In 'Super Coach' Era, Some Top Players Choose Help Closer To Home
Jack Sock could have written anything.
The American had just beaten then-World No. 3 Alexander Zverev at the Nitto ATP Finals in November 2017. It was his third Top 5 win, and the upset had secured Sock's semi-final berth at the season-ending championships in London.
Before his on-court interview, Sock, as has become custom these days, scribbled on the plexiglass, where players frequently write messages to fans in their home nation or draw various objects, such as hearts or smiley faces. The first thing Sock wrote: “Coach Wolf!”.
When Sock was 10, he started working with Mike Wolf, who played collegiate tennis in the U.S. and was running – and still runs – a tennis club in Kansas City, Kansas. Sock visited for weekend lessons before his family eventually relocated.
Watch As Sock Trains With His Longtime Coach
Since then, Sock's Top 10 career has taken him all over the world, and he's been exposed to ideas from players and coaches from all over the globe as well. But Sock continues to work with Wolf, the man who helped mold his world-class forehand and has become like a second father to the American.
“Coach Wolf knows me as well or better than my family even sometimes. We spent so much time together growing up, since I was 10 years old, hours and hours on the court, off the court, dinners, just talking in general, tennis, life,” Sock said.
“He helps me... in all aspects. Without him I definitely wouldn't be here today.”
The super coach trend of the past 10 years remains – see Novak Djokovic-Andre Agassi, Kei Nishikori-Michael Chang – but the less-publicised trend of players sticking with their boyhood coaches has been just as prevalent on the ATP World Tour.
Sock, along with other Top 10 players Rafael Nadal, Zverev and Dominic Thiem have led the way. The players have recognised that while there is much to be learned from former pros, such as Agassi and Chang, who have been there and done most of that, there's also value in remaining with the coach who knows you better than most, or at least pursuing a combination of both – keeping your boyhood coach while also working with a former top player.
Zverev continues to work with his father, Alexander Zverev Sr., who coaches both Sascha and Mischa Zverev. Sascha, like Sock, has brought on other coaches to assist – last year he hired former World No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero – but his dad remains a constant voice at home and at tournaments.
Watch How The Zverev Brothers Inspire Each Other
“I think my dad might be one of the best family coaches of all-time. He has two sons who are in the Top 25 of the world... with two completely different game styles,” Zverev said last season.
“That's not easy to do. You've got to be very smart, you've got to know what to practise and what to teach, with those different kind of game styles... I think having my dad for both of us is something amazing.”
Because their father has seen them play countless times, Mischa Zverev said, he often knows exactly what to do – or what gesture to make – from the sideline during their matches.
“He's seen me play my best and he's seen me play my worst tennis. He can see those little details in my game, and he can see when I get a little nervous and when I need a fist pump from him or just a little sign he can give me to give me confidence or calm me down,” Mischa Zverev told ATPWorldTour.com.
“Nobody knows me as well as he does, so that's definitely a huge advantage. It comes with experience and time and he's able to focus on all the little aspects of what a player needs.”
Wolf sees a similar advantage from having a shared history with the player. He's worked with Sock for more than a decade, so he knows detailed answers to questions that might arise during a season, such as which diet works best, is he hanging out with the right people on the road and can he handle six straight weeks traveling?
“Probably more than anything you just know who they are,” Wolf told ATPWorldTour.com. “I think just that familiarity allows you to have that inside knowledge that most people wouldn't have, and I think that extends to the court as well.”
The on-court aspect is particularly true for Wolf, who helped shape Sock's heavy-topspin forehand that has recorded nearly as many revolutions per minute as Nadal's.
“Over time I could see that they were going to be really good,” Wolf said of Sock's forehand and volleys. “I just didn't want to get in the way and mess it up.”
Nadal has also most famously benefitted from remaining with his longtime coach. This, Nadal's 18th season as a professional, will mark the first time uncle Toni Nadal won't travel with him on a regular basis.
Watch: Go Behind The Scenes With Rafa Nadal
“I can't thank him enough for everything... The most important thing is to have good people around you, and I have,” said Nadal, who works with former World No. 1 Carlos Moya and nine-time tour-level doubles titlist Francisco Roig.
Thiem, like Sock, has benefitted from advice his boyhood gave him years ago. When the Austrian was 11, Gunter Bresnik changed his two-handed backhand to a one-hander. Now Thiem has one of the best backhands – period – in the sport.
He doesn't remember pushing back against Bresnik. Probably because he trusted him, and probably because he was only 11.
“I didn't think that much in general, also not about my backhand,” Thiem said.
The 24-year-old Thiem now also works with Galo Blanco, who used to coach Russian Karen Khachanov. But Thiem remains with Bresnik, his boyhood coach, as he, Sock and others likely will for the duration of their careers, benefitting from a relationship that was formed when they could only dream about becoming a professional tennis player.
“Of course, it's an unusual thing in tennis but I still have the feeling that I'm improving every single practice that I do with him, and I don't think there's any better coach out there for me than him,” Thiem said. “So I hope basically that it stays like this for all my tennis life.”