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Who's in charge?

Tennis coaches often in it just for the free meal ticket

Posted: Wednesday November 9, 2005 9:38AM; Updated: Wednesday November 9, 2005 1:30PM
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Paul Annacone (here studying Tim Henman's serve) is one of the few former players who is passionate about being a top-notch coach.
Paul Annacone (here studying Tim Henman's serve) is one of the few former players who is passionate about being a top-notch coach.
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Outspoken tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is a frequent contributor to SI.com. He was recently elected to the ATP Player Council. Click here to read all of his columns.

Professional tennis coach. Sounds exciting, doesn't it? Glamorous, even?

I think it actually can be. But for the most part, it's a humbling, frustrating, under-appreciated job that, because of its intrinsic flaws, is too often filled by underqualified travel companions who are too quick to appease and whose judgment is clouded by the need to keep their jobs.

Coaching professional tennis players (and by this I mean traveling on the Tour with a player) is different from other professional-sports coaching such as in basketball, football or baseball. Tennis coaches are hired by and employed by the player. There are no outside or impartial mediators who can objectively evaluate how well they're doing their job.

Most of the time, the only barometer of a coach's influence and effectiveness is results. Thus, a cycle is created where a coach does whatever is necessary to comfort and placate his or her player, regardless of how it affects the long-term development of the player's game or -- especially -- his or her personal growth.

How effective would Phil Jackson be if every time he had a conversation with Kobe Bryant about jacking up shots from the cheap seats, he knew Kobe could send him back to his ranch in Montana? What if Tony La Russa had to walk to the mound to pull his star pitcher with the trepidation of finding a pink slip in his office the next day?

It would obviously affect their ability to objectively evaluate what was going on during games, and to make the tough decisions that they are paid to make. Professional coaches have one objective: to help their team win games. In order to do this, their relationship with their players needs to be based on respect.

Tennis coaches have the added burden of needing to be liked, and not only by their player, but by the rest of their pupil's support team -- often their parents and their agent. Welcome to life on the professional tennis tour.

The definition of a coach is someone who trains another by instruction, demonstration and practice. Few tennis coaches truly embrace or respect their profession enough to put in the work needed to master it. The biggest problem in tennis coaching is that most coaches fall into their profession by default. They either weren't good enough to make it as a player or they finished their careers and now view coaching as an extension of their playing days. Very few are committed and disciplined enough to really study the game and learn the finer points of coaching, as successful coaches have done in other sports.