Tennis coaching carousel: Djokovic hires Stepanek, Wawrinka 'shocked' after Norman split

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Team Djokovic (Credit: Twitter/@DjokerNole).

The coaching carousel has been spinning over the past few weeks in the world of tennis as players rejig their teams in preparation for the 2018 season.

Novak Djokovic is the latest to make a coaching announcement and of course the Serb found a unique to way to let the world know he was adding retired Czech player Radek Stepanek to his team – using a joint Instagram Live video with the 39-year-old, where they pretended to negotiate terms of his contract.

Djokovic will be making his first appearance since Wimbledon at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi this month and will have both Stepanek and Andre Agassi in his corner in 2018.

While the Serb looks to have assembled a solid team around him once again, other stars are still in the hunt for a full-time coach, like Stan Wawrinka who admitted that he was “shocked” by Magnus Norman’s decision to part ways with him after four incredibly successful years together.

Here’s a look at some of the coaching changes that have taken place recently…

DJOKOVIC HIRES STEPANEK

This partnership had been rumoured for a while, even before Stepanek officially announced his retirement mid-November. Djokovic, who parted ways with Boris Becker end of 2016, is looking to bounce back from a lengthy injury-enforced break that saw him sidelined since July to recover from elbow trouble.

The Serb is down to No. 12 in the world and has the Doha title to defend in the opening week of the 2018 season.

Sport360 take

This is a collaboration that makes sense, not just because Djokovic and Stepanek get along well, but because they both believe in being extremely meticulous when it comes to their health and their bodies. Stepanek managed to compete on tour until the age of 38, breaking a host of age records along the way.

In Doha last January, Djokovic spoke about the Czech’s longevity, saying: “He’s one of not many players on tour that keeps playing singles and doubles, and especially at his age, which is an incredible effort. I know Radek very well. He’s one of the best friends on the tour that I have. Great guy. Very interesting guy. He keeps on surprising everybody with his level of consistency in his game.

“I think more than anything is his dedication to the sport and willingness really to kind of discover new ways to get his body in the perfect shape. I think he’s very smart when it comes down to that. He knows exactly what his body needs from every point of view.”

That is a skill both Djokovic and Stepanek seem to share. Closely monitoring what they eat, how they exercise, when to rest… they certainly sound like a solid match. Add Agassi to the mix and it’s fair to assume Djokovic won’t be outside the top-10 for long in 2018.

WAWRINKA LEFT IN THE LURCH?

The Swiss had two knee surgeries, hasn’t played since Wimbledon and will have to make his comeback to tennis without Norman in his corner.

The Swede decided to walk away to spend more time with his family but it’s become obvious that he took Wawrinka by surprise at a stressful time for the 32-year-old.

“It was a big disappointment. A shock. In some of the worst moments of your career, you expect to be able to count on your dear ones. The time where he announced it surprised me,” Wawrinka said in a press conference regarding his split with Norman, who helped him win three Grand Slam titles.

Sport360 take

This is a tricky situation for Wawrinka to navigate. Despite bouts of inconsistency in his results over the past few years, he knew he could always rely on Norman to give him a boost when it mattered the most at the Slams.

At 32, when you’ve been so comfortable with a coach for the past four years, it must feel like a daunting task trying to find someone new with whom you can establish trust and respect in order to have a successful working relationship.

As a multiple-time Grand Slam champion and a member of the game’s elite, Wawrinka will probably look for a ‘super coach’ to join his team but that’s not the only route he should consider. Because hiring someone like Boris Becker worked for someone like Djokovic, for example, but might not necessarily work for Wawrinka.

Personality compatibility is probably on top of Wawrinka’s priorities’ list and it will be interesting to see who he goes for in the end. He says Roger Federer’s ex-coach Paul Annacone is on his list, but he is in no rush to find someone, especially that he’s still not 100 per cent recovered from surgery. Let’s see if the Swiss will turn up with a coach in his corner in Abu Dhabi later this month.

WTA SWITCHEROO

With her custody dispute still ongoing and keeping her in California, Victoria Azarenka is unsure when she’ll be back on court which meant she had to part ways with her coach Michael Joyce (previously worked with Maria Sharapova) and her fitness trainer Ashcon Rezazadeh.

Joyce is rumoured to be the next coach of Britain’s Johanna Konta, who split with Belgian Wim Fissette, who is now Angelique Kerber’s new coach. After having a season to forget, Kerber parted ways with Torben Beltz, who had helped her win two Grand Slams and reach No. 1 in the world in 2016. Beltz will now work with Croatia’s Donna Vekic.

