Behind the Scenes: An Interview with Darren Cahill

At the Citi Open this week, I had the chance to sit down with Darren Cahill, who now coaches for Adidas’ player development program, and provides fantastic commentary on ESPN.

Amy Fetherolf: You’re here coaching Sorana Cirstea, and I noticed you were working with some of the American women as well.

Darren Cahill: My job is a little bit different with each player. The Adidas player development program works best when there’s a team in place. Every now and then, there’s a player that’s in between coaches, and we can fill in a bit of a gap and also hopefully push them in the right direction to match them up with the right coach. Everybody’s a little bit different.

The great thing about the job is we get to work with a variety of players, both male and female. It’s incredibly rewarding. And not only work with the players, but also the coaches and the teams around them. We don’t look after any one person full-time; we get to spread our work through a bunch of different players.

AF: It seems like you enjoy interacting with the tennis community on Twitter.

DC: It’s a great opportunity for people like you and I to meet, and to hear what the fans have got to say about tennis. One of the great things about Twitter is a lot of the bloggers out there that haven’t got a medium to get their voice out into the world, they can use the Internet and their blog sites to break down stuff, to form opinions, and break news stories if they come across them.

It’s a great way to interact with fans, and a great way to keep up with the news. I use Twitter a lot to find stories and see what’s going on with all the tournaments. I think it’s a great medium for anybody to keep up with any particular sport they like.

AF: You have a few different roles right now, being a commentator and coach. What’s your favorite way to watch a match? Is it being in the commentary booth or being in the player’s box?

DC: I think if you were to ask any former player that has ventured into coaching, they would say coaching’s the next-best thing to playing. There’s a certain thing you can’t really describe about sitting in a player’s box, working with a certain player, trying to make improvements in a player’s game and seeing that come to fruition when they’re playing a tennis match, and seeing them get over the finish line. It’s also great to be doing it yourself, but there’s a real rewarding factor doing it as a coach.

AF: From watching some of the coaches, it seems like it’s as stressful of an experience as playing.

DC: It’s way more stressful as a coach than as a player. At least being a player, you’re in control of your destiny. Sometimes you can accomplish it, sometimes you can’t.  Sometimes nerves get in the way. Sometimes you’re overconfident. Sometimes you have that great belief that this is going to happen today. But as a coach, you never know what’s going through the mind of the player.

With the ladies, it’s a little bit different because we do get to go out and talk to them about once a set. That can be rewarding, or you can pull your hair out with it. It just depends on the player’s state of mind at times, and where they are, and how they see the match. Sometimes it can be a real technical chat, sometimes it’s just an emotional chat.

I think that coaching is a wonderful thing. It doesn’t have to be in tennis, it can be in any particular sport, any coach would tell you in the end, the player has to go out there and make it happen. But to be able to play a really, really small part in that is certainly very rewarding.

AF: What do you make of Roger Federer’s recent struggles, including the back injury that is taking him out of Montreal?

DC: That’s been an issue for a couple of years. Credit to Rog, he hasn’t really made a huge deal of it. We’ve seen him struggle with it on-court a few times now. It’s becoming more evident that it’s popping up more often than it used to, and that’s a problem for him.

He has to find a way at his age now to at least level that out, make that back issue plateau to the point where it doesn’t get any worse, or find a way that he can overcome that. Because with the way the game’s improving, the way these players are playing, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, these guys are improving. They’re not stagnating.

So for Roger to constantly have to take that time off, you feel like you’re slipping behind. Not only are you not playing great at the moment, but you can’t put in the work in the offseason or those weeks off to improve as a tennis player. We all need that in competitive situation. Unless you’ve put that work in on the practice court, then you can’t walk onto the court and feel like you’re going to get it done against these best players in the world.

That’s sort of where Roger is at the moment. The last two years, you feel like he’s been climbing up the wall, then slipping a little bit because of the back, then climbing back up, and slipping a little bit, while the other guys are just shooting straight up the wall.

The back is the main issue. I think the racquet is a great adjustment that needs time. He’s been using the same technology now for 15 or so years. I think it’s absolutely worthwhile to try. But more importantly, he needs to be healthy.

