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Friday, March 28, 2008
Blake, coach have worked in concert from the outset

By Ravi Ubha
Special to ESPN.com

Tennis, and sports in general, it seems, are all about getting results -- and fast. So when a player starts to slump, who often gets the boot? The coach, of course.

Frenchman Gael Monfils, still trying to live up to his enormous potential, goes through coaches like courtside towels. Compatriot Tatiana Golovin is almost as bad, and the Andy Roddick-Jimmy Connors experiment ceased this month.

There are, however, a few partnerships that have endured. Here's a look at a few.

Player: James Blake
Coach: Brian Barker
Began: 1991

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Blake

When Blake claimed his first title in Washington six years ago, it turned out to be a bittersweet moment for Barker. The two decided that if he ever won a tournament, Barker would have to conquer his fears and go skydiving.

As Blake won more titles, more fun followed -- Barker was forced to don a gold tooth at the Australian Open one year and put on a moustache in another.

What's next? Blake wants Barker to ride a bull or run a race wearing only spandex underwear. Getting along, then, is obviously a major reason why the duo have lasted more than 15 years, the granddaddy of all current player-coach partnerships.

"James and I, I can't imagine any coach and student getting along better just because I think I'm a pretty laid-back guy and have no desire to get rich and famous as a coach, and from his point of view, he's certainly a gentleman and a nice guy and fair, so we never really have any major problems,'' said Barker, adding that there's no way he'll ride that bull.

It wasn't like that at the start. A 12-year-old Blake was prone to temper tantrums, and many a racket would go flying.

Barker continued to mentor Blake when he was at Harvard (and also coached by Dave Fish), and they've traveled together full-time from Blake's third pro season onward, taking in wins, losses, career-threatening injuries and family tragedy, with Blake's older brother, Thomas, nearby.

According to Barker, one of the reasons they're still in tandem is Blake's ability to comprehend that when he wins or loses, it's mostly down to Blake.

Barker has never had an official contract, which suits him just fine.

"A few years ago, James drew up something on a piece of paper as we were coming back from a tournament,'' Barker said. "He said, 'I think I'm gonna pay you like this,' and I said, 'OK,' and I never looked at that paper. I don't know what it is. He has a basic idea of what we do, and it's fair. It's always gonna be fair when you're dealing with an honest and fair kid.''

Mauresmo's journey

One or two big wins.

According to Courteau, that's what Amelie Mauresmo needs to get back on track following a disastrous 2007 season.

Unburdened after winning her first two Grand Slam titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, the graceful Mauresmo was supposed to carry that momentum over. It didn't happen.

She underwent an emergency appendectomy almost exactly a year ago, was depressed for weeks postsurgery, then missed the U.S. Open with an adductor strain, and was also struggling with motivation. Mauresmo finished the campaign outside the top 10 (No. 18) for the first time since 2000.

"After this operation, I know it was bad for her, but she just needs one or two big victories to get the confidence back,'' Loic Courteau said.

So far in 2008, Mauresmo, 28, has made three quarterfinals in six tournaments, playing well sporadically -- she took doubles partner and current world No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova to a second-set tiebreak in Dubai last month and stretched No. 6 Anna Chakvetadze to three sets in Paris in February. A week before the Kuznetsova match, though, Mauresmo, who entered Miami ranked 24th, pondered quitting after losing to Thai qualifier Tamarine Tanasugarn in Doha, Qatar.

-- Ravi Ubha

Player: Amelie Mauresmo
Coach: Loic Courteau
Began: 2002

Coaching relationships are usually at their most tenuous at the start, and it was no different for the calm Courteau and complex Mauresmo, who initially agreed to give it a go at two tournaments in 2002: in Rome and at Roland Garros. Three years later and despite some marked improvements from his pupil -- including becoming the world No. 1 and reaching maiden semifinals at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon -- Courteau was still on tenterhooks.