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Let’s start with Kerber. It was obvious she needed to change something after spending the majority of the 2017 season searching for answers and coming up short. Fissette has switched camps a few times since his split with Simona Halep at the end of 2014, but his success with the Romanian that year (she made her first major final at Roland Garros and reached No. 2 in the world) bodes positive things for his partnership with Kerber.

Meanwhile, Konta ended the most successful season of her career early, pulling the plug mid-October to deal with a foot injury, instead of heading to Singapore as an alternate and playing Zhuhai. Joyce spent seven years working with Sharapova, alongside the Russian’s father, until 2011. He more recently teamed up with Azarenka during her return from maternity leave but they parted ways a few weeks ago. Will the process-over-results-oriented Konta mesh well with the American?

As for Vekic, it’s nice to see the Croat – who played one of the best matches of the year against Konta at Wimbledon – make an ambitious move by hiring Beltz. The 21-year-old had some strong moments in 2017, where she won her second WTA title in Nottingham, but she ended the season with a five-match losing streak. Is 2018 going to be the year she finally breaks through? Time will tell!

LENDL-LESS ONCE AGAIN
On-again off-again duo Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl are in splitsville one more time but the ex-world No.1 still has Jamie Delgado by his side. The Brit is back practicing after a long hiatus since Wimbledon due to a hip problem and his photos from preseason training in Miami indicate things are going well for him.

Sport360 take

Murray started the year at the top of the world rankings. Today he is No.16. He’s spent time away from the court before, and it took him some time to spring back to form following his back surgery in 2013, but experience from that period can only help him this time around. He also has a lot of faith in Delgado, which could mean his split with Lendl won’t cause as much damage as it did when they parted ways the first time in March 2014.

Will he be looking for another voice to add to his team and support Delgado? There are a number of people available including the likes of Goran Ivanisevic and Martina Navratilova.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MILOS RAONIC CORPORATION?

Raonic, who has worked with Galo Blanco, Carlos Moya, John McEnroe, Ivan Ljubicic, Riccardo Piatti and Richard Krajicek all within the last five seasons suddenly has some uncertainty around his team. His long-time advisor Piatti announced they will no longer be working together, and we’re yet to hear from Raonic to either comment on the split or confirm who will be on his team moving forward.

It appears he is still working with David Ferrer’s former coach Javier Piles, along with doubles legend Mark Knowles, but who knows? Maybe those were temporary deals.

Sport360 take

There are a few question marks surrounding Raonic at the moment, be it his physical condition or his coaching set-up. The Canadian is due to compete in Abu Dhabi this month at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. But considering he hasn’t posted any updates regarding his fitness, it’s possible he’d be a no-show. He started the year ranked No.3 but is down to 24 having missed a lot of action through injury. Getting himself back to 100 per cent fitness is probably the main focus right now. Only then, would he be able to build a new corporation around him once again and call himself the CEO.

KHACHANOV’S SURPRISE

Following his exit from the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan last month, Russian youngster Karen Khachanov surprised us all by announcing his split with his coach of four years Galo Blanco.

Sport360 take
While the Khachanov-Blanco partnership was a successful one, it did feel that the 21-year-old’s progress slowed down a bit in 2017, especially compared to his Next Gen peers. He has an impressive game and has plenty of time to climb up the rankings, but imagine if he teamed up with someone like Marat Safin (who is his idol by the way)… Sounds like a great fit, no? Someone like Ivanisevic sounds like a more realistic option though since Safin has repeatedly said he wouldn’t want to travel the tour again.

CZECH DRAMA
Karolina Pliskova poached Barbora Strycova’s coach Tomas Krupa and the latter took to Facebook to call her fellow Czech out on it. *UPDATE* On Wednesday December 6, Strycova announced that she hired David Kotyza, who was actually Pliskova’s coach this year until September. So it’s officially an all-Czech swap.

Sport360 take

Pliskova was quite frank about why she parted ways with Petra Kvitova’s ex-coach Kotyza, saying they weren’t on the same page when it came to how they can take her game forward. It was surprising considering she had an unexpected run to the Roland Garros semi-finals under Kotyza’s guidance which got us all thinking: If Pliskova is performing well on clay, then just wait to see what she’ll do on grass and hard courts.

