I talked to Thomas Johansson last summer and filed away the interview just before our podcast moved from Soundcloud to Radio Influence. I wondered when to release the interview, and I needed my partner, Matt Zemek, to transcribe the 23-minute interview. Matt delayed — and he knows he did, so we’re all good here — but now is a good time to share the (polished) text of my conversation with Johansson.
On the eve of the 2019 Australian Open, here is what the 2002 Australian Open men’s singles champion had to say about that tournament, about coaching on both tours, and so much more. We covered a lot of ground.
I hope you enjoy the interview, which you can listen to on our website at tennisaccent.com.
On coaching the ATP and WTA:
“It’s a difference of night and day — it was a big challenge in how you communicate with a player. I was coaching Borna (Coric) and David (Goffin). I can’t communicate the same way with Caroline (Wozniacki) or Maria (Sakkari). As a coach I have improved a lot — being on the two tours is a big challenge. You have to improve all the time.”
On Borna Coric and David Goffin, two players he worked with in the past:
“I always saw huge potential in both players — when I worked with Borna he was extremely young. I worked with David in 2016, when he started to beat top-five, top-10 players. Both of them are great guys — I am not surprised that they are where they are today.”
On how much tennis has changed since the start of Roger Federer’s rise to prominence 15 years ago:
“To be honest I don’t think the game has changed that much — what I see has changed is how you train outside the court — how you eat, how you can have a great career when you are 35, 36. When I played, most of the guys retired around 31, 32, maybe at their best, 34. Today we know a lot more how we practice, how we prepare, how we eat, how we drink. That’s the reason why Roger is playing really, really well, and other older players as well… It’s a little more physical — the serve-and-volley players are gone now. You only have a few that are playing different — most of the guys are playing pretty much the same tennis. You have a few exceptions.
“When I came up we had guys like (Fabrice) Santoro, like Gianluca Pozzi. Now we have Mischa Zverev, but most of the tennis today is played from the baseline — they’re not coming in that often, they’re not using the slice that we did. That I can see as a big change.”
On string technology:
“When I played and won the Australian Open I played full natural gut, which most of the guys did. At the end of my career, you started to go half-off, natural and luxilon. With the luxilon, you can hit the ball a lot harder and the ball always seems to go in. If I had the privilege of playing with full luxilon, my game could have taken a small step further.”
On his 2002 Australian Open championship:
“I never thought I was going to win that one. Before the tournament I wanted to go home. I had terrible preparation. I played two tournaments prior to the Australian Open — I played very, very bad. I told my coach I want to go home, I’m tired of this… but he forced me to dig deep. If you look at the results in 2002, the first two rounds, playing-wise, were not good. Fighting-wise and mentally: very, very good.
“In the third round, that’s where it all changed. I started to find my game again. From the third round on to the final, I just played better and better. I made my best match in the final, especially when I needed it.”
On the state of Swedish tennis:
“It’s not looking good. We have lost a couple of generations already… but with the academy Magnus Norman has created we are trying our very best to get back on the map again, but I think it’s going to take many years.
“We have competition from other sports as well — we don’t have a top guy for the moment, so kids don’t choose tennis as their first option. When we had Edberg, Wilander, (Anders) Jarryd, (Joakim) Nystrom, (Henrik) Sundstrom, (Mikael) Pernfors, it was quite natural that everyone would play tennis. If you look at how Swedish tennis looks today, you have to go down to the younger (players) to see the potential. The girls are doing better: Rebecca Peterson. Johanna Larsson as well.
“If you look at most of the former players that have started to coach, they are not coaching in Sweden. They are coaching outside Sweden. They are coaching on the ATP Tour, the WTA Tour, in the States. We haven’t actually managed to hold onto our best coaches, to have them based in Sweden.”
On being a co-tournament director in Stockholm:
“When Jonas Bjorkman, myself and two other guys were running it, we had Robin Soderling at that time. We managed to get a strong field. We felt we were on the right track, but then there was a big gap (after Soderling retired prematurely).
“In the world we live today, everything is about relationships. The key of having a former player as a tournament director is that he can easily pick up the phone and call his old colleagues or friends. You have to do everything through the agent, anyway, but you have a different connection that most of the tournament directors don’t have.
“It’s also good for a former player to go behind the scenes to see how much work it is to run a tournament. Including myself, I was quite tough — why don’t they do this, why don’t they do that? There is always a reason why they don’t have enough practice courts. It would be good even for a current player to go behind the scenes, even for only two days.”
On tennis governance:
“I think the sport needs the player council. I like that the players are quite vocal, but sometimes it’s better to be vocal in a closed environment, than to go to the media straightaway. I think a lot of players have made that mistake. The players are the tournaments. The players are the entertainment. If we don’t have the players we don’t have a tournament. That’s why with Davis Cup I’m surprised the players didn’t have a say in what was going on. You will have players who are supporting the new Davis Cup and players who are not supporting the new Davis Cup, but at least make them a part of the decision. Now most players think the decision was taken over their heads. If you don’t have the players you don’t have Davis Cup. You don’t have the entertainment.”
On Davis Cup reforms:
“When I played, we all loved playing Davis Cup, we all loved the atmosphere, we all loved representing our country, we all loved the home-and-away games… but there was also talk that Davis Cup should be every second year, instead of having it every year. You can be the world champion in November and then you have the first match in February. For the federations to say we are the world champions, give them at least a year to roll on that success. The talk has always been there that the ATP schedule is tough, then we have Davis Cup, but now we have Davis Cup, Laver Cup, and now they want the World Team Cup. It’s too much… and if they say they want to make this Davis Cup like a World Cup, have it every second year.
“Even if I don’t like it, we have to give it (new Davis Cup) a chance. The players are very vocal at the moment that we don’t like this… (let’s) see how it goes. Personally, I would prefer the Davis Cup like it was, but maybe every second year, not every year. If they can do it (new format) every second year, to give it a little bit of space, especially for the World Team Cup… let’s do the Davis Cup one year and the World Team Cup the other year… I don’t know how those discussions are going.”
On surface speeds and homogenization in tennis:
“I would have liked to see more differences in surfaces… Even though I love those players (the Big 4), I would love to see some new guys come up as well. You would make room for different styles of tennis.”
On best of three/best of five/lengths/formats of tennis matches:
“I am not the right guy to answer, because I am 43 years old. We have to ask the younger generation — I don’t think they want to sit and watch a game for best of five sets. I have a 12-year-old son — he’s crazy about tennis, but he loves when a game comes to a tiebreak, for example, because every point counts.
“As a spectator and as a fan, I am not against the fast-4. I think the younger generation wants quicker matches. They don’t want to sit for four hours before they see Roger or Rafa. We have to look at what the youngsters want to see because they are our future fans. If you look at the average age of a tennis fan, it’s quite old. If you go to tournaments now they (fans) are quite old.”