Fox Tales: My Conversation With Tony Pickard
By Arthur Brocklebank
Monday, June 02, 2008
Stefan Edberg (right) with long-time coach Tony Pickard © Getty Images
The fox is becoming extinct in England, but deep in middle England, Nottinghamshire an old silver fox sits alive and well in his armchair reflecting on his days of coaching Stefan Edberg and reviewing the state of the spot today. Tony Pickard coached six-time Grand Slam champion Edberg, who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004 and is set to make his senior debut on the Blackrock tour this year. The 42-year-old Swede will compete in Paris, France at The Trophťe Jean-Luc LagardŤre, September 18-21 and at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England at The BlackRock Masters Tennis, December 2-7.
Pickard still has that energy in his heart to stoke up a burning desire for anyone in the tennis profession who has wants to listen and learn. He owns one of the most impressive coaching resumes in the nation, having worked with Edberg, Marat Safin, Petr Korda and a Canadian, oppphhhh I mean an adopted Brit, Greg Rusedski. Edberg amassed 41 singles titles, including two Wimbledon crowns, and 18 doubles championships in his career. Edberg and John McEnroe are the only men in Open Era history to hold the No. 1 ranking in both singles and doubles simultaneously.
It was a turn of circumstances at the beginning that would bring Tony Pickard and Stefan Edberg together. I asked Pickard, when he started playing tennis himself?
"My parents never played tennis. I was nuts on football. It all started by an accident when I was 14 years old. I loved football but one day I jumped into a swimming pool and landed on a broken bottle that cut my foot. I was in a wheelchair for six months. My sister took me to the tennis court where she played and I watched. I thought this is an easy game to play so I took it up," Pickard says with a bemused smile as he gazed up to the ceiling.
Pickard soon played county tennis and later played several times at Wimbledon. He represented his country in the Davis cup and captained the under 21 and Davis Cup teams for Great Britain.
One incident that stands out in his playing career was in Rome at the 1963 Italian Open. He was playing the big-serving New Zealander Ian Crookenden in the Italian Championships and not only the crowd, but the line judges were losing interest.
Pickard takes up the story: "It was a match point. He served and it was at least nine inches long. The umpire looked to the baseline judge for the call, but he was turned round buying an ice cream over the fence.' Crookenden won the point and went on to win the match. I felt as sick as a pig," says Pickard.
Was there any possibility of an appeal I asked?
"In those days you could never appeal or you would have been brought up before a governing body committee and banned. A protest was not possibly."
So how did an Englishman wind up coaching a Swede? Pickard remembers the first time he saw Edberg, the man who would wield a brilliant one-handed backhand in reaching three consecutive Wimbledon finals from 1988-90 was sporting a two-handed backhand.
"I was working for Wilson rackets as a talent scout and I saw (Edberg) in Milan, Italy at the European junior championships. He was this young whipper snapper about 15 year old with a double handed backhand. I got a contract for him with Wilson and I arranged sponsorship for him. He never knew who I was. Stefan then went to the Wilson agent in Sweden and asked who I was. They said we know someone who could help you and that is how it happened. Percy Rosberg changed his backhand to a one-handed stroke. With children when you want to change their technique never try to change it yourself, always take them back to who taught them initially if you are big enough to go back. Our relationship grew but I didnít want to go on the road, honestly, travelling as a coach.Then there was talk about having coaches. I said 'You need to have somebody. You need someone to plan your matches and look after the itinerary so you have got no worries.' Percy Rosberg went with him but their relationship only lasted four months. Stefan never told me why. I met Stefan in Paris, 1984 and he asked me to help him at Wimbledon. I said 'Yeah Iíll help for the three to four weeks and Iíll enjoy it.' And then after he said what should I do? I said, It is obvious it does not suit you having a coach you might as well go on your own. So after Wimbledon he did and he went down hill. Then in the autumn I had to see Jimmy Connors in Stockholm and Jimmy said Stefan is playing tonight shall we leave dinner and have breakfast tomorrow. Jimmy knew I was a close friend of Stefan. I went to watch the match and wellÖÖ..no comment."
