Fox Tales: My Conversation With Tony Pickard
By Arthur Brocklebank, Tennis Week, 2008
The fox is becoming extinct in England, but deep in middle England, Nottinghamshire an old silver fox sits alive and well in his armchair reflecting on his days of coaching Stefan Edberg and reviewing the state of the spot today. Tony Pickard coached six-time Grand Slam champion Edberg, who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004 and is set to make his senior debut on the Blackrock tour this year. The 42-year-old Swede will compete in Paris, France at The Trophée Jean-Luc Lagardère, September 18-21 and at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England at The BlackRock Masters Tennis, December 2-7.
Pickard still has that energy in his heart to stoke up a burning desire for anyone in the tennis profession who wants to listen and learn. He owns one of the most impressive coaching resumes in the nation, having worked with Edberg, Marat Safin, Petr Korda and a Canadian, oppphhhh I mean an adopted Brit, Greg Rusedski. Edberg amassed 41 singles titles, including two Wimbledon crowns, and 18 doubles championships in his career. Edberg and John McEnroe are the only men in Open Era history to hold the No. 1 ranking in both singles and doubles simultaneously.
It was a turn of circumstances at the beginning that would bring Tony Pickard and Stefan Edberg together. I asked Pickard, when he started playing tennis himself.
“My parents never played tennis. I was nuts on football. It all started by an accident when I was 14 years old. I loved football but one day I jumped into a swimming pool and landed on a broken bottle that cut my foot. I was in a wheelchair for six months. My sister took me to the tennis court where she played and I watched. I thought this is an easy game to play so I took it up,” Pickard says with a bemused smile as he gazed up to the ceiling.
Pickard soon played county tennis and later played several times at Wimbledon. He represented his country in the Davis cup and captained the under 21 and Davis Cup teams for Great Britain.
One incident that stands out in his playing career was in Rome at the 1963 Italian Open. He was playing the big-serving New Zealander Ian Crookenden in the Italian Championships and not only the crowd, but the line judges were losing interest.
Pickard takes up the story: “It was a match point. He served and it was at least nine inches long. The umpire looked to the baseline judge for the call, but he was turned round buying an ice cream over the fence.’ Crookenden won the point and went on to win the match. I felt as sick as a pig,” says Pickard.
Was there any possibility of an appeal I asked?
“In those days you could never appeal or you would have been brought up before a governing body committee and banned. A protest was not possible.”
So how did an Englishman wind up coaching a Swede?
Pickard remembers the first time he saw Edberg, the man who would wield a brilliant one-handed backhand in reaching three consecutive Wimbledon finals from 1988-90 was sporting a two-handed backhand.
“I was working for Wilson rackets as a talent scout and I saw (Edberg) in Milan, Italy at the European junior championships. He was this young whipper snapper about 15 year old with a double handed backhand. I got a contract for him with Wilson and I arranged sponsorship for him. He never knew who I was. Stefan then went to the Wilson agent in Sweden and asked who I was. They said we know someone who could help you and that is how it happened. Percy Rosberg changed his backhand to a one-handed stroke. With children when you want to change their technique never try to change it yourself, always take them back to who taught them initially if you are big enough to go back. Our relationship grew but I didn’t want to go on the road, honestly, travelling as a coach. When there was talk about having coaches. I said ‘You need to have somebody. You need someone to plan your matches and look after the itinerary so you have got no worries.’ Percy Rosberg went with him but their relationship only lasted four months. Stefan never told me why. I met Stefan in Paris, 1984 and he asked me to help him at Wimbledon. I said ‘Yeah I’ll help for the three to four weeks and I’ll enjoy it.’ And then after he said what should I do? I said, It is obvious it does not suit you having a coach you might as well go on your own. So after Wimbledon he did and he went down hill. Then in the autumn I had to see Jimmy Connors in Stockholm and Jimmy said Stefan is playing tonight shall we leave dinner and have breakfast tomorrow. Jimmy knew I was a close friend of Stefan’s. I went to watch the match and well… no comment.”
Pickard laughs and prefers not to criticize what he saw that night but it was a significant turning point in what was to become a partnership on the court as well as lifetime friends off it.
“Afterward Stefan asked me if I would travel with him. It was a relationship that had been going on for a few years with me in the background. I said ‘I can’t, I’ll have to go home and talk to my wife, it is such a big commitment to commit to.’ Anyway Stefan had stayed with us in the past and everyone knew him in the family.
I spoke to my wife Janet and she said ‘Do you think he can be a champion?’ and I said ‘Yes he can win Wimbledon and be number one in the world if that talent can be harnessed.’ Stefan said ‘Let’s give it ago for 12 months.’ “
In December, 1985 Edberg captured his first Grand Slam championship at the Australian Open. He outlasted Ivan Lendl, 6-7, 7-5, 6-1, 4-6, 9-7, in the semifinals and took Mats Wilander apart, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in the final.
