Get ready for the 2014 Australian Open with a 1980s throwback twist — minus the neon, stonewashed jeans and Boy George music. Fans who tune in to the action Down Under beginning Monday will see ’80s greats Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg and Michael Chang getting a lot of air time.
No, the Aussie Open hasn’t switched to a senior event. Over the past month, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Kei Nishikori decided to join Andy Murray and hire an ’80s star as a coach. Murray set the trend two years ago, when he sought the expertise of Lendl. His already promising career seemed to get a boost, resulting in two Grand Slam titles, including his historic Wimbledon win last summer and an Olympic gold medal.
Following Murray’s lead, Djokovic recently hired Becker, Federer hired Edberg, and Nishikori hired Chang.
“That’s a whole lot of star power,” ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. “I think the message there is that these top guys will do anything to get the slightest edge. The former players have been through it all, and if they have advice that can make even a little bit of difference, these players figure it’s worth whatever they’re paying them.”
Unlike the women’s game, which is dominated by just one player — top-ranked Serena Williams went 78-4 last year and has won four of the past six Grand Slam titles — the elite group of men atop the rankings are in a fierce battle for supremacy and seeking even the tiniest advantage.
“I think these players think the coach change is going to give them the edge they need to go the extra mile,” said Chris Evert, also working for ESPN. “I don’t know if anybody can do as well as Lendl has done with Murray because Lendl and Murray to me was the perfect — right from the get-go — combination. Lendl’s strengths were Murray’s weaknesses, which was focus. Lendl was so ice cold out there, really had that determination. He was unemotional. I think that’s what he’s helped Andy Murray with.”
Evert believes the Djokovic-Becker pairing could be equally beneficial.
“I’m feeling good about that combination because Becker was very aggressive. He went for all his shots. I think Djokovic could go for his shots a little bit more,” she said. “Djokovic is so consistent and so smooth, has that great timing and smoothness. But he could probably go out of the box a little bit more and take a few more chances, come to the net, hit some more winners. I think Becker’s aggressive personality and aggressive game could give him the edge that he needs.”
Djokovic, the three-time defending Australian Open champion, certainly doesn’t appear to need any wholesale changes. He ended 2013 on a 24-match win streak, made the final of nine of the past 12 Grand Slam events and beat top-ranked Rafael Nadal in straight sets at the China Open and the ATP World Tour Finals.
But Djokovic is not satisfied being No. 2, and he won only the Australian Open last year, so he is looking for more this season.
Nadal won a record eighth French Open last year and also won the U.S. Open. If he wins this Australian Open, he would be the first man in the Open era to win each major twice.
Djokovic and Nadal remain the dynamic duo, winning three of the past four Slams and eight of the past nine Masters titles. Both are seeking an edge to stay ahead of the other.
Federer, at 32 and awaiting a third child, is eager to win an 18th Grand Slam title. He didn’t win any last year for the first time since 2002 and slipped below No. 5 in the world rankings. He won only one title, in Halle, Germany. As Federer enters his 57th consecutive major, McEnroe thinks the Swiss maestro still has some magic up his sleeve, and Edberg could help him find it.
“Roger’s got fanatical fans who think their Michelangelo is being out-painted, so he’s got a little chip on his shoulder, and I think he’s going to do something special this year,” McEnroe said. “The question is whether he has enough to get to the finish line in a best-of-5 match against the top guys. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he does something magical again.”
Australian tennis coach Darren Cahill, who worked with Andre Agassi and now works as a TV commentator, is thrilled to see former players giving back to the sport. He said the difference between winning and losing big matches is often just 10 or 12 points, and the former greats can bring “an X factor” other coaches can’t.
“The big winner in this is tennis,” Cahill said. “It’s great to see these guys put their hand up and get back into the game. … They’ve been there. They’ve experienced it. They’ve lived it and problem-solved through it.
“This is a special generation of tennis players in the men’s game. … These players are now reaching out to these guys, picking up the phone and making the phone calls to these former legends and saying, ‘Hey, do you want to help me?’ The players are getting on the front foot, much like Andre used to do.”
On the women’s side, Williams doesn’t appear to need much help. The 17-time Grand Slam winner remains the woman to beat at age 32, with no signs of slowing down.
Asked if he thinks Williams’ reign could continue this year, McEnroe replied: “I don’t see why not. She is as fit and determined as ever. It’s amazing, really. Five or six years ago, when she was in one of her ‘Serena’ patches, out of shape and distracted, I remember saying she had a chance to have an Agassi-like second part of her career, but even more dominant than Agassi was.
“Serena has it all, and assuming she stays healthy, she could keep going for two to four more years. She used to take her talent for granted and rely on her athleticism. Now, she does all the little things champions do to stay in shape, but has managed to still have fun, do her QVC stuff and be a larger-than-life figure.”
The only question, Evert said, is whether Williams can remain hyper-motivated.
“I’ll be curious to see if she can maintain that passion,” Evert said. “She was like on a mission last year. She had so much enthusiasm after every single match that she played, was so high on talking about what she needed to improve, her passion for the game, her place in history.
“My question is: Can she conjure up the same enthusiasm this year as she did last year? If she does, watch out, everybody.”