For most tennis fans, Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon winner, member of multiple Australian Davis Cup teams in the 1980s, and former top-5 player, needs no introduction. Before I ever had the pleasure of meeting the legendary Australian tennis star, I wrote an article back in October of 2004 rating his autobiography entitled “Uncovered” (2002) as the best tennis-related autobiography that I have ever read. Since then, other books have been published, notably those by Tim Henman, James Blake and Andre Agassi. Unfortunately, I have only read a chapter of Agassi’s book, and I am hopelessly falling behind on my tennis literature in the last few years. Nevertheless, I would recommend “Uncovered” to any avid tennis fan. Pat also maintains a blog in which he recently finished a fascinating, 5-part-long “Greatest Tennis Player of All Time” series.
I would like to thank Pat for taking the time to do the following Q & A with me:
Question: Pat, it seems that we had a great era in men’s tennis starting with late 70s, through the 80s, into the early part 90s, one in which you played a part as well. Then, men’s tennis staggered through the rest of the 90s and early 00s. Then Federer and Nadal came around and from that point on men’s tennis found the spotlight again. Now it seems we are in the middle of a golden era again. Logic says that it will go into stagnation again once the top 4 go into decline in a few years. Do you believe that is inevitable? Or does it simply depend on the generation of players? What picture do you see five to ten years into the future in this context?
Unfortunately as a purist I see men’s tennis going in to a boring stage. There will always be superb athletes and tough competitors of course but the complete and utter lack of foresight from either the ATP or ITF have inadvertently created tennis players with little or no variety in their game. When Federer leaves the tour there will be only a few players on tour with any style of flash about them with any variety. We already have a tennis world dominated by two handed backhands big forehands following up from big serves. Ventures to the net will be to shake hands and that’s about it. When the Grand Slams started slowing down the game in the mid 90’s by introducing slower courts and balls they had little foresight in making decisions on things such as technology advances or decision on court speeds and surfaces. They changed the game that was initially for the better but as we see it now quickly becoming mundane unfortunately. There must be a committee of ex-top tour players who can discuss the game and what may be the correct decisions as far as technology or court surface speeds and if it is a good decision to change or not change things. String technology must be outlawed if we are ever to see a serve and volley player near the top of the game ever again. You must look at what surfaces favour what styles. Clay and any hard court favours the baseline player no matter what speed the court may be (unless it’s an extremely fast old indoor court). Only grass favours the volleyer or attacking player but over the past 15 years the grass courts at Wimbledon have become so hard that a good volley will bounce high just like a hard court and this again favours the baseliner. Don’t get me wrong I love watching Nadal vs. Federer and some of the other battles we have seen over the last 5 or 6 years as they are just incredible but we must reward good attacking shots and net play as well as baseline battles. It is very clear that the court surfaces balls and strings do not do that at all.
Question: Some of the players from your competitive years have gone into coaching and have had considerable success, including coaching some of the top players on the tour. Let’s imagine for a moment that there is one particular young talent who is succeeding extremely well in the juniors and you feel that he is ready to make the jump to the next level. Let’s also say that one day he comes to you for advice on whom to hire as a coach. Assuming that, for one reason or another, you are unable to be his coach at that particular time, whom would you recommend and why? What sets that particular coach apart from others in your opinion?
I think the main thing for a coach is to identify what can be improved and how, but sometimes it means some issue shouldn’t be changed. That could mean technically. For instance I would do some work on Federer’s volley technique which has become a weak point in his game and only works well from time to time. What shouldn’t be touched? I wouldn’t touch much else of any of the top players (other than volleys which are now an afterthought in junior coaching hence the poor volleying) as this may require a period of going backwards and ranking loss so therefore you can work on tactics and /or perhaps the physical part of the player. What would you change in David Ferrer’s game? He has just about maximized his ability. His backhand technique limits his power, but to fix that may require several months perhaps a year to get it better, and at 31 this is not something I would do.