As Pickard reminisces about his meeting with the young Edberg you cannot help but sense a man from a lost generation when honor and integrity was paramount more than financial gain and celebrity status. His reluctance to accept or canvass for any position and use of a ‘brand’ to market his skills are evident. No agents but a gentleman’s agreement with a handshake.
Pickard is an avuncular figure, with softly spoken words that put you at ease in his present. An air of relaxation has covered the room. I can see how he was able to transfer his knowledge onto the player without this new age of screaming at shouting.
“The game is different now everyone wants a quick fix. There are no short cuts. Coaches don’t want to lose money, so they put up with it.”
I ask Tony about champions and where do they come from?
“Champions are born but they need coaching to turn them into champions. I’m a great believer people are born with a talent but the thing is to nurture that talent you need advice how to use that talent as quickly as possible. The point I’m making, is being a sportsman is a very short career. If you make the top you may have, maybe 15 years and then it’s over. It you don’t make the top you’ve got 10 and then you had it. And so without that help I don’t think people take away from the game everything that they could take away from the game. In those days if you took on the responsibility to take on the role of coach, there were no such things as a trainer there was no such things as psychiatrists, there were no such things as a physio to travel with. The coach had to know everything in those days. I went on courses to learn about sports injuries so if a problem occurred I could immobilize the injury until I could get to the proper people. Training, I had to work it out myself. In those days people were giving. You could get advice. Now people want paying. I did all his training routines. I did his rackets. Everything relating to help Stefan the coach did.
“Most of the training we did was at Queen’s London. I wrote to the chairman of Queen’s and offered to pay but they were fantastic. They gave it free of charge. Those people knew their tennis: pure quality on their part. People think they are a toffee nose lot but I cannot praise them highly enough.”
Pickard, like his dress sense, is meticulous in the way he approaches his subject with careful planning of a general preparing for battle on the tennis court where Edberg would execute the plan.
“For the first 12 months coaching Stefan, It was a dictatorship. I became a dictator. I told him where he would play and how he would play. I had to impress a tennis education into him as quickly as possible. Then after that I allowed Stefan to come to the party. Then he had a say in everything we did, everything. You have to get in his mind how you believe he should be playing. If he felt we should not do that and I could not answer then we do what he wanted. But if we both had a reason we would sit down and talk about and then we both take the one that was the correct one to do.”
How did Edberg’s style of play develop?
“When I started with Stefan the bulk of the players were baseliners: Lendl, Wilander, Connors,” Pickard says. “I told him ‘You’re not good enough to play from the back of the court to beat these guys.’ We improved his forehand so he could rally. It was not a good forehand but it got better.”
That type of blunt candor is a trait that Pickard is known for and a quality that served him well in his coaching relationship with Edberg.
“We have to develop you to go forward and volley and become the best volleyer you can become,” Pickard remembers telling Edberg. “We spent a tremendous amount of time volleying. It was not natural. We planned it. Your ground strokes are enough but you have to put pressure on these people if you are going to win. It paid off. Not bad for six Grand Slams. He played doubles at that time. You have got to get as much tennis input through their tennis playing career, then we had to work out are we going to hurt him by playing the doubles? When he started to reach semi and finals in the singles we stopped. At the U.S. Open Stefan had to play the doubles and then a singles semi. He lost to Wilander and we agreed that he would not play doubles again in a Grand Slam.”
Pickard’s passion and knowledge has my concentration focused as I am asking question after question the equivalent of hitting booming forehands across the room, but with calm assurance and articulate skills Tony takes it in his stride and takes the pace off my intensity.
How do you improve a player?
“There are no quick fixes, people want it because they want the money,” Pickard says. “Everyone thinks it grows on trees. Only bad coaches will only let a loss affect them. When you win you don’t learn anything when you lose you learn a lot. So long as both of you know this. You can learn from a loss and take the good out.”
Edberg’s epic five-set marathon match against Michael Chang in the 1992 U.S. Open semifinals spanned five hours and 26 minutes. He recovered from that exhausting encounter to beat Pete Sampras, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2.
So how did Tony get Stefan to a physical and mental peak?
“We had a bad summer that year. We were not winning semifinals and finals. We worked hard up to the U.S. Open. We had to lock ourselves away. I kept him away from any distractions and we just kept ourselves to ourselves. You keep the player focused with no intrusions. You had to be strong. When you are winning, it is easy. You start thinking the next day about the schedule and what the body needs in nourishment at the right time so by the time to play the next day the body is totally replenished. Stefan never felt comfortable in New York or the environment at Flushing Meadow. I don’t know why because I never asked him. After he won against Sampras in the final, he said ‘I don’t think it is too bad a place now.’