Pickard laughs and prefers not to criticize what he saw that night but it was a significant turning point in what was to become a partnership on the court as well as lifetime friends off it.
"Afterward Stefan asked me if I would travel with him. It was a relationship that had being going on for a few years with me in the background. I said 'I can't, Iíll have to go home and talk to my wife it is such a big commitment to commit to.' Anyway Stefan had stayed with us in the past and everyone knew him in the family. I spoke to my wife Janet and she said 'Do you think he can be a champion?' and I said 'Yes he can win Wimbledon and be number one in the world if that talent can be harnessed.' Stefan said 'Let's give it ago for 12 months.í "
In December, 1985 Edberg captured his first Grand Slam championship at the Australian Open. He outlasted Ivan Lendl, 6-7, 7-5, 6-1, 4-6, 9-7, in the semifinals and took Mats Wilander apart, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in the final.
As Pickard reminisces about his meeting with the young Edberg you cannot help but sense a man from a lost generation when honor and integrity was paramount more than financial gain and celebrity status. His reluctance to accept or canvass for any position and use of a Ďbrandí to market his skills are evident. No agents but a gentlemanís agreement with a handshake.
Pickard is an avuncular figure, with softly spoken words that put you at ease in his present. An air of relaxation has covered the room. I can see how he was able to transfer his knowledge onto the player without this new age of screaming at shouting.
"The game is different now everyone wants a quick fix. There are no short cuts. Coaches donít want to lose money, so they put up with it."
I ask Tony about champions and where do they come from?
"Champions are born but they need coaching to turn them into champions. Iím a great believer people are born with a talent but the thing is to nurture that talent you need advice how to use that talent as quickly as possible. The point Iím making, is being a sportsman is a very short career. If you make the top you may have, maybe 15 years and then itís over. It you donít make the top youíre got 10 and then you had it. And so without that help I donít think people take away from the game everything that they could take away from the game. In those day if you took on the responsibility to take on the role of coach. There no such things as a trainer there was no such things psychiatrists there was such things as a physio to travel with. The coach had to know everything in those days. I went on courses to learn about sports injuries so if a problem occurred I could immobilize the injury until I could get to the proper people. Training, I had to work it out myself. In those days people were giving. You could get advice. Now people want paying. I did all his training routines. I did his rackets. Everything relating to help Stefan the coach did.
"Most of the training we did was at Queens London. I wrote to the chairman of Queens and offered to pay but they were fantastic. They gave it free of charge. Those people knew their tennis: pure quality on their part. People think they are a toffee nose lot but I cannot praise them highly enough."
Pickard, like his dress sense, is meticulous in the way he approaches his subject with careful planning of a general preparing for battle on the tennis court where Edberg would execute the plan.
"For the first 12 months coaching Stefan, It was a dictatorship. I became a dictator. I told him where he would play and how he would play. I had to impress a tennis education into him as quickly as possible. Then after that I allowed Stefan to come to the party. Then he had a say in everything we did, everything. You have to get in his mind how you believe he should be playing. If he felt we should not do that and I could not answer then we do what he wanted. But if we both had a reason we would sit down and talk about and then we both take the one that was the correct one to do."
How did Edberg's style of play develop?
"When I started with Stefan the bulk of the players were baseliners: Lendl, Wilander, Connors," Pickard says. "I told him 'Youíre not good enough to play from the back of the court to beat these guys.' We improved his forehand so he could rally. It was not a good forehand but it got better."
That type of blunt candor is a trait that Pickard is known for and a quality that served him well in his coaching relationship with Edberg.