I was with Andre [Agassi] for six years, and the last couple of years, when he was 34, 35 years old, he struggled with his back as well. It was a real balancing act, making sure that when he did step on court, he was healthy and fit. We also didn’t keep him on-court too long, it would actually wear him down. Gil Reyes, the fitness training coach of Andre that was working with me, we were constantly in conversation about what he needed a couple of weeks out from a tournament, what he was going to need one week out from a tournament, what he would need one day before a tournament started. That conversation between player, coach, and trainer becomes even more important when a player gets to 30 and above.

AF: I remember reading a lot of details about that back problem in Agassi’s autobiography.

DC: He was taking cortisone shots for the last six months of his career, just to get himself onto the court. Roger’s nowhere near that, obviously, but things can snowball pretty quickly if you don’t take care of business.

It might just mean that Roger may eventually have to take a good chunk of time off the tour to make sure he addresses his problem. He’s an incredible talent and an incredible guy off the court as well. If he can fix it up, I have no doubt that he can put himself in a place to win more majors.

AF: Having played for the team yourself, I know you follow the Australian Davis Cup team very closely. I remember that you and I were both live-tweeting a Group 1 Aussie Davis Cup tie back in April, watching a shady stream from Uzbekistan. So you’re pretty hardcore. The team is traveling to Poland in September, are you excited about that tie?

DC: I am. Firstly, it’s an opportunity for us to get back into the World Group for Australia. We’ve been in the qualifying zone for five or six years now. It’s a long time for Australia, for a country with such a proud Davis Cup history. It feels like it’s been an eternity. I’m really excited. I know the boys are. It’s part of the reason why Lleyton’s still out here battling away, is to get himself fit and ready for Davis Cup.

AF: He’s been playing well lately, too.

DC: Yeah, he’s been doing much better. More importantly for him, he’s staying healthy. He’s putting some good tennis together over a long course of time. He loves it. It’s like he’s a different person at Davis Cup. He’s a pleasure to be around at all the tournaments, but when he goes to Davis Cup, he’s a natural leader of the team. It’s great having him part of the Aussie Davis Cup team.

These boys have to make sure that they act like sponges when they go to a Davis Cup tie, because they won’t have him for much longer. You have to learn from the greatest Australian Davis Cup player that’s ever lived. He has the best record anybody’s ever had, and we’ve had an incredible résumé of Davis Cup players in Australia. The youngsters have to soak it up, they have to learn from it, they have to respect what he’s done, and they have to get better.

At the moment, we’ve had a problem because he hasn’t had much support over the last 10 years. We need the players to step up. Bernie has to step up, Matosevic is playing better tennis, he needs to step up. We’ve got a couple of young guys in Kyrgios and Kokkinakis who are the future of Australian tennis. They look like they have the goods. If they get invited to Davis Cup ties, they have to make sure to soak it up, and step up.

It’s going to be a tough tie against these guys. Janowicz is a bit of an unknown factor, as much as Bernie’s an enigma on court – you never quite know what Bernie you’re going to get. It could be a great Bernie, or it could be a disaster. It’s part of the reason why we all flock to watch him play, because we never quite know what we’re going to get. It’s a tough one to call. I think with the experience of Davis Cup, I’d make still make Australia the slight favorites, even though they’re playing away, but you just never know.

AF: What’s your take on Bernard Tomic’s situation right now?

DC: I love Bernie. He stayed in my house, we worked together for a number of years when I was part of the Australian Davis Cup team as the coach. I think he’s a genius on the court. I think there are not too many players that can maneuver the ball like he can. He can change the pace, he can change direction, he can create shots on the court and create angles that a lot of players can’t do. It’s why he’s so entertaining to watch at times.

The stuff that he needed to address at the start of the year, to get better speed around the court, a bigger first serve, to play smarter, better technical tennis, he’s doing that on a more regular basis. Just every now and then, he just goes completely walkabout, and throws in those matches that you go, “What just happened?” I feel like we’re seeing less and less of that. He’s growing up.

It’s also a factor with men’s tennis at the moment. I just saw a stat the other day on Twitter – there’s not one teenager in the top 250 in the men’s rankings. That sort of says what the men’s game has become – it’s become a more physical, stronger athletic game. Players are not really breaking through until they’re 24, 25, 26. And then they’re not playing their best tennis until they’re 28, 29, 30. So it’s becoming an older generation sport because of the physicality. Bernie’s still a baby. He’s got plenty of years left, and if he keeps addressing those things that he did at the start of the year, he can’t help but get better.

AF: Do you think he can succeed without cutting coaching ties with his dad?

