I don’t understand the timing of Blake’s decision to part with his coach. I’m not saying that it was the wrong decision. On the contrary, I used to wonder why he hadn’t done it years ago.
Changing coaches must be one of the most difficult decisions a pro can make. On the one hand there is the comfort and familiarity factor, especially in situations like Blake’s where the coach has been around for so long that the relationship with him may in many ways be more intimate than just about any other bond in your life. This is the person who has your back, who knows intimate details of your life such as how much money you make and what kind of deals may benefit you both.
And there is always the risk of betrayal. Giving up a long-time coach who is familiar with every aspect of your game means risking that he will hand over this knowledge to your next opponent who may happen to hire him. Andre Agassi admits in his memoir that Darren Cahill told him how to beat Lleyton Hewitt. And I remember Agassi himself getting burned at Queen’s when Brad Gilbert started working with Andy Roddick who miraculously overnight had figured out a way to beat Agassi.
I’ve often wondered if this is a factor in Federer’s longstanding allergy to hiring coaches. Is there a fear that the secrets that have taken him to # 1 may suddenly get spilled? It’s a thought, no?
And then there are players like James Blake who seem to hang on to a coach long after they have achieved their best with each other. James Blake and Brian Barker have been a duo for 17 years. That is longer than most marriages. From their interviews they both claim that the split is amicable and that Blake needed to hear a new voice. The new voice will belong to Kelly Jones, a former doubles specialist ranked # 1 in doubles in 1992. Like Blake, he is also a former NCAA player. As a coach he has worked with Mardy Fish and Xavier Malisse. And now James Blake.
And I have to admit that the cynical part of me wondered, what’s the point? Does Blake really think he still has tennis left? Does he believe that he has what it takes to win a Slam? It wasn’t that long ago that he had never even won a five-set match. OK granted he has since corrected that, and that he has wins against many of the top players. But Blake has always been a streaky player who is hot today and cold tamale. If anyone had asked me (not that I wait to be asked anything to give my blog-opinion), I would have said that Blake’s best tennis years may well be behind him, so what exactly is the point of hiring a new coach at this stage of the game?
But in the next moment I remember players like Andre Agassi. I may ride him hard in my satirical pieces but Agassi is proof positive that some people are just late bloomers. They take a while to grow up and become capable of the kind of focused discipline that takes you to the top. And with this in mind, I decided that my dismissal of Blake was unfair. If Andre could do it, why not James? I’m not equating their talent by any means but Blake certainly is blessed with a quickness of feet, superb hand-eye coordination, and laser-like forehands that have allowed him to climb to some stunning heights. When he is on, he can beat anyone. His problem has always been that when he flames out, he gutters.
And last night I watched him gutter. It wasn’t pretty. He was playing Nicolás Almagro, an all-court Spanish player who seems to be the direct descendent of the previous generation of such all-surface masters as Àlex Corretja, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Carlos Moyá. Almagro took it to Blake fearlessly. And before too long Blake was behaving like a pissy little bi**h, whining and complaining about the Chair, moaning about the court, sulking about the crowd. I wanted to reach through the TV and slap him. And then I thought, this Kelly Jones dude had better be able to work miracles.