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Navratilova just part of coaching carousel

12/11/2014

So you rose from No. 11 in the world in January to No. 3 in the WTA rankings by the end of the year, and along the way, you made a Grand Slam final in Paris. What do you do?

If you’re Simona Halep, you fire your coach.

So you made the semifinals (at least) of three Grand Slam events and rocket from No. 32 to No. 7. Incidentally, you also break out as a star and marketing sensation. What do you do?

If you’re Eugenie Bouchard, you fire your coach. Although in her case, the official statement said that she and Nick Saviano agreed to part by mutual agreement. Translation: They fired each other.

So you’ve been ranked as high as No. 2 and made it to the Wimbledon final, thanks to your exceptional defense, wily tactics and remarkably deft “feel” and hands. What do you do?

If you’re Agnieszka Radwanska, you hire a woman known for her exceptional offense, straight-ahead serve-and-volley game, and all court aggression in Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova.

So you won the junior Wimbledon singles title at 15 and, according to some in-the-trenches coaches, you were the best prospect in Australia in the past two decades. You quit the game, abruptly and with no plans to return, at age 18. What do you do?

If you’re Ashleigh Barty, you become a tennis coach, hoping to find or help the next … Ashleigh Barty.

The proverbial “coaching carousel” has been spinning wildly these past few weeks. In fact, it’s spinning so quickly that anyone who hops aboard for a ride is likely to get flung off, or end up staggering away when the brief ride is over to go and hurl in the hedges. It’s fair to ask, “What on earth is going on here?”

The activity in the annual late-year coaching bazaar has been brisk as well as bizarre. What had once been a relatively straightforward and often long-lasting relationship between famous (or even not so famous) player and his coach (think Pete Sampras and Paul Annacone or even the more recently, Victoria Azarenka and Sam Sumyk) seems to have become a partnership built upon -- and often swiftly ruined by -- mystifying and insufficiently clear factors and conflicts.

For more and more players, having just one coach is as insufficient as having just one car in the family. Furthermore, the once comprehensive role that defined the coach has been shattered into splinters. There are coaches who wouldn’t touch a player’s forehand grip or ball toss if you paid him -- that’s because they’re more psychologist than tutor. Others have a purpose that could not be any narrower. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic hired Boris Becker last year because he thought the German icon might help him win the most critical of points in the biggest of matches.

At least one coach claims he was fired partly because he just isn’t a life-of-the-party kind of guy. Wim Fissette, recently let go by Halep, explained: “She is a girl who needs a lot of variation. That's why, for example, every tournament there were some family members to ‘entertain’ her.”

Fissette also said that Halep simply feels more comfortable with Romanians on her team, which might explain why she’ll now work with Victor Ionita, who is a fellow countryman but not why she’s also hired Thomas Hogstedt, who is not. Incidentally, there’s a new niche in the coaching trade, and Hogstedt, who has coached Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki, defines it when he defers and describes himself as a mere “consultant” to Halep.

You can put James Blake in the “consultant” category as well. He’ll be working with America’s brightest prospect, 22-year-old and ATP No. 42 Jack Sock. Blake, who doesn’t want to travel, will mostly mentor Sock. “I'm definitely not in the role of being the day-to-day coach. That's Troy Hahn. He's worked with him closely. I help with some of the big-picture type things, keep the mindset the right way, make sure he gives his opponents enough respect. I think that's something a lot of younger players overlook. Keep his mind in the right place.”

In other words, Blake is the coach who will try to peel Sock’s eyeballs off his Twitter feed and make sure Sock knows the price he’ll pay for a late night out. It’s a far cry from ordering him to do 50 sit-ups or to serve out a shopping basket full of balls.

The motivation behind the Radwanska-Navratilova partnership is similar to the force that drove Djokovic to find Becker. Only Djokovic was a Grand Slam champ in a Grand Slam finals slump, while Radwanska still hasn’t punched through. The conspicuous difference in the styles of the two women raises some interesting questions: Will Navratilova advise Radwanska to chip and charge behind her service return if she gets to critical break point against a Sharapova or Williams in a French Open or Wimbledon semifinal?

The job definition for “coach” has become so pliant that even television commentators have jumped into the fray, as evidenced by the fact that Tennis Channel’s Justin Gimelstob will replace Mike Sell as coach of the highest-ranking American, No. 19 John Isner. Navratilova is also a TC commentator. As is Lindsay Davenport, who will be coaching promising youngster Madison Keys in 2015.

Perhaps “coaching” is too strong a word to use in some of these cases. Davenport is locked into her commentary work for the upcoming year, and she’s also the mother of four. So she says she’ll just talk with Keys when she can, presumably with a phone in one hand and her 11-month-old in the other, bouncing on her hip.

Although the general U.S. economy may still be a bit sluggish, coaching certainly has become a booming and baffling business. My advice to any coach who has got a solid top 20-type player looking to improve: Don’t let her or him get anywhere near the top five or you might find yourself out of a job.