Men's Tennis

Ranking the Best Coaches in Tennis Today

Jeffrey RuthFeatured ColumnistOctober 11, 2013

Ranking the Best Coaches in Tennis Today

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    Rafael Nadal follows Uncle Toni, Australian Open 2012.
    Rafael Nadal follows Uncle Toni, Australian Open 2012.Scott Barbour/Getty Images

    The best coaches in tennis today do not share one thing in common.

    That would be far too simplistic an explanation.

    While it is difficult to rank coaches in a scientific, objective manner, it is equally clear that there must be some sort of rational assessment upon which to rate them. Simply stating that a player is only as good as his coach is nice, but it's also trite and cliche. If that were true, only the top players' coaches would make the list, and for no other apparent reason.

    So what should be considered?

    Two facts stand out:

    1. Great coaches bring their charges to the very top of the game. That means either the No. 1 ranking or a Grand Slam title.
    2. In the absence of the above, a top coach takes a player that is struggling, despite possessing tremendous talent and potential, and yanks him up the ranking and result ladder to places he hasn't been able to bring himself.

    Think Rocky and Mick of boxing lore.

    Here is a list of current coaches who have accomplished one or both of the above.

Magnus Norman

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    Magnus Norman, left, watches Stanislas Wawrinka at 2013 French Open.
    Magnus Norman, left, watches Stanislas Wawrinka at 2013 French Open.Julian Finney/Getty Images

    Magnus Norman knows a little bit about struggling to live up to his potential.

    The former No. 2 player in the world went into 1999 having spent the past year moving back and forth between the mid-twenties and fifties.

    Then, it all changed. He zoomed all the way up to No. 5 within 13 months.

    It was only natural, then, that he would end up coaching Stanislas Wawrinka.

    What Norman has accomplished with Wawrinka clearly fulfills the criterion of taking an underachieving talent and turning him around in a tremendous manner.

    Prior to April 2013, Wawrinka was known for two things: being the second-best Swiss player on tour and having a ranking stuck in the teens.

    He had never managed two quarterfinal appearances in a major in any one year. He also had a 32 percent winning record against top 10 players. Or a 68 percent losing record.

    With Norman on board, all of this changed.

    He reached the quarters or better in his next four tournaments, winning in Portugal and defeating No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 6 Tomas Berdych the next week en route to the final in Madrid.

    He then went on to the quarters of Roland Garros and the semis of the U.S. Open.

    His success against the top 10 has now risen to 66 percent.

    Nevertheless, Coach Norman has taken the humble route, as his interview with Lucia Hoffman of Inside Tennis shows:

    He is handling situations much better, but it is not because of me. It is about all the work he has put in for many, many years, and now everything is coming together. I am happy for him, really.

     

Franco Davin

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    Franco Davin answers questions about his charge, Juan Martin Del Potro.
    Franco Davin answers questions about his charge, Juan Martin Del Potro.

    Was Juan Martin del Potro a journeyman before Franco Davin began coaching him in 2008?

    Maybe not, but he wasn't the player he is now.

    He was No. 65 in the world and had slid down from his career-high of No. 44 six months earlier.

    A second-round loss at Wimbledon convinced him he needed help.

    Enter Franco Davin.

    By year's end, del Potro was ranked No. 9.

    While he had never been beyond the third round of any Grand Slam, he reached the quarters of the U.S. Open, followed by the quarters of the Australian Open, the semis of the French Open and a surprising win in the final of the U.S. Open over Roger Federer.

    It was quite a turnaround and enough to qualify Davin for inclusion as one of the best coaches, as he single-handedly took a downtrodden talent and brought him to results he could only have dreamed of up to that point.

    Perhaps humility should be included in the criteria for this category.

    Davin finds his role to be quite secondary to del Potro's, as Magnus Norman did with Stanislas Wawrinka.

    According to sportspundit.com, the Argentinian coach reportedly once said, "The coach's influence is a little one. But it means a lot at the same time. I believe it involves 15 or 20 percent of a player's game."

    The case could surely be made that Davin's influence on such an amazing move up the ranks indicates more than just a 20 percent push.

     

Ivan Lendl

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    No nonsense, Ivan Lendl at 2013 U.S. Open.
    No nonsense, Ivan Lendl at 2013 U.S. Open.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Ivan Lendl accomplished something as a coach which he was never able to do himself: win Wimbledon.

