Buzz: The effect of celebrity coaches
NEW YORK -- Tony Roche was the first celebrity coach to the stars.
The venerable Aussie won the French Open in 1966 and was one of the world's best singles players. Roche won a total of 15 Grand Slam doubles titles, and when his playing career was over, he moved into coaching. He spent eight productive years with Ivan Lendl, then Patrick Rafter, Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt. Three of them won majors on his watch.
In 2006, eight-time Grand Slam singles champion Jimmy Connors took the plunge, accepting Andy Roddick's offer to coach, but they parted after 18 months. In 2012, Ivan Lendl -- another eight-time major champion -- joined forces with Andy Murray. The results were dramatic: Murray won the Olympic gold medal in singles and two Grand Slam titles, including last year's Wimbledon.
And while Lendl and Murray parted ways earlier this year, suddenly there are celebrity coaches all over the place.
"Right," said Lendl recently, voice dripping with sarcasm, "I am a trend-setter."
As of Wednesday, five of the eight men left in the singles draw were coached by a former star who had won at least one Grand Slam:
• No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker (six majors)
• No. 2 Roger Federer and Stefan Edberg (six)
• No. 8 Andy Murray and Amelie Mauresmo (two)
• No. 10 Kei Nishikori and Michael Chang (one)
• No. 14 Marin Cilic and Goran Ivanisevic (one)
And No. 5 Milos Raonic, who was eliminated by Nishikori, is coached by former tour player Ivan Ljubicic. Martina Hingis (Sabine Lisicki) and Anastasia Myskina (Ekaterina Makarova) have both dabbled in coaching this season, as well.
"Don't call them celebrity coaches," said Brad Gilbert when the subject came up. "That's disrespecting their ability to coach. I get irritated when they say a good player can't coach."
Gilbert was another early entry in this category. Once the No. 4-ranked player in the world, Gilbert went on to coach Andre Agassi, Andy Murray and Roddick. He, along with Roche and Lendl, proved the crossover is possible -- and profitable. But, will the current crew get their players over the top? The only one to do it so far is Becker (seven Wimbledon finals, three titles), who helped Djokovic win Wimbledon two months ago.
Our Baseline Buzzologists, ESPN.com tennis editor Matt Wilansky and senior writer Greg Garber, tackle the subject:
Greg Garber: It's funny, growing up I remember major league stars struggling as managers. Red Sox slugger Ted Williams won 43 percent of his games and the Reds' Pete Rose was just over .500. The idea was that the very best athletes didn't have to master the subtle things to succeed. I feel like these former tennis stars are helping their already successful charges, not just with strategy but with the mental game. It's kind of cool when you have a Grand Slam champion in your box, yelling encouragement.
Matt Wilansky: And the best part about all these celebrity coaches (sorry, BG) is that none has been banned for life. The skipper who's had the most tangible effect, at least lately, is Edberg. A year ago, Federer flamed out especially hard in the last two majors of the year. His ground attack wasn't measuring up to the top dogs. This season, under the guidance of Edberg, Federer has made a steadfast decision to rush the net. Through four rounds at the Open, Federer has approached the net 160 times (winning 107 of those points), 23 more than a year ago. And whaddaya know: Federer is once again kind of the man.
Greg Garber: Quiz time: How many combined Grand Slam titles do these five coaches have? Answer below. Interestingly, Federer grew up idolizing Becker, then switched his allegiance to Edberg. He liked the way the Swedish champion carried himself on the court -- and his one-handed backhand. When Federer and Paul Annacone separated, Federer was a little tentative when he called Edberg. "It's always intimidating sort of forever to either just like speak to them or see them or spend time with them, because it's just not something you ever thought was going to happen," he said. "So when I called him, I expected a negative answer clearly. He doesn't need to do this in any way. So I'm thrilled that he took the opportunity." Answer: 16 Grand Slam singles titles, one fewer than Federer.
Matt Wilansky: After years of dormancy, one of the sweet by-products is the renewed tensions between the coaches themselves. Becker has called Edberg his biggest rival, though the German won 25 of 35 head-to-head meetings. And let's not forget Lendl, who played these two a combined 47 times. Mauresmo, of course, had no previous experience against any of them, but after a few months of a groundbreaking partnership with Murray, the jury is still out on whether she will help him overcome his barren run in 2014. Murray officially agreed to work with Mauresmo long term, and while the Scot has yet to win a title of any kind in a year, he did play inspired tennis against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga here in the fourth round.
Greg Garber: Another observation from Gilbert: "Maybe Lendl did give people an example. With him, it was all about his player. Guys are saying, 'Hey, Lendl's willing to do it, maybe I could make it work.' In some of these cases, the timing was right. Maybe the kids are a little older. That makes a big difference." In the case of Edberg, his two kids, Emilie and Christopher, are past high school age and perhaps, like Chris Evert -- whose youngest was 14 when she came back to tennis as a broadcaster -- it was a nice entrée back into the game.
Matt Wilansky: These coaches steadfastly believe they can instill their wisdom. As Ivanisevic recently said, "Even the great Roger Federer needs help controlling the mental pressure. That's the one thing that no man ever masters, whatever they tell you." A year ago, we saw a discernible decline in Federer's mental game. At the Open last year, he told the press he "self-destructed" after an apathetic loss to Tommy Robredo. And now? We're both well aware of his 180. But one word of caution if you're high on the Federer bandwagon. He could reach the semifinals here without playing a single player in the top 15. Something to keep in mind if he gets by Gael Monfils on Thursday night.
Greg Garber: And you know what I'm looking forward to, almost as much as seeing Monfils on that massive stage? The sight of Edberg sitting in the Federer box, still handsome with great posture, but absolutely powerless to have any impact on the outcome. That's completely contrary to the way it was in the brilliant careers of these former players. It has to be painful, knowing the cameras are on you, not to show more emotion when things aren't going well for your guy. Becker, too, is fun to watch. I'm not going to lie, sitting in Ashe, I've been spending way too much time during changeovers watching the coaching box.
Matt Wilansky: Well, Mr. Garber, I hate to break it to you, but I just had front-row seats watching Djokovic practice with Ryan Harrison. Becker was there, and he said nary a word to the world No. 1. He was basically a glorified ball picker-upper. Perhaps celebrity coaches are just ornamental after all. Hmmm.