- A former player who achieved success in the sport (usually but not exclusive to a lot of success), made a memorable impact on the sport and has returned to coach a famous player.
- An incredibly successful coach, with more than one athlete.
Going into 2012, the big tennis news was that former 8 time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl had become Andy Murray’s coach. While this wasn’t the first time a former great had returned to the game to coach a famous star, it kicked off the modern era, which now sees almost all of the top 10 being coached by so called “supercoaches”. With Murray leading the charge, future top 10 players Cilic and Nishikori hired Ivanisevic and Chang respectably, followed by Becker and Edberg joining Djokovic and Federer. In 2014, all four players have had great success, inspired by the success of their coaches and long time idols. Following Lendl’s departure, Murray hired another former player – this time Amelie Mauresmo. Of the two definitions provided, all 6 would firmly belong in the first. They have all made tiny but significant changes to their pupil’s game and turned them into a more formidable opponent, or Slam winner, but haven’t yet done enough to consider themselves amongst the greats of coaching.
Although largely ignored by the media, by definition the term supercoach has to have a secondary meaning, in many ways a more obvious one. As described above, a supercoach could mean someone who has set a few players on the path towards the top 10, grand slam finalists and beyond. One that remained with their subject all the way on that path would be even better. The two that spring immediately to mind here are Bob Brett and Nick Bollettieri. Also included in this definition could be Brad Gilbert, who had a decent playing career reaching 4th in the rankings before coaching Aggasi, Roddick, Murray and Nishikori, with varying success (it would be wrong of me not to mention the sleeping giant of British tennis here, Bogdanovic, who was also coached by Gilbert – I guess we all have that ex we regret ever seeing naked).
The true supercoach is possibly the person who can cross both bridges. One who has footprints in both camps? Or maybe a true supercoach is purely a great player who became a great coach. Does anyone tick both boxes? To answer that we should first explore both options, starting with what makes a player and coach great. Personally, I would argue a great coach is one who takes a good player, possibility languishing in 20-30 in the rankings and makes them capable of competing for Grand Slam titles. Furthermore, they should be able to do it more than once. Doing it once shows you found the right person to coach; doing it twice and more proves you’re a talented coach. It’s harder to define what makes a great player as no definition truly fits the majesty of the word, which is over-used (by myself included) anyway. Maybe we can agree that to be considered great you have to win a slam, spend time in the top 2 of the rankings and be remembered for your exploits in more than your own country. That still encompasses a wide range of players but is merely a drop in the ocean compared to how many have played the sport. Using my definitions of great, I certainly can’t think of an example of a great player becoming a great coach. So, the true supercoach is someone who can be considered in both definitions, even if they aren’t prominent in one.
Step forward Magnus Norman. Taking this back to the definitions at the top of this article, how does he fit into the first category? For that, I must draw your attention to 6 months at the start of 2000. A player, who had helped win the Davis Cup for Sweden in 1998 but had suffered with illnesses and injuries, appeared in Australia for the first slam of the year and made it all the way to the semi-finals. He followed that up with a title in the Rome Masters and an appearance at the French Open final, losing to Gustavo Kuerten. Of the 6 finals he played that year, that was the only one he lost, going on to reach the tour finals and finish the year 4th in the world with a time of it spent 2nd. Yes, it was merely a flash in the pan but I’d argue it’s good enough for the first category. You could claim that in those 6 months, and by winning the Davis Cup, Norman made a bigger impact on the tennis world than Henman or Rusedski did in their entire careers and both of those would be considered supercoaches in this country (yes, Rusedski reached the US Open final in 1997 but he didn’t face a single seed along the way – Norman faced future world number 1 Safin in the quarters).
Remember, to be called a true supercoach he must fit both definitions. If the fitting for the playing definition is loose then the coaching one certainly isn’t. Following retirement in 2004, Norman started coaching the 2002 Australian Open winner, Thomas Johannsson. Despite his best days being behind him, Norman was able to guide Thomas to the Wimbledon semi-finals and his final two ATP titles.
