Re: Steffi Graf Admiration Thread Vol 2
The team keeping Graf at the top - Coaching Steffi Graf
Tuesday, June 14, 1988
Rex Bellamy, Tennis Correspondent
Steffi Graf, who celebrates her nineteenth birthday today, has two men in her life. One is her father, Peter, who has coached the Australian and French champion throughout her career and, on the big occasions, still does. The other is a former Czechoslovak Davis Cup player, Pavel Slozil, who has been her surrogate coach and permanent practice partner for a year and a half.
This trio work as a closely knit team captained by Peter Graf. Two years ago he realized that Steffi needed full-time professional help and that, having other responsibilities back home in Germany, he could not always be with her on the road. He broached the subject with the popular, mild-mannered Slozil, then aged 30.
"I was finishing my career," Slozil told me recently. "I'd always played the major tournaments, but I began to lose in the early rounds and started to play qualifications. So I was looking for something new.
"I thought I should take care of somebody and for a year and a half I helped Horacio de la Pena and Jakob Hlasek. But I couldn't give them 100 per cent because I was still playing. Then Peter asked if I could help Steffi. My federation agreed and I started the job."
Slozil was surprised to find out how demanding yet satisfying his task was. "Peter had asked me if I could practise four hours a day. I thought, why is he asking? If I can play with the men, I can play with a woman. But in January, 1987, in Spain, I began to understand. We played four hours a day on hard courts. Every Saturday. Every Sunday. No break.
"When I played for myself I was not a real professional, 100 per cent for tennis. When I lost, I thought about my family and going home to Prague. Taking three days off. Playing soccer. I can't do that now. With Steffi, it's more intensive. Somebody worked out that we spent more than 40 weeks together last year.
"There was more playing, more travelling, than before. I can't go to discos, can't drink, because the next day I must be in shape. And I spend so little time mostly, it's two or three days with my wife and family." Slozil and his wife, Jana, who often travels with him, are lucky in that their daughter, aged four, can stay at home with young grandparents.
Slozil was not complaining. I had asked him to talk about both sides of his job as Graf-sharpener. As a final comment on the less glamorous aspects, he pointed out that in some ways, competing was easier than caring for others.
Of his early days with the Davis Cup team, he said: "I sat on the bench with the other kids, hoping that Smid or Lendl would win. It's easier to take care of yourself. On the bench, you can't help. You can't do anything."
A similar situation cropped up in January when Graf, having led Chris Evert by 6-1 and 5-1 in the final of the Australian championship, lost game after game before clinching the title. Slozil could only watch helplessly.
"All that is the hard part," Slozil said. "The job is very difficult. But I like it very much because I enjoy working on the court: and you can see the results. When Peter asked me if I could help, (Steffi was No.3 in the world rankings). She became No.2, then No.1. Now she is in a position where she is not supposed to lose a match, so there is a lot of pressure.
"Steffi is a self-critical person for whom everything has to be perfect and she likes the work. She enjoys every hour of practice, every day. That's very good. It makes my job much easier."
Players who have been prominent for longer than Graf need a perceptive and reassuring practice partner more than they need a coach. Mike Estep, who worked with Martina Navratilova in her prime, has observed: "Every player, even the No. 1, has a confidence problem."
Warren Jacques, director of the British men's international squad, has been playing and coaching since he was a teenager. Jacques worked with juniors in Australia and Texas in turn before he became the mentor of Kevin Curren, Steve Denton, Bill Scanlon, Anne Smith and Kathy Jordan.
"I'd watched all these players," Jacques says, "and they lacked what I'd lacked - the support and knowledge of somebody giving them guidance on the road. I wish I'd had it: I would have been a damn sight better player."
Jacques says a coach can provide technical help, organize training and practice, "scout" opponents in order to devise strategy, and analyse a player's game after a series of losses ("You can't do it on your own"). A coach, he added, should "know the real pressures of match-play".
Boris Becker, like Graf, is still young enough to benefit from full-time help: that of Bob Brett. But the celebrities mostly need coaches only when preparing for and competing in the grand slam tournaments. And many coaches cannot spare the time to be on the road all the year.
Dennis Ralston and Tony Roche join Chris Evert and Ivan Lendl only for the big occasions. Roche was originally approached when John McEnroe was at his peak and Lendl needed the help of a left-handed specialist on grass.
At this level, coaches come expensive. Those sporadically engaged on the international tour have to hire somebody to look after the shop while they are away. Those travelling full-time expect more than they would make in a more secure job.
The terms of engagement vary, but full-time help can cost a player anything from Pounds 300 to Pounds 1,250 a week, plus expenses and a coach's travelling and hotel costs for 25 weeks in a year can amount to about Pounds 15,000.
Finally, coach and player have to get on well. One of the least predictable teams is that of the quiet and dreamy Stefan Edberg and that genial, garrulous extrovert, Tony Pickard, a former British Davis Cup player (who discusses Edberg as some American boxing managers discuss their charges in the first person plural).
Not a lot of Swedes have Nottingham coaches. This partnership happened by accident. Pickard had some early coaching experience with British Galea Cup and Davis Cup teams but later became international professional tennis director for Wilson, the Chicago-based sporting goods company.
Seven years ago, Pickard secured Edberg's signature on an endorsement contract. The chemistry between them was perfect. To be glib about it, Edberg had the talent and Pickard the confidence. If challenged about Edberg's Wimbledon chances, Pickard would doubtless suggest that "we" could beat everybody.