Mats Wilander on coaching Marat Safin

09-14-2004, 09:19 PM
I got this from a friend. It's an old article, but still a good one in 2001.

Wise Wilander Heads Down Under

When a French friend suggested to the former world number 1 Mats Wilander that he should try coaching the brilliant but unpolished US Open champ Marat Safin, he didn’t really take much notice. The coaching record of the famous Swede was rather scant- his first and only charge was the South African Wayne Ferreira, with whom he parted company at the beginning of 2001. It was a part time job anyway and the pair travelled to just five tournaments together.

Besides everyone knows that former star players make lousy coaches. However word travelled to the towering Russian. It didn’t take long before Wilander answered the phone to Safin, ringing with a tempting offer.

“I wasn’t trying to get a job as a coach in any way”, Wilander told Australian Tennis magazine, “but Marat was interested and then you only get one chance in a lifetime to coach a player who is that good already.”

So the two met, talked through the options and decided to give it a go. They agreed to spend 20-22 weeks together which will steer Safin through the Australian Open 2002. It’s predominately on the road work, since Wilander lives in Conneticut (Idaho now), and Safin lives in Valencia (Monaco now), where he had lived since aged 14. The two already share some history. Last year Safin became the first player under the age of 21 to win at least seven titles in one season since Wilander won nine in 1983.

But other than that, what could the Americanised Swede and the Russian with a Spanish accent have in common? One was renowned for his cool-headedness and the other quickly acquiring a reputation as a hot-head.

“We are used to so many different styles of people when we travel already, that it’s very easy for a tennis player to adapt to different personalities,” said Wilander, now 37. “That’s not a problem. I was more worried if I can help him as a player and if he can make me a better coach as well.”

It has been traditionally hard for one-time star players to play second fiddle and play a support role in a young gun’s entourage. John McEnroe was one who didn’t slot into the backseat comfortably. But Swedes are different. They are brought up on the ideas of collective support and modest desires under a socialist banner (should be social democratic).

In Swedish society it’s tacky to show off your wealth or your talent. Even in competitive tennis, the youngest age group at junior tournaments starts each set with 3-3, so the weaker player doesn’t get upset with a “zero” score.

It’s no surprise then that if a Swede makes it to the top, like Wilander or Edberg, they main grounded. “The ultimate goal in life,” says Wilander, “is to be a humble happy person. The ultimate goal is not to be a tennis player. It’s not important at all. You have to be a normal person.”

Safin might comprehend that, but it could take him a while to appreciate the value of the advice. He does, however listen attentively to the lectures on tennis strategies. It was superb tactical sense that made his coach a three-time French Open champion and scored him four Grand Slams before his 21st birthday- a record which still stands. And that’s exactly what the Russian needs. “I wanted him,” admits Safin, “because he could teach me to play a little smarter. He knows how to study the opponent and improve my tactics.”

Wilander won’t predetermine how long it will take to polish Safin’s game, but one thing’s for sure – he can help provide a rounded example of what’s required to win the majors. “I don’t believe in set patterns. To me tennis is –what’s the word for it? – a game of adaption. That’s the way I played, that’s the way all great champions played. I had to adapt even more because I am a small guy and I didn’t hit the ball so hard. Some our relationship with Marat is me telling him, and a lot of it is him learning from listening or from being around. It relates to life, not just tennis. It’s important to be able to adapt to different people, to doing interviews, whether you are upset or not upset, to all situations. That’s where I’m trying to help him”.

09-14-2004, 09:19 PM
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.

09-14-2004, 09:27 PM
Thanks for the article FB, it was an interesting read about a tactically great player and someone with all talent and not much discipline, Wilander was a good coach for Marat.

Tennis Fool
09-14-2004, 09:54 PM
Well, according to TC, Mats now thinks taking on Marat was a big mistake.

Marc Rosset is Tall
09-14-2004, 09:59 PM
This was an old article and coaching Marat is enough to age someone 10 years, but it wasn't a mistake. Their coaching relationship wasn't a failure, it ended at the set time, and at that moment Wilander didn't want to travel, and then they broke up and that was the same with Andrei.

Tennis Fool
09-14-2004, 10:01 PM
Well, according to TC, in an interview he did with JMac at the USO, he scoffed at the thought of working with Marat again (he actually burst out laughing), but was open to other players.

Marc Rosset is Tall
09-14-2004, 10:04 PM
The article never said that he would coach him again or be interested in coaching Marat again. Really it was more about Mats's coaching philosphy, career and ideas, it was just relating to Marat at the time when it was written.

He likes the guy and I can understand why, it doesn't mean he has to coach him. I don't believe everything I hear or read in the media.

09-15-2004, 08:34 AM
Thank you for posting this article. Mats does have some interesting things to say, and it wouldn't be the easiest job coaching someone like Safin.

09-15-2004, 05:37 PM
Very nice article.

Media is always good at changing the truth, but I wonder one thing. Marat has always talked about Mats with respect and insists that the only reason why they parted ways was because of the time issue. I wonder why Mats talks trash about Marat now (if it's true).
Marat still thinks that he can win on talent alone and that looks like his biggest mistake. Discipline, practice and strategy are things he seems to ignore, while they're so important nowadays.

09-15-2004, 08:35 PM
Well, according to TC, Mats now thinks taking on Marat was a big mistake.
not a mistake so much as a waste of his time. at least that was my (and the Cat's) interpretation of his scoffing.

09-16-2004, 04:32 AM
Very nice article.

Media is always good at changing the truth, but I wonder one thing. Marat has always talked about Mats with respect and insists that the only reason why they parted ways was because of the time issue. I wonder why Mats talks trash about Marat now (if it's true).
Marat still thinks that he can win on talent alone and that looks like his biggest mistake. Discipline, practice and strategy are things he seems to ignore, while they're so important nowadays.

Mats hasn't been talking trash at all about Marat, he probably had a word with Peter about coachig him, but he definitely played well under his training and you are right the real things he needs to, he doesn't focus on them, with enough desire.

09-17-2004, 04:04 AM
Mats was a good coach for Marat, but if he should be coaching anyone it should be Federer, they would be a great match.

09-17-2004, 05:37 AM
federer does not need a coach apprently... while marat, i dunno about marat... hehehe!

09-17-2004, 09:14 AM
Thanks for posting this article, Safin is one unique individual.