Unfortunately, she followed her title run in Eastbourne with a second-round exit at Wimbledon and wasn’t able to hold onto her No.1 ranking, which she briefly held in August and September. Is Krupa the man to help her win that maiden Grand Slam title? She did go some extra lengths to acquire his services. They’ll probably see eye to eye.

ANOTHER SHOCKER

Neville Godwin was named Coach of the Year at the end-of-season ATP Awards, after he helped his fellow South African Kevin Anderson reach the final of the US Open in September. They spent four years together before pulling the plug.

Sport360 take

What is it with players splitting with their coaches after having their best season together? Anderson has one of the most inspiring stories of 2017 having returned from a series of injuries to climb back from No.79 in the world to his current position of No.14.

ADIOS, SERGI!

Is there a tennis thing called the four-year itch? Because it seems like many players have got it. Richard Gasquet ended his four-year collaboration with Sergi Bruguera and is currently working with Fabrice Santoro and just added Thierry Tulasne to his 2018 staff.

Sport360 take

Gasquet played injured midseason then bizarrely played a Challenger while ranked No.30 in the world, in order to get some confidence in his match fitness. He won the title of course. He ended the year winning Davis Cup with France but the ex-No.7 is currently down to No.31 in the rankings. Perhaps a fresh pair of eyes is not a bad idea for the Frenchman.


‘DASHA, BE COOL’

A dynamic duo I was sad to see break up was Daria Kasatkina and her coach of three years Vladimir Platenik. Vlado’s famous words ‘Dasha, be cool’, always put a smile on my face every time the young Russian mentioned it but alas, she said she felt she was stagnating this season and needed a change.
She hired Philippe Dehaes, who worked with her when she was younger.

Sport360 take

Familiarity is a good thing, and it appears to be what Kasatkina was looking for. They started working together during the Kremlin Cup in Moscow two months ago and she ended up making the final there before falling to Julia Goerges. Not a bad start. Watch out for Dasha in 2018!

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Pouille powers France to first Davis Cup success since 2001 with decisive rubber win

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Lucas Pouille throttled Belgium’s Steve Darcis 6-3, 6-1, 6-0 in Sunday’s decisive fifth rubber to clinch a 10th Davis Cup title for France in front of a passionate Lille crowd.

Belgian ace David Goffin levelled the final at two points apiece after beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets in Sunday’s opening reverse singles, but a revitalised Pouille propelled France to a first victory since 2001.

Pouille was beaten convincingly by Goffin in Friday’s first singles tie, but the world number 18 shook off that defeat to swat Darcis aside in one hour and 34 minutes.

“There’s nothing better than winning as a team, with my mates, in front of the fans, my family and my friends,” Pouille told French television.

“We’re going to celebrate and make the most of it. I’m proud of my team.”

It was a third victory as captain for Yannick Noah, who returned for a third stint in charge in 2015 after two spells as skipper in the 1990s.

Noah, the last Frenchman to win a Grand Slam tournament at the 1983 French Open, was vindicated in his selection after surprisingly picking Richard Gasquet to partner Pierre-Hugues Herbert for Saturday’s crucial doubles victory.

“To have four different players win the three points is great,” an emotional Noah told BeIN Sports.

“Everyone wanted this, we favoured the spirit of the group above individuals… I’m so happy.”

Pouille broke Darcis, who had sent Belgium through to the final by winning the deciding rubber against Australia in September’s semi-final, at the first attempt to lay the foundation for a memorable triumph.

That proved enough to wrap up the first set, with three further breaks in the second firing Pouille and France to the brink of the title.

Darcis, the world number 76, was powerless to stop a rampant Pouille as the 23-year-old dismantled the Belgian in the third set — winning 25 of 34 points — to end France’s run of three straight finals defeats.

Belgium’s hopes of claiming a first title in the venerable competition rested with their in-form number one Goffin, who downed Tsonga 7-6 (7/5), 6-3, 6-2 after withstanding sustained early pressure.

Lucas Pouille sealed a dramatic Davis Cup victory for France.

Lucas Pouille sealed a dramatic Davis Cup victory for France.

GOFFIN’S EFFORTS IN VAIN 

Goffin saved a set point while serving at 5-6, as Tsonga was left to rue his inability to capitalise on any of six break points in a marathon first set.

World number seven Goffin, the runner-up to Grigor Dimitrov at the season-ending ATP Finals in London last weekend, snatched a 75-minute opening set with a blistering backhand return in the tie-break.

