Commentary

Can former stars win as coaches?

Pairings with current big names have potential, but also potential pitfalls

Updated: January 12, 2014, 9:42 AM ET
By Sandra Harwitt | Special to ESPN.com

DOHA, Qatar -- At last week's Qatar ExxonMobil Open in Doha, the hot topic of conversation was that Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg were joining Ivan Lendl in the coaches' corner.

The resounding opinion around Doha was that this new wave of former No. 1s turning up as coaches will enhance excitement on the tour. And while the tennis produced today is about as fine as any sport can hope for, the belief is that the return of past greats will add a fresh dimension to the game.

Andy Murray, who started the trend by hiring Lendl a couple of years ago, is in favor of Lendl's contemporaries coming out for the ride: "I think it's good for tennis. It's good for the players. I think it gives the sport a boost. I mean, when those guys played they played in great eras. They were all great players."

[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
AP Photo/Kirsty WigglesworthAndy Murray now has two Grand Slam titles with Ivan Lendl behind him.
While world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who is loyal to the core to his uncle Toni Nadal -- he's been there since Nadal was a boy and there's no indication Toni won't be there when his nephew hits his last competitive ball as a pro -- isn't bringing back an old-time favorite, he supports others doing so.

"Talking about the tour, is true it's much better if you have big stars, past stars involved in our sport like Lendl, like Becker, like Edberg, that they will be around the tour much more often today because of their new status that they have," Nadal said. "That will be great news for our tour, our sport. So [I'm] happy to hear this news, because in the end, what makes the sports big is the combination of history and new events."

While many around the game are wondering how the voices like those of Becker and Edberg can change the games of their new charges, others think it's a tad silly to be focusing on that aspect of these new relationships. After all, how much tinkering does a top player and multiple-Grand Slam champion need to do?

What's actually more intriguing to contemplate is the dynamics of these new relationships. How do their personalities mesh?

Ivan Lendl and Andy Murray

The Lendl-Murray partnership is a proven success. They've been together since just prior to the start of the 2012 season, and since their union Murray's become a legitimate superstar, winning the 2012 U.S. Open title, the 2012 Olympic gold medal and the 2013 Wimbledon trophy.

Lendl and Murray actually have similar dry senses of humor and their brand of funny can often come at the expense of someone else. What Lendl brought to the equation was what Murray sorely needed: a no-nonsense, grown-up guy whose advice he couldn't just dismiss.

Prior to Lendl, Murray was a whiner, a guy in his 20s who complained and berated his mother from the court, which made many observers wince. Murray was stubborn to the core and confident he knew his game better than anyone else possibly could. When Lendl arrived on the scene, Murray started to toe the line.

Instead of whimpering to his friends' box, he focused his energy in a positive direction by thinking about how to turn a losing situation into a winning moment. No doubt the presence of the stern taskmaster Lendl sitting stone-faced at courtside was enough to keep Murray from throwing a tantrum.

Lendl's been a motivator and Murray's been capable of listening, which turns out to be a winning combination.

Boris Becker and Novak Djokovic

This is the most difficult alliance of the three notable coach-player pairings to get a handle on. Some have already predicted the two might not last much longer than the one-match tenure Jimmy Connors and Maria Sharapova had last summer.

[+] EnlargeBoris Becker
Ineke Zondag/AFP/Getty ImagesBoris Becker never won the French Open as a player, but Novak Djokovic hopes Becker's coaching will get him over the hump at Roland Garros.
It will be interesting to see how Becker adapts to being the man behind the star, because even at 46 years old and more than 15 years removed from hitting balls for a living he still sees himself as a prominent player who should be accorded all the privileges that role affords.

The danger here is that if someone believes he is still the focus of attention, you wonder how easy will it be for him to accept being in the backseat. We know Djokovic is obsessed with winning a French Open (he came close in 2013 in a five-set loss to Nadal, a match in which he had a workable lead), but is Becker the guy to help him to that trophy?

While Lendl pushed Murray to the Wimbledon title Lendl never won, it's not as easy seeing Becker guiding Djokovic to victory in a sandpit. Djokovic is an exceptionally intelligent guy and self-assured when it comes to his talent, but he's also a cautious, calculating guy. His style of tennis shows that, because Djokovic hardly has an intimate rapport with the net, preferring to stay back in the trenches.

In comparison, Becker's always thrown caution to the wind, diving after everything he wants without any worry about the consequences.

Stefan Edberg and Roger Federer

It's easy to see why Federer would be attracted to working with Edberg, because they appear to be similarly mild-mannered personalities. What is somewhat harder to decipher is exactly what Federer hopes to gain from this arrangement so late in his career.

It's likely that Edberg is along as a sounding board, and it seems far-fetched that he'll be driving Federer's career in a different direction. Sure, if Edberg came along a few years back it's possible the Swede could have effectively motivated Federer consistently forward to the net. After all, there was hardly a better serve-and-volley player out there than Edberg.

But it's difficult to imagine Federer romancing the net after all these years. Federer, however, likes to have company and he enjoys compliance with his judgment calls, and if his company is not in agreement then he can handle a constructive argument as to why he's seeing things wrong.

Edberg's more than capable of handling that kind of responsibility and he'll be perfectly happy being in the background. The gentle Swede never had a big ego in his playing days and he isn't about to have one now.

The memory remains of Edberg arguing one year in the Indianapolis locker room against asking for more prize money, asking his colleagues how much money they really needed. Suffice it to say, Edberg's opinion wasn't very popular.

Even with a new baby on the way -- which would make it three Federer towheads for Roger and wife Mirka -- daddy doesn't sound inclined to leave the game anytime soon. How long this duo lasts is likely up to Edberg. Since he left the game Edberg has rarely come around, and even 10 weeks (the amount of time he and Federer have committed to) away from home might turn out to be too much for this family man.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

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