    But that's nothing, compared to his real achievement: He calmed Andy Murray down.

    Perhaps no one understands this better than Murray's mom, Judy.

    Frank Keogh of BBC Sport reports her saying, "He's made a real big difference to Andy in terms of the emotional control on the court."

    That may be an understatement.

    Keogh goes on to relate that Murray (the player, not the mom) can no longer get away with the petulant "Why me?" looks to his box he was known for. Now he can only trade steely glares with Lendl.

    No nonsense.

    That's not quite enough to qualify Lendl for best coach status according to the criteria, however. What does is the fact that he managed to take Murray, who could get himself to Grand Slam finals but never further, to the level of champion.

    As in Wimbledon champion. And U.S. Open champion. And Olympic champion.

    Not too shabby, considering he had lost his first four major title matches. Even worse, the first three came by way of straight-set defeats. The Scot's talent has never been truly questioned, but the mental toughness looked like it would never appear.

    Then came Lendl.

    In fairly short order, the Czech-born American has plucked Murray out of also-ran status and has shown the world what a top instructor can do with raw talent. In doing so, Lendl has proven that he belongs in the ranks of the best coaches.

Marian Vajda

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    Marian Vajda watches his pupil Novak Djokovic at 2012 U.S. Open.
    Marian Vajda watches his pupil Novak Djokovic at 2012 U.S. Open.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Marian Vajda took a player ranked No. 40 in the world and made him a champion worthy of being considered as one of the greatest players of all time.

    Certainly, that must make Vajda one of the greatest coaches, right?

    Novak Djokovic, Vajda's star, must believe that.

    As with most of the coaches on this list, the coach himself won't do the talking.

    According to Nick Wright of SteveGTennis.com, Vajda is "a key cog in the... Djokovic machine, and as such deserves to share some of the limelight."

    But don't they all? Again, it would appear that coaches do share one thing in common: humility.

    Don't be fooled by the reserved demeanor. Vajda is on this list because he has taken his charge to the very pinnacle of the game. That is the first criteria on the best coaches ranking.

    At last count, the coach from Slovakia has led Djokovic to six Grand Slam titles. He has made it to six finals and is closing in on the career grand slam, too. Not to mention the fact that Djokovic moved up 35 places in the rankings after only one year with Vajda.

    From No. 40 to No. 5 in 12 months.

    That's great coaching.

Toni Nadal

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    Toni Nadal watches nephew Rafael Nadal soar back to No. 1.
    Toni Nadal watches nephew Rafael Nadal soar back to No. 1.Al Bello/Getty Images

    Who is the best coach today?

    Uncle Toni.

    Really, he should be the top coach for no other reason than he doesn't even need to have his last name mentioned. He is that recognizable.

    What makes him the greatest? Recall the criteria:

    1. Great coaches bring their charges to the very top of the game. That means either the No. 1 ranking or a Grand Slam title. 
      This is not an either/or.  It is both. Rafael Nadal, Toni Nadal's nephew and player extraordinaire, has won 13 Grand Slams. He is now starting his 173rd week at the top spot, reclaiming it on October 7.
    2. In the absence of the above, a top coach takes a player that is struggling despite possessing tremendous talent and potential, and yanks him up the ranking and result ladder to places he hasn't been able to bring himself. 
      Okay, this isn't even necessary to look at because of the phrase "in the absence of the above." Just for argument's sake, however, consider that Rafael was a little kid when Toni Nadal first instructed him. That qualifies for tremendous potential and no results, doesn't it?

    If there is a fan out there who doesn't believe Toni Nadal deserves the lion's share of the credit for developing Rafa into the dominating player he is today, look no further than Rafael himself:

    Uncle Toni terrified me, but without him I'd be nothing. Everything I have achieved in the game of tennis, all the opportunities I have had, are thanks to him. I'm especially grateful to him for having placed so much emphasis from the very beginning on making sure I kept my feet on the ground and never became complacent.

    These words of praise come directly from Nadal's autobiography, Rafa: My Story by Rafael Nadal with John Carlin, as reported by The Telegraph.

    It's more than enough to convince me that Toni Nadal is the best coach in tennis today.

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