“When we were over there in America we were invited to stay and practice with Ivan Lendl. Lendl gave that external appearance as being very aloof and nobody get to know him but, okay, if he liked you, you were pals. Stefan and I got on unbelievably well with him. A lot of people criticize Lendl but I would never hear anything against him. I reckon Lendl was the best pro of his generation. He had everything in place, okay it was all regimented, like his diet, but he never left anything to chance. Everything was in the right place.”
The coach relationship inevitably will come to an end sooner or later in this case. Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali’s trainer once said, he saw Ali losing his rhythm and timing as the champ got older.
Did Tony see Stefan lose his speed as he got older?
“No, not whilst we were working together but like all things you have to accept it for what it is. It is fantastic if you are fortunate to be a part of it. It is a fantastic period in your life. Okay, (you know) it is going to come to an end and so long as you are both big enough to realize that when it’s over it’s over. I always said to him ‘Fellow, look when you feel we are done, you tell me. I’ll be around for as long as you feel that you need me and we sat down just before Christmas in 1994 and he said, ‘Tony, I think I need to go my own.’ In 1995 he went off on his own.
“We still remain friends and are still friends. Then I said on the phone ‘I’m fed up to the teeth with you waving good bye to me on the television. Why don’t you win some matches?’ because he wasn’t winning matches. Why don’t you get stuck in and let your tennis say goodbye. He muttered a bit down the phone and then he said to me would I come back with him in Paris that year. We were apart for 18 months and then I stayed with him until he quit in 1996. Stefan always said he would know himself when he would say it’s over and when it’s over it is going to be over.”
Time stands still for no man and Stefan Edberg had retired at 30, but what did Pickard think of his decision?
“I’ve always been a great believer that there are freaks like Rafa Nadal, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg who win a Grand Slam when they are teenagers but the rest of the world of tennis if you look, the rest of them mature about 23. That is when they become the best few years 23 to 27 .This is when the body has matured but you have the odd ones that do it before that. Like I said before you have such a short span of life at the top. Edberg stayed in the top five for 10 years which was a hell of an achievement.”
You were then asked by Petr Korda to coach him. Their personalities looked the opposite on the surface?
“Two totally different young men but although I did not work with him as long as Stefan I had a fantastic relation with him. He just called me and initially I did not want to coach him. I knew him because Stefan played doubles with him. Korda was a fabulous tennis player. In 1997 he was playing Pete Sampras at the U.S. Open and during the rain breaks he phoned me back in England while I was watching his match to see if I had seen anything and I would tell him what he was doing on the court. One of my big assets was I could analyze his game very quickly and see things that people could not see. I sat there in this chair. He called me four times. One of his biggest problems in tennis he became easily satisfied on the court. I was at the U.S. Open in 1995 with him and he was in the quarterfinals playing Agassi. He white washed Agassi 6-1 in a set, that was it for him. In front of live television. For him, he had won the tournament. I told his wife sitting next to me to tell him in Czech to repeat it again in the next set but he never came back, that was it. But he was a lovely boy and he later won the Australian Open.”
The next call Pickard got was from Ion Tiriac to coach Marat Safin
“I did that as a favor to Tiriac to look after him in England. He had enormous talent but not that easy to get through to. Like I said to him ‘What I ask you to do is for your benefit not for mine and I’m not going to ask you to do something that was not going to help you.’ But he could never take that and that proves it. He has flittered around from coach to coach. I basically think deep down he really never wanted to listen. He played at Queen’s and played well, then he did not want to play at Nottingham, so we practiced for Wimbledon and he played poorly. He wanted to play his way he did not listen. He won the U.S. Open after spending six weeks with me. I did not travel to the US. I did not want to go back on the tour. It is very demanding.”
Speed and movement have become so important in today’s tennis, do you think an all-court game — as Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have all shown to varying degrees — is a natural antidote to so many of the top baseliners like Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and Nikolay Davydenko or do the racquet and string technology as well as the surfaces negate net play today?
“Movement is one of the most important things. What I don’t feel today people don’t pay enough attention to is the movement from changing from surface to surface,” Pickard says. “Edberg and I did different programs when we went to the clay and same as grass at Wimbledon. There were also different programs for movement for the hard court. The game is different with the ball bouncing high. The players are on the back foot. Because of the grips the volley has become difficult to accomplish.
It would be fascinating to see these guys play with a wooden racket. Technology has changed the game.”
I get up from my chair to shake the hand of Tony Pickard over an imaginary net. I have been hitting a barrage of tennis questions over the past three hours. Like a rookie on the tour, the Silver fox has given me an educational lesson in tennis and life. And all I did was knock on his door to learn. I have a feeling someone somewhere will call him soon.
A Swede comes to mind.