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Team tennis: Top players pay for support system

Insanity exercise guru Shaun T gives Novak Djokovic

Insanity exercise guru Shaun T gives Novak Djokovic some pointers about fitness during his match against the kids in Arthur Ashe Stadium during Kids Day at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing on Aug. 23, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Tennis, any U.S. Open observer can tell, is an individual sport. But some are less individual than others. At the very top of the tennis pecking order, up there among the Federers and Djokovics, the Serena Williamses and Maria Sharapovas, are full teams of traveling coaches, trainers, physiotherapists and hitting partners.

"Tennis,'' U.S. youth development director Patrick McEnroe said, "has become just like the other big sports. It used to be there was one coach on the football team, one coach on the basketball team. Now, when I watch college basketball, I see the head coach and about four guys with clipboards sitting next to Mike Krzyzewski.''

The onset of elaborate player-support systems is a function of competition -- trying to get an edge -- and of the big money now available to the top pros. (The Open's singles champions, for instance, will win $3 million apiece.)

Because of the expense, of course, the ability to hire specialized valets and handlers is limited to the most accomplished players. Former pro and current coach Brad Gilbert said that for someone ranked 70th in the world, "You can have a coach, a trainer and a physio, but by the end of the year, you'd be lucky to be making any money.''

McEnroe pointed to Novak Djokovic, who already was a six-time major-tournament winner, adding former champ Boris Becker to his entourage before adding a second Wimbledon crown to his resume this summer. "Guess what?'' McEnroe said. "That was well worth the investment of bringing Boris onto his team.''

Similarly, Roger Federer recently hired six-time Slam event winner Stefan Edberg as co-coach, alongside longtime coach Severin Luthi, to join a fitness guru, plus a trainer. The result has been Federer's increased use of Edberg's serve- and-volley style.

All this is a dramatic escalation from the early days of open tennis, which dawned in 1968.

"Let's put it this way,'' Chris Evert said. "In the '70s, when Martina [Navratilova] and I played for the finals in Grand Slams, we had no coaches. We would warm each other up, play the match, have lunch, get on a flight together. It was a big deal if you had a coach traveling with you.

"Then, in the '80s and '90s, physios started, mental conditioning, hitting partners.''

It was Navratilova, Evert's great rival and -- like Evert -- winner of 18 major tournament singles titles, who is cited by many tennis observers for starting the retinue trend.

Among Navratilova's team members were Miami-based nutritionist Robert Haas, known for the "Eat to Win'' diet, motivator/trainer and former basketball star Nancy Lieberman, coaches Renee Richards and Mike Estep (also her hitting partner, whom Navratilova told, when she hired him, that her intent was to be the greatest tennis player in history).

Navratilova traveled with her canine, K.D. (for "Killer Dog''), and there were reports that she brought along a dog-walker. These days, there are cases of players bringing personal chefs to tournaments to cook for them.

The whole idea is to maximize a player's chances at winning the big prizes. Whereupon they are increasingly able to get more hired help. And, because players a bit lower in the rankings don't have the financial wherewithal to do the same, the gap widens between the 1-percenters and the rest.

It's still singles tennis. But the rich, never alone, get richer.

New York Sports