On the 4th November 2008, Norman took control of fiery but powerful Swede Robin Soderling. Before Magnus became his coach, Soderling was probably most famous for being the guy who mocked Nadal at Wimbledon. Not known for being nice, and permanently painting himself as an outsider, Soderling had done little to make friends on the tour. He was your typical solid top 30 player who was well known inside tennis but unheard of outside of it. That all changed when Norman took over. Magnus refined Robin’s already impressive forehand, making it almost unplayable, made his huge serve more reliable (although it was never perfect) and gave him a more powerful backhand. But, more than that, Norman was able to focus Soderling’s mind away from the distractions that used to lose him matches. Gone were the days when a player would irk him on the other side of the net to the extent where he would make so many errors he would throw the match. All of the work began to show when Soderling was the architect of, in my opinion, the greatest sporting shock of all time with victory over Nadal at the 2009 French Open. That fourth round win remains the only time Nadal has lost at the French and Soderling followed it up by reaching the final before losing to Federer.
He then went on to reach the quarter finals in America, destroy Nadal and Djokovic at the 2009 tour finals before successfully reaching the final again in France 2010 (this time beating Roger Federer) and winning the Paris masters as well as reaching world number 4. There was a time when he was genuinely feared by all of the world’s elite, and you can see why with the weapons he possessed. These weapons had always been there but had been fine-tuned by Norman. Once he split with Norman, his career started to slide, and unfortunately a nasty case of mono has meant he hasn’t played a match since 2011.
Despite a very successful partnership with Soderling, Magnus Norman had failed to turn him into a Grand Slam winner. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice and picked his next student carefully. He ended up going for a player similar to Soderling in many regards but with a few very key differences. Stanislas Wawrinka remains a popular man on tour. He is known for being humble and pleasant but, before his partnership with Norman, the kind of guy you could beat in big matches. He possesses the same weapons Soderling had: ie a destructive serve and a powerful one-handed shot that can produce winners at will. The difference is Wawrinka’s shot was his backhand and his forehand usually let him down during key points. Wawrinka had always struggled mentally with the life of being a tennis player. He had lost focus in big matches, and let big potential victories slip by – most notably his matches against Murray at Wimbledon 2009 and Djokovic in Australia 2013.
When Norman took over, Stan had been in the top 10 but had since dropped to become a regular resident between 15 and 25. He had shown potential without being earmarked as a future slam winner. As Tim Henman said, he was good without being great. Norman changed every aspect of that and it all started with a crushing victory over Murray in the 2013 US Open quarter finals. In fact, crushing was the wrong word. There isn’t a right one, as every aspect of that performance was perfect. Murray, admittedly injured, left shell-shocked and the world took notice of the humble Swiss. Stan the man had become Wowrinka. Not happy with a 5 set semi-final loss to Djokovic and an appearance at the semi-final of the tour finals, Norman and Wawrinka plotted ways to beat the very best and that is exactly what Stan has done all year. It started with an incredible maiden Slam in Australia, beating Nadal in the final, and has ended with the Davis Cup title. The most exciting thing about Wawrinka is that he isn’t the finished article, there are still aspects Norman can improve and you can guarantee the Swede won’t rest until he has.
Soderling and Wawrinka are very similar players, and perhaps it would be a more impressive achievement to take two different players and turn them into world-beaters, however that shouldn’t take anything away from Norman. He showed his success with Soderling wasn’t a one-off and also proved that he could do much more with a player. Norman was able to take the aspects of both players game that were good and made them great, furthermore he has taken the more disappointing areas and turned them into reliable shots and finally he improved the mentality of both players. If you combined Wawrinka’s backhand, Soderling’s forehand, mixed the two serves and added Norman you would have the perfect player-coach partnership. A player like that would be unstoppable and there would be one reason for it: Norman.
It is difficult for great players to become great coaches. There are very few examples across any sport. For example, Jose Mourinho wasn’t a great football player whereas Diego Maradona was a disastrous coach. In tennis, few great players even tried to make the leap across to coaching until recently which is why the term supercoach entered our dictionary. The term itself though is disrespectful to people who have dedicated their lives to coaching and have been incredibly successful at it. However, to find the true supercoach you have to combine the two and there is only one candidate at the moment. Magnus Norman had a better playing career than Gilbert and has had a better coaching career than Becker, Lendl or Edberg. In fact, I’d argue that of the ones we know about at the moment, only Chang and Ivanisevic can come close to matching what Norman has achieved. In an era of supercoaches, Norman stands above them all for being the only person to combine both aspects of the meaning and with an academy opened which has featured both Wawrinka and probable future number 1 Dimitrov, his success can only continue.