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Boris and Goran: playing greats turned coaching mentors

Novak Djokovic during a practice session on middle Sunday with Boris Becker
by Michael Beattie
Tuesday 1 July 2014

Fedberg, Beckovic, Murresmo – among the contenders for the Gentlemen’s Singles title, the champion-mentor trend is in vogue. Now Wimbledon prepares for the first meeting of two former champions, one in each corner, when Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic meet in the quarter-finals.

Nineteen times they met as adversaries, the German pipping the Croatian with 10 victories to nine. Twice they met at Wimbledon, claiming a win apiece. Now, 16 years after standing across a net from one another for the last time, Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic meet once more – or at least, their protégés do.

Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic will face one another for a place in the semi-finals of The Championships. In the players’ boxes, however, the pride of two former champions is also at stake: Becker, the three-time Wimbledon champion back in the 1980s, and Ivanisevic, a three-time runner-up in the 1990s before his wildcard triumph in 2001.

Semi-final adversaries in 1990 and 1994, they will now meet at Wimbledon for a third time. “I expect them to come into the court and play instead of us,” Djokovic joked.

Becker joined Djokovic’s team in December to help rid the Serbian of the unwanted nearly-man tag he has acquired at the Grand Slams over the past two seasons. Around the same time, Ivanisevic stepped up his duties with fellow Croatian Cilic, rebuilding the No.26 seed’s game and helping him relax on court.

The duo are the first of this new band of former greats coaching current leading lights to meet at a Grand Slam – but they will surely not be the last. Andy Murray, credited with sparking the recent trend following his success under Ivan Lendl, has seen his fledgling partnership with Amelie Mauresmo become the talk of the tour. Should Murray beat Grigor Dimitrov in the last eight, the 2006 Ladies’ Singles champion will find herself a few seats away from one of the two grass-court greats during Friday’s semi-finals.

And it doesn’t end there – since the start of the year, Roger Federer has been coached by Stefan Edberg and Kei Nishikori now works under the guidance of Michael Chang. Should both win their delayed fourth round matches on Tuesday, five of the eight quarter-finalists in the Gentlemen’s Singles draw will have a former Grand Slam champion in their corner.

So what is it that a former champion can offer a current player, many of whom are champions in their own right?

“Where [Becker] helps me the most, and where I feel the biggest change, is from a mental point of view,” Djokovic said after his third-round win over Gilles Simon. “I will not start serving and volleying because this is not the way I've been brought up or I've been learned to play. I'm a different player than what he was in terms of play, but in terms of mental approach and a couple of other things, I find that we have a lot of things in common.”

For Cilic, the relationship with Ivanisevic is a more traditional coach-player partnership. “Goran is different when he plays and when he's off the court,” the world No.29 explains. “When he's coaching he's a very calm character and very positive, so that always gives me a sense that things are in a good way, we are working well, that it's going to pay off eventually.

“It's a nice combination from that part, from him. And he's eager on the court when we are working that things become better, and of course the other part where he's calm in certain other situations.”

Ivanisevic was also one of the game’s greatest servers, something he has addressed with his charge. “At 198cm, he had a shaky serve,” he told the ATP back in February. “We have worked a lot. He is now hitting two aces per game. He is getting a lot more free points on his serve, not necessarily aces, but he is getting short and easier balls to hit in response to returns.”

Anyone who watched Cilic serve Jeremy Chardy into submission on Court 18 with 33 aces would agree: Marin is listening to Goran. Twice beaten in the fourth round in the past, the Croatian is through to his first Wimbledon quarter-final. Djokovic, unbeaten against Cilic but having dropped a set in both of their encounters in 2014, is well aware of the threat.

“Since he started working with Goran he has improved, especially in his service department,” said the top seed. “For his height I thought that he didn't use his full potential up to now working with Goran, where it's evident that it works well for him.”

But while both Becker and Ivanisevic have benefited from the wisdom and insight of champions who have walked a path few are destined to follow, their influence will be little more than inspiration and motivation once Djokovic and Cilic step out on court.

“Of course he can dedicate himself and help as much as he possibly can,” Djokovic said of Becker. “But I need to execute the work that we are doing.”

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