Andy Murray is riding high, and so is his coach, finds Natasha Woods
WHEN Mark Petchey first tried his hand at coaching, some of the sport’s leading lights were less than complimentary. He recalls Patrice Hagelauer being “pretty damning” about his abilities. The Frenchman was, significantly, the performance director of the Lawn Tennis Association at the time.
At least it meant Petchey knew what to expect this summer at Wimbledon when Andy Murray put his faith in a 35-year-old who readily concedes he drifted into coaching almost by accident after a largely unspectacular decade on the men’s tour.
John McEnroe was among those raising doubts about his suitability to become Murray’s full-time mentor. Legendary coach Pancho Segura, the man who helped turn Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi into champions, went further, suggesting Britain’s new tennis sensation had made his first big mistake with the appointment.
“I can understand why people had their doubts about me and I’m sure now Andy has risen to 72 in the world there are going to be those who will question what I can possibly bring to the table because my highest ranking as a player was only 80,” admitted Petchey.
The prospect doesn’t bother him. An engaging character, he will tell you he is looking forward to the day Murray dispenses with his services because he hopes that means his mission has been accomplished.
“I’ve always said coaching should be about writing yourself out of a job because ultimately you want to impart all the information you have to a player who takes it on board for themselves – that is what an individual sport is all about.”
So here he is, sitting in a hotel room in Mons, Belgium, waiting for a certain teenager to go on court yet again, this time in a Challenger Tour event. A week ago it was Bangkok and, almost unbelievably, 18-year-old Murray versus Roger Federer in an ATP Tour final. It has been a hectic few months but now a hamstring injury which forced Murray to pull out of his quarter-final clash with Xavier Malisse on Friday may bring a little time to to put the remarkable year in perspective.
At the start of 2005 Petchey was the manager of men’s national training at the LTA and a regular tennis commentator for Sky. Murray, meanwhile, was the reigning US Open junior champion, but about to attempt the typically fraught transition to the senior ranks – from a starting pos ition of 411 in the world.
Their paths were destined to cross the moment Petchey learned Murray was going to drop his coach, Pato Alvarez, a 69-year-old he had worked with since moving out to the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona three years before.
“Pato is a great coach, but there was a big age difference and you need to forge a different dynamic when you’re on the road every week. I told Andy I’d take care of him over the grasscourt period and then we’d sit down and look at finding him a permanent coach to travel with,” he explained.
By the time Murray had replaced Tim Henman in the nation’s affections and become a fixture on the back and front pages on his way to the third round at Wimbledon, there was little doubt who the Dunblane teenager wanted beside him out on tour.
He and Petchey enjoyed each other’s company; the positive and likable Englishman and the determined and spirited Scot.
Generously, Petchey suggests those who cast doubts on the wisdom of making the coaching arrangement perm anent were probably not aware of his track record.
He retired from playing in 1998, having dropped to around 150 in the rankings and with no great desire to drift around at that level. Notable victories over Michael Stich, Pat Rafter and Michael Chang notwithstanding, he was easily categorised as journey man pro.
For four months he did nothing after he hung up his racket, unsure what his future held. He dabbled with broadcasting and then linked up with the young Croatian player Silvija Talaja through links with a management company.
“I felt I did a pretty good job with Silvija taking her from around 90 in the world into the top 20. I felt that gave me a good handle on what it takes to do that week-in, week-out,” he said.
Slovenian Tina Pisnik was another player who enjoyed a rapid rise into the world’s top 100 under Petchey, but life on tour was becoming a grind for a man who had just become a father for the first time.
Now he has two small daughters at home and admits it was only Murray’s potential and personality which could have tempted him to leave his family for a nomadic lifestyle again.
“The whole time I was working at the LTA he was the only player I’d have willingly gone back on the road with because I felt he had the right mentality and drive. And so far it has been everything I could have hoped for and more.”
Petchey has his own views on coaching and they involve respect on both sides. “I’m not a big believer in it being my way or the highway, put it that way,” he said. “I look at it as a partnership of equals in many ways. I very much listen to what Andy says about his game and his opponents.”
Those who sense such sentiments suggest a compassionate rather than commanding presence would be advised to seek out the likes of Miles Kasiri and Alex Bogdanovic, for Petchey was one of those at the LTA who let British players know in no uncertain terms if they were not pulling their weight.
“If you asked a lot of the players about me when I was working at the federation I don’t know whether they would see me as a nice guy! Maybe there is a little bit of a misconception about me, but I cannot do much about it.”
Murray and he have certainly clicked. In under five months the Scot has risen from 357 to 72 under Petchey’s tutelage. The coach always knew Murray had the talent to make it into the top 100 this year; what he doubted was whether the teenager could play enough weeks in a row to accrue the necessary points.
That he has, Petchey suggests, gives a lie to all those who have questioned Murray’s stamina and strength.
“That is a total misconception because people see him for just three weeks on TV screens in Britain and suddenly everyone is an expert on what he does right and what he does wrong,” he said.
He is now thankful Murray’s improved rankings and tournament schedule will effectively keep him away from Britain, where bookmakers are already offering 33/1 he’ll win Wimbledon next year – the same odds as Henman.
“The more we stay out of Britain, the more we can shield him to a certain degree, but one of the beautiful things about Andy is he doesn’t get carried away.”
There is, however, one discordant note.
“We’ll never be downloading the same iTunes, that’s for sure,” joked Petchey of Murray’s youthful musical tastes. Otherwise they are in harmony. And making a big noise in the tennis world.
09 October 2005