Great coaches in any sport certainly have a few things in common, but when I compare tennis coaches to coaches in other sports, I usually keep coming back to basketball.
Why is this?
American-style football involves mass-scale organizational skills and a lot of delegating to assistants who help the operation go forward. This isn’t to say that delegating and teamwork aren’t part of tennis coaching staffs, but 53-man NFL rosters and 85-man college rosters are very different beasts compared to tennis player management.
Baseball gets into hands-on intervention in players’ situations. Managers must tightly manage pitch counts and engineer matchups within games. They are immersed in each game — their imprints are all over the little plot twists which comprise a baseball game in ways that tennis coaches aren’t, at least at the major-tournament level. American football, baseball, and also hockey are so much about who plays — and how often — and in what combinations. Those sports distance themselves from the solo-athlete arena of tennis.
Of the various team sports I study, basketball is the one which most closely resembles tennis in terms of the relationship between the coach and the athlete.
Like hockey, basketball is 5-on-5, but unlike hockey, basketball involves a much smaller rotation of players during a game, often less than half of the players who rotate in and out of a hockey game. When the NBA basketball playoffs arise, it is relatively common for only seven or eight players to play extended minutes (more than 20 in a 48-minute game). Yes, there is in-game coaching, unlike tennis. Yes, coaches are intervening in the action and trying to create favorable matchups, unlike tennis.
Yet, so much of the battle in basketball comes down to a coach’s ability to get the most out of one or two great players and find ways to build a small supporting cast around the superstar or two stars.
Is this not what Steve Kerr, for example, has done with the Golden State Warriors?
Mark Jackson, Kerr’s predecessor, had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green on his roster in 2014. That team did not win a single playoff series. Kerr stepped in the very next year and won 67 of 82 regular-season games, giving Golden State the best record in the league and a world championship.
The talent was already there. It took a person to get through to those two shooters — Curry and Thompson — and enable Green to figure out how to blend with them. As soon as the right person arrived as a teacher, a very small group of athletes took off.
No, basketball isn’t a solo-athlete sport — it is a team game — but it comes very close to tennis in some ways.
With this being said, Darren Cahill — whose partnership with WTA No. 1 Simona Halep ended this past week due to a desire to spend more time with family — is in many ways the Gregg Popovich of tennis.
Why this comparison and not a comparison to other great professional basketball coaches in recent years?
Here is the explanation:
Popovich, the longtime coach of the San Antonio Spurs, has shown a constant ability to adjust to players… and enable players to adjust to situations. A few details shine through in Popovich’s career which magnify that statement.
Popovich won his first NBA title in 1999, his most recent in 2014, a 15-year span. He has therefore remained relevant and able to exist in the constraints of the present moment. Industries can and do change over 15 years, so an ability to adapt is an absolute necessity for high-quality longevity, as opposed to a short burst of three or four years when a coach simply has the best players and can ride that wave. Succeeding over 15 years requires something more. Popovich has shown that.
What emerges more precisely in Pop’s prosperous basketball journey is that he has mentored athletes in their very early years, their mid-career primes, and their late-career years.
Popovich coached a very young Tim Duncan to the 1999 NBA title. He coached Duncan as an old-man athlete to the 2014 NBA title. Duncan won that 2014 championship just after turning 38, which Roger Federer will turn next August.
Popovich coached a very young Tony Parker to the 2003 NBA championship. He was there with Parker 11 years later for the 2014 title run with the Spurs. Manu Ginobili was in his prime with the Spurs in 2003. He played until age 40 under Popovich’s guidance.
The one other particularly defining aspect of Popovich’s career is that he was able to win in different ways. The first four NBA championship teams Pop had with the Spurs were defense-first teams which focused on relentless pressure and robust effort in rebounding the ball. It’s not as though the Spurs de-emphasized rebounding or effort in the latter years of the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili trio, but they did become an offense-first team which played at a faster pace, tried to win games with scoring, and paid new attention to 3-point shooting. Pop readjusted his priorities and gave his aging players more freedom on offense, changing the way his team normally played. Basic principles didn’t leave the picture, but the change freshened the minds and bodies of the older Spurs, who continued to win large numbers of games and remained a foremost contender for NBA titles.
In these details, one can find some strong connections with Darren Cahill’s coaching career.
First of all, Cahill won a major title with Lleyton Hewitt at the 2001 U.S. Open. He won a major with Simona Halep at the 2018 Roland Garros tournament. That 17-year gap is similar to Popovich’s 15-year run with titles at both ends of that time span.
Much as Popovich won with very young, middle-aged (in an athlete’s terms, not a biological human being’s terms), and old athletes, Cahill did the very same thing. He won big with a young Hewitt. Then he won with an old, late-career version of Andre Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open. In 2018, he won with the 26-year-old Halep at the French Open, one year after guiding her to year-end World No. 1, which Halep replicated this season.
Cahill took on three very distinct challenges and met them all. It’s not so much that he won major titles with three different players; it’s that he won titles with three different players at three very distinct stages of experience and understanding. THAT is the more specific connection with Popovich which stands above everything else.
Another potent and important detail: Cahill won with players on both the ATP and WTA Tours. In that sense, he crossed a bridge from one form of tennis to another, akin to Popovich winning with one style in the first decade of this century and then with a noticeably different style in the second decade of this century. (The Spurs’ reinvention occurred in their 2010-2011 season.)
Richard Williams, Marian Vajda, Toni Nadal, Tony Roche, and Paul Annacone have won larger amounts of major titles as tennis coaches. That makes them a lot like Phil Jackson, who has won several more titles than Popovich. Jackson, though, hitched his wagon to superstars to win his titles: Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls, then Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson won because he knew how to make use of the overwhelming athletic abilities of the men who were the best players in the NBA when in their primes. That applied to Jordan in the early 1990s, Shaq circa 2000, and Kobe in 2009 and 2010.
Popovich did have great players, but his great players were not takeover artists who physically dominated their opponents the way Jordan, Shaq and Kobe did. Popovich cultivated players who played blended games and had to problem-solve to succeed. That’s the Cahill way, which emerged in players who either weren’t very tall, couldn’t serve huge on a consistent basis, or both.
Hewitt’s rise to major-tournament glory at age 20 in late 2001 is — viewed through the lens of the Big 3 era — a relatively rare achievement. Agassi’s productive endurance and headline-generating resilience into his age-35 season felt like an astounding feat at the time. Cahill squeezed that out of Andre. The idea that Halep would ascend to the top of the sport and cement that rise with a major tournament championship was something plenty of tennis people always thought was possible, but no one could have known for sure. It wasn’t exactly — to borrow a basketball term — a slam dunk. Yet, Cahill got Halep over the threshold.
Cahill walked a lot of miles with a few players and enabled them to reach their potential. He won with youngsters and oldsters and athletes in between. He won at the very start of this century and was still winning in 2018 before he took this break from coaching.
Gregg Popovich set a very high standard in basketball. Darren Cahill’s coaching quality is worthy of a comparison with the sage of San Antonio.
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