"We have to develop you to go forward and volley and become the best volleyer you can become," Pickard remembers telling Edberg. "We spent a tremendous amount of time volleying. It was not natural. We planned it. Your ground strokes are enough but you have to put pressure on these people if you are going to win. It paid off. Not bad for six Grand Slams. He played doubles at that time. You have got to get as much tennis input through their tennis playing career, then we had to work out are we going to hurt him by playing the doubles? When he started to reach semi and finals in the singles we stopped. At the U.S. Open Stefan had to play the doubles and then a singles semi. He lost to Wilander and we agreed that he would not play doubles again in a Grand Slam."
Pickardís passion and knowledge has my concentration focused as I am asking question after question the equivalent of hitting booming forehands across the room, but with calm assurance and articulate skills Tony takes it in his stride and take the pace off my intensity.
How do you improve a player?
"There are no quick fixes, people want it because they want the money," Pickard says. "Everyone thinks it grow on trees. Only bad coaches will only let a loss affect them. When you win you donít learn anything when you lose you learn a lot. So long as both of you know this. You can learn from a loss and take the good out."
Edberg's epic five-set marathon match against Michael Chang in the 1992 U.S. Open semifinals spanned five hours and 26 minutes. He recovered from that exhausting encounter to beat Pete Sampras, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2.
So how did Tony get Stefan to a physical and mental peak?
"We had a bad summer that year. We were not winning semifinals and finals. We worked hard up to the U.S. Open. We had to lock ourselves away. I kept him away from any distractions and we just kept ourselves to ourselves. You keep the player focused with no intrusions. You had to be strong. When you are winning, it is easy. You start thinking the next day about the schedule and what the body needs in nourishment at the right time so by the time to play the next day the body is totally replenished. Stefan never felt comfortable in New York or the environment at Flushing Meadow. I donít know why because I never asked him. After he won against Sampras in the final, he said 'I donít think it is too bad a place now.'
"When we were over there in America we where invited to stay and practice with Ivan Lendl. Lendl gave that external appearance as being very aloof and nobody get to know him but okay if he liked you, you were pals. Stefan and I got on unbelievably well with him. A lot of people criticize Lendl but I would never hear anything against him. I reckon Lendl was the best pro of his generation. He had everything in place, okay it was all regimented, like his diet, but he never left anything to chance. Everything was in the right place."
The coach relationship inevitable will come to an end sooner or later in this case. Angelo Dundee , Muhammad Aliís trainer once said, he saw Ali losing his rhythm and timing as the champ got older. Did Tony see Stefan lose his speed as he got older?
"No, not whilst we were working together but like all things you have to accept it for what it is. It is a fantastic if you are fortunate to be a part of it. It is a fantastic period in your life. Okay, (you know) it is going to come to an end and so long as you are both big enough to realize that when itís over itís over. I always said to him 'Fellow, look when you feel we are done you tell me. Iíll be around for as long as you feel that you need me and we sat down just before Christmas in 1994 and he said, 'Tony, I think I need to go my own.' In 1995 he went off on his own.
"We still remains friends and are still friends. Then I said on the phone 'Iím fed up to the teeth with you waving good bye to me on the television. Why donít you win some matches?' because he wasnít winning matches. Why donít you get stuck in and let your tennis say goodbye. He muttered a bit down the phone and then he said to me would I come back with him in Paris that year. We were apart for 18 months and then I stayed with him until he quit in 1996. Stefan always said he would know himself when he would say itís over and when itís over it is going to be over."
Time stands still for no man and Stefan Edberg had retired at 30, but what did Pickard think of his decision?
"Iíve always been a great believer that there are freaks like Rafa Nadal, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg who win a Grand Slam when they are teenagers but the rest of the world of tennis if you look, the rest of them mature about 23. That is when they become the best few years 23 to 27 .This is when the body has matured but you have the odd ones that do it before that. Like I said before you have such a short span of life at the top. Edberg stayed in the top five for 10 years which was a hell of an achievement."
You were then asked by Petr Korda to coach him. Their personalities looked the opposite on the surface?