DC: I think that his dad’s been an incredibly good influence for him. Everyone’s different. The culture of where they grew up is completely different from the culture of where you grew up, where I grew up. He had a tough life as a parent, moving the family to Germany. Bernie was born in Germany, and then moving the family to Australia with no money. He did it the hard way. He was the guy that put Bernie on the court all those hours as a youngster. He’s invested his life in helping Bernie become a tennis player and achieve his dream.

He’s no angel, and this criticism that’s been thrown his way, he deserves. But there’s also some criticism I feel like he doesn’t deserve.

You just have to see the connection between Bernie and John when they talk about each other – it’s incredibly strong. Bernie really misses his father with him not being around, so you have to respect that. At some stage, the timing will be right for Bernie to bring somebody in. He doesn’t want a piece of that at the moment because he wants his dad there. So until Bernie is ready, that won’t happen.

AF: He’s gotten a lot of negative media attention for some pretty silly stuff, like speeding tickets and rooftop incidents.

DC: It’s a double-edged sword with that stuff. It’s part of the education growing up, if you wish to be a tennis player or a successful professional athlete, you know you’re going to be in the spotlight. It becomes a responsibility. The times he has gotten himself into trouble, he’s created some negative publicity for himself, he has to wear it. You’re responsible for your actions, you’re responsible for what happens. Maybe some of it has been exaggerated, but there are a lot of players out there that keep their nose clean, and go about their business in an incredibly professional way, and you don’t have that stuff around them.

He has to learn to get a little bit better about that stuff. I feel like he has been better. Apart from the incident with his dad this year, there’s been nothing about Bernie this year. He’s been all good, he seems like he’s growing, he seems like he’s becoming more professional both on and off the court. As I said, we’re not seeing those crazy matches that we used to see quite often from him. I think as time goes along, we’ll see that from him.

It’s not an excuse, but he’s had somewhat of a sheltered upbringing as well, because it’s all been about tennis. All the focus has been on him being a great tennis player since he was 14, 15 years of age. The spotlight’s been shone on him for many years now. Making a few mistakes along the way is completely normal, just as long as you learn from those mistakes.

Amy can be spotted on a tennis court in the Philadelphia area, shanking backhand volleys.

11 Responses

  1. Vamos Faye
    Vamos Faye August 2, 2013 at 11:13 pm |

    Great interview, very insightful. It’s quite unnerving to see Roger struggle but we have to accept the fact that he is getting older and back problems are inevitable.
    Things he said about Bernie are spot on.

  2. Nadal News » Blog Archive » RafaLint: August 2nd

    […] Behind the Scenes: An Interview with Darren Cahill – nice interview with my favorite commentator via The Changeover […]

  3. Jess Stein
    Jess Stein August 2, 2013 at 11:47 pm |

    Aww Darren loves Bernie. It’s quite obvious.

  4. Fernando
    Fernando August 3, 2013 at 4:33 am |

    Fernando says, insightful,candid and informative – with no hyperbole. Mr. Cahill adds so much to our sport. A fantastic commentator and a wonderful person. Highest marks from Fernando. And well done Amy, all the right questions.

    Fernando’s chef will make an extra plate of Gambas for both of you when Rafa runs through Jerzy, Nole and White Fang Murray to hoist the Roger’s cup.

    I am Fernando @vivafernando

  5. Marc Nichol
    Marc Nichol August 3, 2013 at 3:21 pm |

    Astonishing really when you think about it, no teenagers in the top 250!

    Nadal won the French Open just eight years ago (seems forever, no?)at 19.

    And Becker, Chang, and Sampras winning majors as teenagers in the past.

    The youngster from Chile, Garin, seems very promising. Rafa’s successor at Roland Garros?

  6. tennis watcher
    tennis watcher August 3, 2013 at 3:41 pm |

    Great interview Amy!

  7. Rhian
    Rhian August 3, 2013 at 5:53 pm |

    Excellent interview, Darren Cahill is always an interesting guy to see/hear the views of, really respect his opinion & views of tennis overall.

    Nice catch to get an interview with him!

  8. franco ramunno
    franco ramunno August 3, 2013 at 6:03 pm |

    Darren is so cool and Fernando IS Fernando and I enjoy the hell out of him

  9. Steve
    Steve August 4, 2013 at 4:30 am |

    Great interview!

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