsements and popularity ratings be damned. But I also think we have to respect those who chose to steer clear. Their life. Their choice.

Should we read into Maria Sharapova's inability to keep Serena Williams out of her interviews (nothing about her is exciting unless she pulls SW into the picture)? She spends a considerable portion of each publicity piece on SW. I wish her racket was generating headlines because these interviews make Sharapova appear desperate and bitter.
-- Ope, Chicago

• It was one big spoonful of criticism for Sharapova from you guys this week. Ope, one can safely assume, is referring to fallout from these comments Sharapova made about Williams in a New York Times story.

Sorry, but I am squarely in the Sharapova corner on this one. She is simply answering the question posed to her. This isn't p.r. This isn't a publicity piece. She is consenting to an interview and being asked about her chief rival. She is then answering with candor. She is damned either way. If she declines to answer the question -- "Sorry, I will not talk about Serena" -- she comes across as being defensive or petulant or psyched out. If she answers (even if she is saying nothing particularly offensive or surprising), it becomes the headline. I think we need to take out scissors and cut her some slack here.

What about Juan Martin del Potro? Realistically, what are his chances of wresting a Grand Slam title from one of the Big Four in 2014?
-- Todd Purvis, Thomasburg, Ontario

• I want del Potro as a neighbor. I want him on my dorm floor. I want him in my office. Pleasant disposition. Doesn't get too high or too low. Nice perspective. But if you'll pardon the lapse into horribly trite football coach speak, I question whether he has the make-up to win a second Slam.

Generally, the Hall of Fame discussion should be held off until the player retires. But I could not resist this case. If Aga Radwanska's career progresses as it has been so far (i.e., continued presence in top five, smattering of final appearances in Premier and Slam finals but no major breakthroughs), will she be a candidate? She is one of the most entertaining players (for the right reasons) on tour and has shown that power is not the only way to get to the top. Or is the Hall of Fame solely restricted to Grand Slam holders?
-- Sumit, Jersey City, N.J.

• Oy. I take a backseat to no one in my fondness for Radwanska's game, style and ability to overcome a lack of power with imagination -- you might even call it wit. But it's an (over)reach to enshrine players with one major title. Zero major titles and the Hall of Fame becomes a Mall of Fame. Rhode Island is a small place. Include No-Slam Wonders and you risk a facility expansion project that crosses state lines.

Are we going to see some new tennis podcasts in 2014? I'd love to hear one with my fellow Marylander Pam Shriver. Thanks.
-- Brian, Columbia, Md.

• Thanks, Brian. Yeah, we need to make time for some podcasts. And Pam is welcome to come by the Cat Ranch any time.

Shots, miscellany

• Australian Open suicide pool. No diving. Enter here. I'll supply prizes to the winners.

• Jared Donaldson, 17, on what he learned from training with Federer (via Colette Lewis).

• The inimitable Rick Macci, who has coached Jennifer Capriati and the Williams sisters, has a new book out.

• Sam Stosur with an impressive winner at the Hopman Cup last week.

• Andy Murray has trademarked his name.

Here's match point of Federer's victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a Melbourne exhibition benefiting the Roger Federer Foundation. Wednesday's event also featured Rod Laver, who hit with Federer, and Lleyton Hewitt, who beat Federer in the Brisbane final on Sunday.

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