Tsonga, who brought France level in Friday’s second singles with a crushing win over Darcis, then surrendered his serve in the second set with a costly double fault as Goffin surged 4-2 ahead before seizing a two-set lead.

Goffin stormed to a double-break lead in the third set as Tsonga’s resistance crumbled, and closed out the match with minimal fuss, but Darcis was unable to reproduce previous heroics against an inspired Pouille.

France drew level with Britain after securing a 10th title — a tally only surpassed by the US, the record 32-time champions, and Australia, on 28 titles.

France had appeared in three finals since last lifting the trophy – in 2002, 2010 and 2014 – with both Tsonga and Gasquet part of the team beaten three years ago by a Switzerland featuring Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.

“It’s great for me to be finally able to win it, I’ve been chasing after it for 10 years,” Tsonga added. “I put other things to one sides to be able to play and win this competition. I’m really so happy.”

Belgium were appearing in just a third Davis Cup final – after 1904, and 2015 when they lost to Andy Murray’s Britain in Ghent.

Provided by AFP Sport

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Davis Cup final: Tsonga draws level for France with win over Belgium's Darcis

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Stepping up: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga pulled France level at 1-1 in the Davis Cup final with an assured three-set win over Belgium’s Steve Darcis in Lille on Friday.

David Goffin had mercilessly swept aside close friend Lucas Pouille to give outsiders Belgium the first point at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.

But world No. 15 Tsonga steadied home nerves in the second rubber of the opening day with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 success over 76th-ranked Darcis to boost France’s hopes of claiming the trophy for the first time since 2001.

France’s top player, a beaten finalist against Switzerland at this same venue in 2014, took 1 hour 46 minutes to dispatch the Belgian number two in the pair’s first ever encounter.

Darcis put up stubborn resistance until Tsonga finally managed to break the Belgian’s serve in the eighth game.

Tsonga’s power denied Darcis any chance of a comeback in the first set and it was plain sailing for the 32-year-old from then on.

“After the first match my job was to get my team back to 1-1, no matter what the score was or how I did it,” said Tsonga.

“Whether it’s us or the Belgians our mission is to bring home the salad bowl (trophy), that’s the only thing that counts. If I could push the ball on with my teeth, I’d do it!”

Darcis, known as ‘Mr Davis Cup’ by fans due to his stellar record in the competition, conceded he’d been beaten by the better man.

“I came up against someone who was stronger than me today. The idea was to impose my style of play and stop him doing the same, it didn’t come off,” said Darcis.

Tsonga’s success left the 2017 final finely poised ahead of Saturday’s doubles with France captain Yannick Noah still hesitating whether to stick with his proposed pairing of Richard Gasquet and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, or throw Tsonga into the mix. Herbert’s long-time doubles partner Nicolas Mahut was bizarrely not picked for the team.

Noah suggested the 1-1 scoreline was “logical”.

“The two matches were similar, there was some tension on both sides. Between David and Lucas there was a moment when it was balanced but from when David pulled clear there wasn’t much to do,” said Noah.

“It was similar with Jo. We knew Darcis was a Davis Cup player. He loves to dig in then change a gear to win. But Jo didn’t give him the opportunity to do that.

“He (Tsonga) was very solid, he played a very good match. I was delighted. So 1-1 is logical.”

Goffin, the world number seven, won 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 in front of a crowd of close to 26,000 fans, many making the short trip from across the border with Belgium.

Goffin, who last week lost to Grigor Dimitrov in the title decider at the ATP Finals in London, needed just under two hours to give the Belgians the upper hand as they look to win the Davis Cup for the first time.

This was the 26-year-old’s first win over 18th-ranked Pouille in their fourth meeting.

Goffin got the better of his French foe’s strong baseline play, making the telling break in the 11th game to serve out to love to take the opening set.

He broke Pouille’s serve at the start of the second, going on to break again to take the set 6-3, and race to a 3-0 lead in the third.

A deft backhand winner lifted the Belgian to 5-1 and he sealed the first point of the 2017 final with a crosscourt forehand winner.

“I’ve pushed the salad bowl a little towards the border, only a little because it’s heavy,” said Goffin, referring to the trophy. “I’m thrilled to have set the team off like that.”

On a roll: David Goffin.

On a roll: David Goffin.

Pouille was magnanimous in defeat, saying: “On that form he should have won the Masters (ATP Finals). There’s not much to say, he’s playing the tennis of his life.”

Noah was keeping his cards close to his chest meanwhile on his pairing for Saturday’s doubles saying he may leave a decision “until the last moment”.

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