"Two totally different young men but although I did not work with him as long as Stefan I had a fantastic relation with him. He just called me and initially I did not want to coach him. I knew him because Stefan played doubles with him. Korda was a fabulous tennis player. In 1997 he was playing Pete Sampras at the U.S. Open and during the rain breaks he phoned me back in England while I was watching his match to see if I had see anything and I would tell him what he was doing on the court. One of my big assets was I could analyze his game very quickly and see things what people could not see. I sat there in this chair. He called me four times. One of his biggest problems in tennis he became easily satisfied on the court. I was at the U.S. Open in 1995 with him and he was in the quarterfinals playing Agassi. He white washed Agassi 6-1 in a set, that was it for him. In front of live television. For him, he had won the tournament. I told his wife sitting next to me to tell him in Czech to repeat it again in the next set but he never came back that was it. But he was a lovely boy and he later won the Australian Open."
The next call Pickard got was from Ion Tiriac to coach Marat Safin
"I did that as a favor to Tiriac to look after him in England. He had enormous talent but not that easy to get through to. Like I said to him 'What I ask you to do is for your benefit not for mine and Iím not going to ask you to do something that was not going to help you.' But he could never take that and that proves it. He has flittered around from coach to coach. I basically think deep down he really never wanted to listen. He played at Queens and played well, then he did not want to play at Nottingham, so we practiced for Wimbledon and he played poorly. He wanted to play the his way he did not listen. He won the U.S. Open after spending six weeks with me. I did not travel to the US. I did not want to go back on the tour. It is very demanding."
Speed and movement have become so important in today's tennis do you think an all-court game ó as Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have all shown to varying degrees ó is a natural antidote to so many of the top baseliners like Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and Nikolay Davydenko or do the racquet and string technology as well as the surfaces negate net play today?
"Movement is one of the most important things. What I don't feel today people donít pay enough attention to is the movement from changing from surface to surface," Pickard says. "Edberg and I did different programs when we went to the clay and same as grass at Wimbledon. There were also different programs for movement for the hard court. The game is different with the ball bouncing high. The players are on the back foot. Because of the grips the volley has become difficult to accomplish.
It would be fascinating to see these guys play with a wooden racket. Technology has changed the game."
I asked Tony his thoughts on Andy Murray and his game? Aside from staying healthy, what does he need to do to be a consistent top 10 player?
"Murray has a game that keeps him on the back foot. He can volley. I would not like to comment as I donít know the boy. Iíve met him once, just to say hello. He is a good player but Nadal and Djokovic are on another level."
Do you believe ó as some suggest ó that Federer is slipping?
"Like all sportsmen they have a slight dip. He is not on a slide. Federer is a marvelous player. He is not slipping. Thatís the media talking."
And what of Nadal do you think he has a short shelf life at the top of tennis?
"Okay the guy is a monster on a clay court, but Iím just wondering how long his body will last because the way he plays," Pickard says. "It is a pretty tough way, the way he plays so whether or not It will be interesting. I may be totally wrong but you know, to see a young man at 20 and he has got his knees taped up. I mean the other day when I saw his feet I could not believe it that somebody would put him out on court like that to me is. He should never have been allowed near the court with feet in that state but then we are all different."
What does Roger Federer need to do to defeat Nadal on clay?
"I really donít want to answer that because basically I know whatís wrong. Itís not right for me to make a comment about another professional. I personally believe there is something he does not do on a clay court. It took me a long time to convince Stefan that he could win the French Open and we came that close to winning it. I told him just do what you do best on the other surfaces and letís give it a whack and lets have a go."
I then tried to catch Tony out and with a curve ball about Federer asking him: Do you think Roger changes his game when he plays Nadal. Quick as a flash he read my best shot and did not take the bait.
"Iím not going to answer that." Tony said.
This guy is cutting me up in his living room. My efforts to try and find the answer had been nullified with a grace and style from this gentleman. I try another approach, Tony, what tactics would you use against Nadal be on clay to win?