"In this job, you never know when it can stop,'' he said. "Every week I thought it could. Amelie, I know she was a very high-level player, and she was supposed to win a Grand Slam very soon. In sports you have to get some big results.''

Courteau, a top French junior in his day, only felt at ease when Mauresmo won the year-end championships in 2005, which served as a springboard for successes at the Australian Open and Wimbledon the following season as the Grand Slam drought finally came to an end.

Mauresmo has worked with former French Open champion (and pop star) Yannick Noah, French Davis Cup captain Guy Forget and Fed Cup captain Georges Goven during Courteau's tenure. Courteau says he's unworried about the implications, and he also encourages Mauresmo to travel alone from time to time.

"She doesn't belong to me,'' Courteau said. "I don't do this for me, I do it for her. I want to try to find the best thing for her, the best improvement for her career, the best everything. I think we trust in each other, and I think I'm very honest with her.''

Player: Justine Henin
Coach: Carlos Rodriguez
Began: 1996

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Henin

Can there be a stronger bond between coach and player on the women's tour, at least among a pair that aren't related?

Rodriguez, an Argentine who cut short his pro career when he realized he wasn't up to scratch (similar to Courteau and numerous others), turned down a chance to coach established Belgian pro Dominique Monami so he could focus on a young Henin instead. Good choice.

By that time, Henin's mother, Francoise, had died of cancer, and a few years later, Henin became estranged from her father, Jose, and siblings.

Rodriguez was ever present, and he and his family were also there for the world No. 1 after her marriage to Pierre-Yves Hardenne fell apart.

Just how much Henin depends on Rodriguez is evidenced by those looks to him during a match, although they're becoming less frequent. Henin disclosed at last year's French Open she'd reconciled with her family and now appears much more open and relaxed.

She acknowledged Rodriguez's contribution in the wake of the straight-sets rout over Ana Ivanovic in the 2007 French final.

"We've been together for 11 years,'' Henin said in her postmatch news conference. "Only a few people can do that. It's tough. You need a lot of respect, you need to be strong, and you need to love each other a lot.''

"He really insists on saying he's not really the father of Justine, but I think he played a really significant role in her upbringing and education, her life as a young girl to the woman she is now,'' said former Belgian pro Filip Dewulf, who now writes about tennis for Het Laatste Nieuws.

When it comes to practice, Rodriguez's philosophy is all business. In one of their first conversations, he warned Henin he'd be her best friend and worst enemy, and at times unbearable.

Player: Ivan Ljubicic
Coach: Riccardo Piatti
Began: 1997

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Ljubicic

An unassuming fixture on the tour, Piatti coached fellow Italians Omar Camporese, Renzo Furlan, Stefano Pescosolido and Cristiano Caratti (the first three won two titles apiece), among others, before teaming with Ljubicic in June 1997. There was a brief stint with Novak Djokovic, too.

His approach is fairly simple: get to know the person before you get to know the player.

"For me, tennis is not just about shots,'' Piatti said. "It's really important to know the other person so I can teach them something. If I know the other, I understand better what he needs. Coaching is not something like going to a factory, staying for three, four, eight hours, [then leaving], you need to spend a lot of time with the other one.''

Ljubicic fled war-ravaged Bosnia as an early teen in 1992 and furthered his career in Italy, a stone's throw from Croatia, the country he calls home and led to a Davis Cup title three years ago. The two grew tight, and Piatti was Ljubicic's best man when he got married in November 2004.

Ljubicic briefly worked with former pro Wojtek Fibak two years ago and consulted former Croatian Davis Cup captain Niki Pilic during last year's grass-court season.

He's sticking with Piatti despite a dip in the rankings.

"If I feel I need someone who can give me a little bit of a fresher approach to the game, I just take the guy for a month, two or three, as long as it takes, and Riccardo can work with that person, too,'' Ljubicic said. "He can see things from a different view, too. I don't feel like you need to change the coach to get some new ideas.''

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.