In the third and final(??) installment of this Tactics trilogy, we’re taking a look at two more players who enlisted former Grand Slam champions who went on to meet at this year’s US Open final.
Marin Cilic / Goran Ivanisevic (since September 2013)
Putting it gently, Marin Cilic had an up-and-down 2013. After a steady first half of the season, the Croat was handed a nine-month ban for a violation of anti-doping rules. After an appeal, the punishment was later reduced to four months. As a result, his ranking slipped from No. 11 in May to No. 37 at season’s end.
Unlike several other coaching arrangements of a similar nature, the 2001 Wimbledon champion was to become Cilic’s full coach, not “just” a consultant or mentor. After a mediocre start to 2014, results soon rolled in when the 26-year-old made a run to three ATP Tour finals in February, winning his home tournament in Zagreb, and the event in Delray Beach, losing only to Tomas Berdych in Rotterdam, and taking out Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga along the way. Cilic’s season continued to be fairly solid thereafter, including a quarterfinal showing in Wimbledon.
At the last major of the year, however, a solid season turned into something much bigger. Coming into New York ranked at a modest No. 16, the Croat romped through the draw, clinically dispatching Berdych, Roger Federer and Kei Nishikori in straight sets, leaving Manhattan with the US Open Trophy.
Against all expectations.
It comes as no surprise that one of the most important aspects of Ivanisevic’s work has been improving his compatriot’s serve. The 42-year-old’s lefty delivery has often been regarded as one of the most lethal strokes in tennis, having fired over 10,000 aces throughout his singles career. By Contrast, Cilic’s serve had been average at best – even shaky at worst – particularly egregious given his lofty height of 6’6. Ivanisevic suggested bringing the toss a little more in front and slowing down the first part of the motion to achieve a more fluid effect.
As a result, the World No. 9 is now getting his body more to the front and his approach is more aggressive than ever before. Best of all, the adjustments soon bore fruit; Cilic finished 2014 averaging 10 aces per match and coming in fourth in points won behind the first serve – contrast that to 2012, when he wasn’t even in the Top 25.
During his US Open run, the serve was in full flow in the latter stages of the tournament. But beyond that, Cilic also credits his coach with helping him acquire more of a winner’s mentality. The veteran always had the potential to compete with the best, but often lacked mental fortitude and crumbled under pressure. Remember when he led Murray by a set and 5-1 in the 2012 US Open quarterfinals, only to completely collapse?
On January 1st of this year, Cilic said this about Ivanisevic:
I think he knows the game and he knows what I need to improve on. I think he’s the right guy to help me.
After this season, it’s difficult to disagree with that.
Kei Nishikori / Michael Chang (since December 2013)
America’s Michael Chang had no real intention to return to the busy life of the ATP Tour. In 2008, the 42 year-old got married and became a father of two. Though he played the Legends Tour and occasional exhibitions, taking up a coaching job seemed unlikely at best. But when IMG called around last year’s US Open, Chang reconsidered. By December, it was announced that he’d be joining Nishikori’s team in a part-time position alongside Dante Bottini, who had been working as a full-time traveling coach.
Through various injuries, Nishikori has been making steady progress up the rankings. On a number of occasions, it seemed that with every step forward, there was a small step backwards. For every match against a Top 10 player or tournament he won, another body part seemed to fail him, to the point where injury and health concerns decelerated his rise, if not his hype.
Over the years Nishikori also had to learn how to deal with the increasing pressure that comes with increasing success – the term “Project 45” has been associated with him in Japan since he was a promising teenager. Not unlike Andy Murray, Nishikori has been far and away his country’s best player. With that comes fame, sponsorship deals, and popularity, but also an incredible weight of expectation.
It therefore made sense for Nishikori to approach Chang. The 1989 Roland Garros champion was born to Chinese parents, and was the most successful player with an Asian background in ATP history. Nishikori’s present situation was similarly unique. Both have said several times that their shared heritage has allowed them to quickly bond and communicate better. Renowned for his tenacity and fighting spirit, the former World No. 2 was just the right person to push Nishikori, giving him the confidence he needed to overcome physical and mental doubts.
Tactically, Chang has not been as outspoken on what he and Bottini are working on, but through the year Nishikori has been using his supreme timing to even greater effect. Equipped with sound technique, he is taking the ball earlier than ever, and at his best is redirecting the ball with ease, particularly off of his backhand, which was in full swing during his runs in Madrid and Flushing.
Still, there is work to be done for Nishikori and his team. Nishikori has always been a player whose health and injuries have put a dent in his career. Although the year’s positives far outweigh the negatives, things haven’t been entirely trouble-free. Well on his way to winning the Madrid Masters, his back essentially short-circuited, triggering a withdrawal from Rome and led to a loss to Martin Klizan in the first round of the French Open.
The key to a successful 2015 will be sensible scheduling. If he keeps the confidence he acquired from Chang, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t improve and set new records next year.
We’re not done yet! In light of the latest coaching news, this series has one more installment, focusing on two of the game’s leading ladies and their flashy new hires. Stay tuned!