"The young man is unbelievable quick but he is very limited going forward and nobody tends to use the front of the court against him. They all tend to rally at the back of the court hoping he is going to make a mistake and the way he hits the ball he is not going to and I personally think if somebody learns to bring him up the court more (they will have a better chance)," Pickard says. "You are not going to get him to come to the net because he will come so far and retreat but if you use the front of the court so you can open the front of the court and not worry if it is a backhand or forehand. If you could slice it into an area wide so that he is so low that he has got to push it back that he cannot get over the ball but nobody plays like that anymore. On saying that, he is an animal on the court. But with the extreme grips of western and semi western the players can only scoop the ball if they try to slice the ball, it sits up. You need to knife the ball, when you slice. Somebody sometime will be brave enough to teach somebody to slice the ball and it will change the game again. Iím hoping and we will see attacking tennis. I donít think Nadal will win Wimbledon this year. The player who could is Djokovic."
What do you think of large entourages that accompany the players and specialist clay court coaches that are employed?
"In my opinion, it is all a load of nonsense. Having a coach for this surface and having a coach that surface is unnecessary. If you have a coach, a good coach, he will get the best out of you whatever surface you are going to play on and he will do his homework for you so you donít have to worry about anything apart from playing matches. Iím not a great believer in having these big entourages. Okay fine if you were to ask me would I do it differently with Edberg if I was starting off again. Yes I would say to you there is only thing I would do differently I would take a physio to look after his body because we had to rely on different people apart from that I would not do anything different."
Do you think the entourages bring confusion then?
"I would not say confusion. The point you have to realize is that with sportsmen they will always look for sympathy when things are not going right and the more people you have got around you, they will find the one thatís weak and thatís the one they will keep going to for sympathy. Now if you have not got all this entourage around you there is only one man to answer one another and he knows he is not going to get any sympathy. If a player can get sympathy every dam day of his life he is not going to succeed because he will always be looking for a way out. If there is no way out then he will give it a 150 percent so he does not get any aggravation and have a nice happy free life but if you are looking for a way out all the time you will lose. You are looking for something that is not really there. Today the fashion is to have a big entourage. How they afford it I donít know."
The LTA have brought coaches in from abroad, including Brad Gilbert and Paul Annacone, to produce more top 100-ranked British players. What are your views on this?
"Iíve said this a 100 times, If you want to get yourself out of this rut you have got to do it from within. You are not going to get it by buying people in on ego trips, that is basically all they are doing. Paying stupid money out to people who will come and take the money with no responsibility and go home. They donít have to live with it for their rest of the lives if they screw up. They just take the money and go. We had good coaches here."
Tony, you are sitting here now with a world class resume in tennis. Have the LTA asked you for some input?
"I told the chief executive that if you want to go forward in England we need to set up an academy for teaching coaches. I offered but I donít want to take anyoneís job," Pickard says. "If you are interested Iíll come and travel the country and go and see coaches and I will pass on all I have learnt in my career but I never even got a reply.One of the things you have to remember in this country we love successful people till they are successful and when they are successful we donít like them. I think it is jealousy in this country. When you get to top we are looking to ways to knock them down. I love people who become successful and achieve the sphere what they have gone into. In America they love success. They want you to succeed."
In a naÔve rely I ask why? A philosophical answer that epitomizes Pickard it is politely returned.
"Thatís life. Thatís life. I consider I have a lot that I can give them even now and Iím an old man but I believe Iíve still got a lot that I could give but okay they donít want it," he says. "They always use to say when I was in business, you always want one Ďold buggerí on your board. I would ask why? They would say because nine times out of 10 they will stop you going down an avenue that they went down, that had a dead end and there is nothing truer than that."
I get up from my chair to shake the hand of Tony Pickard over an imaginary net. I have been hitting a barrage of tennis questions over the past three hours. Like a rookie on the tour, the Silver fox has given me an educational lesson in tennis and life. And all I did was knock on his door to learn. I have a feeling someone somewhere will call him soon.
A Swede comes to mind.