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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

If You Missed Mats Wilander at the Easter Bowl, Don't Miss This

I enjoy talking to tennis coaches about their experiences with junior development; it's an endlessly fascinating subject for me, and I like to think I learn something from every conversation. I am a little less certain what the superstars of the sport have much to offer in that department. Some time back, Pete Sampras was wondering why he wasn't asked to do more, but if I recall correctly, Peter Bodo put the USTA's reluctance to meet Sampras's considerable price as the reason. Recently, Jimmy Connors tweeted this:

Jimmy Connors (JC_109) on Twitter

Conventional wisdom has always been divided on the issue. Many people believe that truly superior athletes are not able to teach the game they play so well, simply because they have no understanding of how the game appears to those who don't possess their physical gifts. The difference between the Los Angeles Lakers coaching stints of Earvin Magic Johnson and Phil Jackson illustrates this view well.

Everyone who has been following the Andy Murray coaching carousel knows that many are urging him to hire a former Grand Slam champion, reasoning that he needs someone who has done it to help him over the hump he's faced the past couple of years.

Although I see their point, I think I lean toward the Phil Jackson type (I suspect Brad Gilbert is the tennis equivalent), as I just don't see any great correlation between the number of personal championships and the ability to get the best out of a player you are coaching.

This is a long introduction to my Tennis Recruiting article this week, which is actually nothing more than an edited transcription of the talk seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander gave at the Easter Bowl last month. I knew he was working as an adviser to the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., and I've always had the highest regard for their development philosophy, but I wasn't that familiar with Wilander's views, save for a few controversies he created with remarks about Roger Federer some years ago.

I didn't know what to expect from the talk, whether it would focus on Wilander's own career, his current business, his thoughts on the state of tennis, etc., but like all good speakers, Wilander was able to intermingle philosophy, observations and humor into a fascinating package. The audience questions were excellent, contributing much to the session, and the next day, I was still talking about some of the ideas and methods Wilander had given in response. I wish there had been more people, especially coaches, there to hear it, but fortunately I recorded the talk, and Wilander graciously consented to my request to transcribe and publish it.

There is no question that Wilander's seven Grand Slam titles give him an aura of credibility that a normal teaching pro espousing similar concepts may not have, but it is also true that Wilander is widely considered to have gotten the most out of his potential, as physically he is in no way extraordinary.

Everyone who was at the talk will have their own favorite quote or lesson. Mine came very near the end, when Wilander was asked about size in today's game.

Coaches have to listen to kids, and kids, you need to know, how do you want to play tennis?

What makes me happy? What makes me passionate about trying? What kind of game makes me want to give 110 percent?

It's easy to say Lleyton Hewitt should come to the net, play more aggressive, because that's what he needs to do. But he doesn't want to do that.

I remember playing Jim Courier in an exhibition, I'd lost to him already a couple of times, and I was sick and tired of losing. I said I'm just going for it, and I don't go for it, ever. I just hit the ball as hard as I can and I won. And after the match Jim said, that's what you have to do against me. And I said, Jim, I don't want to do that. That's not how I want to play tennis. It won me the match today, but that's not passion for me. My way of playing tennis is this way.

So you have to find the way that you think is more fun, the way you enjoy the competition, can play within yourself, give it your all.

Your identity as a player has to do with your body type more than we think. You can't make tennis players play in one particular way.

Please take a few minutes to read the entire piece. It's quite likely you'll find something that makes you think a little more about your approach to the game, whether you're a fan, a player, a parent or a coach.


Andy M. said...

Great interview with Wilander, pretty impressive that he was able to win the US Open considering how soft he hit. Just shows how mentally tough and fit he was.

russ said...

Thanks Colette, that was really great!