Is that Steffi Graf trying to win the U.S. open? Or is it her father, Peter? Or her trainer, Pavel Slozil? Or her German shepherd, Max, whose chomp of her hand earlier this summer provided Graf with her most significant challenge? In the Era Of the Entourage in tennis, Graf's groupies are a mere bagatelle compared with Martina's minions or Pat Cash's brain-and-body health squad. The sheer voluminousness of tennis hangers-on has long since given the circuit the look of a traveling rock music tour—Sycophants Over the Universe—or, worse, a presidential campaign. And the struggle for the mind and soul of the candidate seems equally fierce along both trails.
Take, for example, Slozil, a former journeyman player from Czechoslovakia, a bright, kindhearted and popular guy who was hired to toughen up Graf's practice sessions and tend to the technical aspects of her game. But is he her coach? Or is he her "hitting partner"? Peter takes credit for restructuring his daughter's forehand. Dad goes out of his way to reiterate that "only I" know what's best for Steffi. He told the West German press that Graf had problems with Navratilova in this year's Wimbledon final only because she "misunderstood my signals."
That's the way it goes these days. What of the grand old individual battle that is tennis—one-on-one, just you and me, hit and think, by ourselves? Tennis, one sport that has rules forbidding any aid or succor during play, has become, in the world's neighborhood of games, a time-share co-op. Coaches, trainers, sports psychologists, hitting partners, fitness advisers, agents, managers, nutritionists, racket stringers, cooks, aerobics instructors, friends, family, bodyguards, drivers, publicists, therapists, spouses, lovers and pets—Navratilova once employed a woman who in some quarters went by the infamous handle of dog-walker—have made the locker rooms and hospitality suites along the tour so crowded that....
"All I know is, on every practice court now there are eight people." says Tom Gorman, captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. "During Wimbledon the players' tearoom was constantly packed, but every time I looked around I couldn't find any players."
In the natural march of progress, namely the spectacular advances in prize money, celebrityhood and ego fulfillment (and the attendant increase in pressures to win a match, earn a ranking and market oneself), it is not so astonishing that tennis players would leave no stone unturned, no helpologist unemployed in the search for the perfect backhand. And if they can afford it, why not? If the President and the First Lady can prepare for a summit by consulting an astrologer, why can't a tennis player hire somebody to boil a sack of dumplings before a quarterfinal?
The thing about tennis is that it doesn't matter if a player is No. 1 or No. 100, there's always a confidence drag, a concern about the demons breathing down his or her neck. The most human reaction is to call for help, and today's tennis stars have turned the loneliest of games into group therapy. But have they gone too far?
"I've never been an entourage type of guy. I don't want a lot of guys around me," says John McEnroe, who in his salad years consulted occasionally with his original coach, Tony Palafax, and traveled only with doubles partner Peter Fleming. Yet in his repeated comebacks, Mac has turned to yoga, fruits and nuts, sprint workouts, karate-with-chants and acupuncture under the aegis of "coaches" Paul Cohen, Seo Daeshik and Fleming. "I'm past all that now," says McEnroe, who has currently settled, more simply, on Robert Paar, Madonna's personal trainer.
"In the '80s there's been more pampering," says McEnroe. "More need for support, I guess. But Martina's group is absurd. Cash, the same: ridiculous. The younger players see this and get spoiled. These people have lost the appreciation for the individuality of tennis."
Coaches are one thing, an accepted notion; after all, everybody in tennis has a coach. It's the rest of the crowd—the psychodynamic, yeast-popping, guitar-banging, spatial-analytic, spaghetti-string, Jesus-grip, my-reflex-volley-is-my-friend, banzai therapists who want 15 courtside passes—who have become such a plague on the game.
Pam Shriver's coach, Don Candy, says (jokingly, of course): "Pammy got a young lady who taught her how to move. Therapy, theory, mind games? Who knows? She's got three different hitting partners around the world—unless she's refined this and got one for every country. In the meantime, I'm around to point out the fine points, not always in unison with the others."