Re: Mats Wilander on coaching Marat Safin
Like Rafael Mensua, Safin’s only long-term coach ( not counting Rausa Islanova, who taught her son until the age of 13) Wilander has four kids, and in time, it might be the paternal skills that prove useful as any. Tennis players, like many sports personalities, often struggle to grow up and Safin, at just 21, can no doubt benefit from a steady hand.
“I think we get along really well,” says Wilander of the union. “It’s important that Marat wins yes, but that’s the third most important thing with my job. The second most important thing is to make him a complete tennis player. The most important thing is that he is a happy person. If you are not a happy person you can not play sport. We have to find harmony. If you don’t have harmony it doesn’t matter what you are and it doesn’t matter if you win because if you are not happy, what difference does it make? To me the most important thing is that he is happy when he plays tennis.”
When these words were retold to Mikhail Safin, Marat’s father, he nodded his head appreciatively. “That’s exactly right. Mats knows what he says. He would be very good for Marat”. The two sat alongside each other at Wimbledon, but could not communicate as Safin snr doesn’t speak English and Wilander doesn’t speak Russian.
Wilander doesn’t pretend to have worked out what makes the 193cm enigma tick, but is quickly piecing together the jigsaw pieces. “I’m learning. I think what makes him happy is to feel that he is doing something good with his life, which is to work hard and improve at tennis. And obviously he has a lot of interests off the court like all tennis players do which is very, very important.” This included a visit during the year to the infamous Playboy Mansion for dinner with Miss March 2000. But that’s another story.
At the age of 17, Wilander was part of the young, now-famous Swedish Davis Cup squad that travelled the world under the supervision of Jon-Anders Sjögren. The story goes that Sjögren chose the young Wilander ahead of his own son, who was the at the time Swedish Junior Champion.
“I travelled with Joakim Nyström, Anders Järryd and Hans Simonsson. We were four guys and one coach. Nowadays it’s mostly one coach per player, which is fine, but I think it’s very dangerous to become a lonely tennis player and to think you have to protect yourself from other players. Most of their tennis lessons, players learn from other players, not necessarily from coaches or agents, or friends and whatever. For me – hanging out with the tennis players, that’s how you get stronger, that’s how you learn about other tennis players and about your game as well.”
This is clearly against the current trend and echoes the ethos of the great Harry Hopman and other Australians who followed. Nowadays the precocious talents are wrapped in a cotton wool of entourage and support staff.
“I think it’s good for a very strong minded kid, he will succeed, but a strong minded kid will succeed anyway,” Wilander speaks with conviction. “To say that if a kid becomes good that it’s because of the parents is wrong, you can never tell why the kid becomes good. The kid becomes good because he has it in him. It has to do with support from the parents. But there is too much of it in sports, especially tennis. Parents are very afraid of their kids breaking down, if they lose a match, so they become very protective. It can be a dangerous route, better let them out there and let them try, kids adapt so much quicker than parents think.”
What then of Wilander’s own children? After he’s cut his coaching teeth on Safin, will he start on the young Wilander tribe? “Not at the moment. They’ve just started. I don’t really care what happens to their tennis career. I don’t want to be involved. I think it will be easier for me to be a sane tennis parent, then for a person who’s never exposed to it himself. You have a lot of ex-tennis players like Fred Stolle, whose son Sandon plays on tour. I think that Fred had a lot to do with his tennis in one way. But it’s different. He knows what pressure to put on him and when not too put any pressure and step away and look at the kid to see if the kid needs him or not.”
It could be coincidence, but since Wilander joined Safin, his results have begun to improve remarkably after nearly 12 months in the wilderness. A semi-finals loss to Pete Sampras at the US Open and a career best quarter final at Wimbledon made up for more than half of the year of disappointing first round losses. It certainly makes the team’s Australian Open assault dangerous.
“In tennis you can only learn from mistakes, you will never learn from victories.” is wise Wilander’s conclusion. “All you do when you win is repeat yourself. When you lose, that’s when you know you need to change something. That’s where learning starts.”
And hopefully never ends.