So the question really is, what coach can do all of these? I don’t know any. The best thing a coach can do is to get a team around him as I did in 1986. I had a fitness trainer a sports psychologist and a coach all traveling with me. This was unheard of in 1986 but I realized that no one coach could do everything well, so I got experts from different fields to help make me a better player all over. This is common place now with the Centre Court player’s box full of people. Towards the end of my career I used sport biomechanist Brad Langevad, a body movement specialist, who worked to correct some long-standing technique problems but also to help some existing injuries, and then prevent new ones. This was good timing for me as I had many injuries, so I had time to rebuild my serve in order for it to have more power, and it also helped my back. Last year I served equal to my fastest serve ever at 47 years of age. With some practice I can consistently serve harder than I ever did on tour in the 80’s and 90’s, and it’s not about the strings as I can’t use a full racquet with modern polyester strings as they have no feel on the volley.
Question: It has been over a decade now since your excellent autobiographical book “Uncovered” was published. As you well know, I called it the best tennis book that I have ever read in one of my articles before we ever met. The last chapter is entitled “So what comes next?” and you speculate on many things regarding your future career, possible endeavors and your personal life. Do you ever take a look at that chapter now and smile reading what you were thinking 11 years ago and what has transpired since?
I can’t remember what I wrote back then. As you know I decided to be very open about my life outside of the sporting arena which, up to that stage, had not been done in a sports book. I’m glad Andre Agassi did the same thing and I know he enjoyed my book. Perhaps it gave him the confidence to be candid as well. I sometimes wonder how I am managing to play tennis at a good level after all the injuries I have had and I surprise myself when I write ‘tennis player’ in the form at passport control when I arrive in to another country. I don’t really see myself as a tennis player any more though I still do too at some level. I’m more of an entertainer now but in the end that’s what all tennis players are to the public. My life is ever evolving and I think I will move away from just tennis at some stage as there are lots to do beyond tennis. As I continue to enjoy many parts of it still, I will continue to coach, commentate and write.
Question: As you know, Brad Drewett is unfortunately stepping down as ATP’s Executive Chairman to deal with his illness. Is there anyone that you would like to see replace him? If not, what qualities are important for the top position of the ATP? Or do people make too much of it, in other words, at the end of the day, does the ATP Executive Chairman have as much authority on issues as the title would suggest?
I have known Brad for many years and played Davis Cup with him. He was a very good player winning events on all surfaces. The difference between him and other CEO’s at the ATP is that he was a player and understands what players need, so that brought a different dimension to the tour. He made sure that after 30 years of debate players finally had extra weeks off, though I did laugh to myself when I saw Federer and Djokovic racing all over the world playing exhibition matches over those new free weeks. Some were charity fund raisers which I admire. The point of having a chairman or CEO is that they lead the company in the right direction, I think given time he would realize that men’s tennis needs some hard issues looked at. It’s easy to get bogged down in politics and finance, but if the product is no good there will be a problem in the end, either that or the marketing better be very good, and this is what tennis is doing well. For instance you watch TV or read magazine and you believe the article of food you see is a good product but in reality it’s just a chewy bit of old cardboard that has been marketed well enough to attract attention and people buy into it, in the end its just cardboard but if cardboard is all you ever had, it’s pretty tasty and that’s what the younger generations are eating. Women’s tennis is much the same. The WTA slogan ‘strong is beautiful’ with shots of the players hitting tennis balls dressed up in night club dresses and ball gowns, what the hell is that all about? It doesn’t exactly promote tennis as a high quality sport does it? It did attract attention so perhaps that’s not a bad thing. The problem arises again when the product isn’t great and at the moment much of that attention goes to two of the top players who are the noisiest grunters in the sport putting spectators off in their thousands.
Question: Outside of Bernard Tomic and Marinko Matosevic, there are no top 100 Australian Men in the ATP. Does Australian Tennis need a change in the system, or an overhaul of the system, or is this simply a phase like one that any other country goes through at times? Where do you see the next 10 years in terms of Australian tennis’ future?
That’s a long conversation. The basic reality is that tennis in Australia is a small sport compared to many. It’s hard to believe considering the champions we have had over the years but it has struggled for various reasons to capture the interest of children and families to pick it up as a playing sport. Tennis Australia has done a very poor job of promoting tennis at a grass roots level for many years and is still hiding behind the fact that the Australian Open is a big financial success. The open is a big corporate event that brings needed money in to player development. Where and how the money is spend is spent is up for debate and conjecture. Tennis Australia has aimed to take control over all things in tennis and I do not believe that is a healthy situation to have. It needs some diversity and non-Tennis Australia ideas but they are not welcome and that creates tension amongst coaches, families, and the association.