Australian Open 2014: Boris Becker leads past masters in the guru game

Are various financially secure legends returning to tennis as coaches to the likes of Novak Djokovic out of curiosity, a love of the sport or is there still room for a little score settling?

The last time Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Michael Chang, Goran Ivanisevic and Jim Courier glared with intent at each other at the Australian Open, the tennis landscape was a more unpredictable place than it has become in the 21 years since.

Ivanisevic broke some bones in his left foot and did not make it to the starting line that January of 1993. Lendl – who would retreat to the golf course within a year – went out in the first round, along with Becker. Chang reached the second round and Courier beat Edberg in the final.

All have long since packed away their rackets, of course, and all of them are here again. What none of them would have predicted, however, is that five of the six would be working as coaches for the modern elite, a phenomenon that some say has its genesis in Andy Murray's appointment of Lendl here two years ago, although Lendl says: "People are always reading too much into these things."

As Lendl points out, there have always been big-name coaches, although Jimmy Connors, who once tutored Andy Roddick, did the reputation of the old lags no favours last year when he lasted only one match with Maria Sharapova.

Regardless, over the next fortnight we will be treated to the appearance at ringside of the following gnarled old gym rats and their heavyweight contenders: Lendl and Murray, Edberg and Roger Federer (alongside Severin Lüthi), Becker and Novak Djokovic, Chang and Kei Nishikori (with Dante Bottini), and Ivanisevic and Marin Cilic – with Courier the smooth-talking master of ceremonies gilding their efforts at the courtside microphone for television.

The obvious question for those financially secure legends is: why? Curiosity, perhaps. A love of the game, maybe. Also, the new hired guns will not be committing to the entire 11-month grind of the Tour. Subliminally, it might owe just a little to their own rivalries: Lendl, for instance, went 11-10 against Becker; Becker dominated Edberg 25-10 and Edberg edged Lendl 14-13. There is room for score settling.

It took a lot to drag Becker away from his lucrative media commitments but a phone call from Djokovic, asking him to help his long-time mentor, Marian Vajda, proved too much to resist. No doubt, the world No2 played on Becker's ego but he has intrigued the cognoscenti, because assumptions are being widely made that a player who was so dominant at the net in his day might be about to inject some of that urgency into the Serb's sometimes predictable back-of-the-court tennis. More probably, he will bring his charisma, confidence and an unquestioned ability to inspire.

"When I was 25," Becker says, "I was better with the tennis racket; now I'm better with my mouth."

The owner of six slam titles, the same as his new employer, added: "The fact that I've played the game and I've commentated on so many matches, it wasn't a big surprise on one hand. On the other hand, I was honoured that a player like Djokovic would call me for help, to be part of his coaching team, and we've had a wonderful couple of weeks already. I'm going to do the best I can to make him even better. He's not happy with six grand slams, even though that's an incredible record. He wants to win more and he's having a good team around him that tries to make him better."

Becker agrees with Lendl that the return of some of the game's biggest names from more than two decades ago is generating headlines because of its novelty value. "I think it's a bigger media story than it is actually for Lendl and Edberg and Chang and myself," he says. "We battled each other when we were younger and now we have our [middle-age] battling, and of course we want to win, of course we're all very competitive, but I think it's about Djokovic and Murray, Nadal and some of the other players, and not much about the coaches."

Maybe they are just top-class cheerleaders. What could a great player enjoy more than being told how great he is by another great player? But Becker admits there are good tactical reasons for players to seek help from the past, when the game was played with more variety.

"The competition never sleeps," he says. "You have to improve consistently, you have to watch over your shoulder [to see] who's coming around. Some of the things that worked five years ago don't work any more and it was the same thing in my time. When I played, I consistently had to improve my game. It's the same with the top players today, they want to consistently improve and they have to find new ways to do that."

Tennis has become so attritional that the players who go deepest into the big tournaments on a regular basis – those who can afford the luxury of appointing these expensive part-timers to their coaching staffs – are desperate to find new ways to cut matches short, not only to ease the physical demands on their bodies but to outfox opponents stuck in the "last ball" mindset.

Players from another time can provide that perspective, reminding today's competitors of the merits of the quick kill, for instance, or how to mix up the exchanges more, to catch opponents off guard rather than going straight into extended rallies.

Federer has been trying to do that for at least three seasons. Paul Annacone, with whom he split last year about the time he began experimenting with a new racquet for the first time in his career, used to encourage him to shorten rallies whenever he could, even if that meant risking being passed at the net more often. In hiring Edberg, a master of net play, he might well be trying to fine-tune that process. Djokovic, like most players, has always sought outside advice. He confided in an interview on the ATP website this week that he had a dinner with Pete Sampras in Los Angeles a few years ago, just before the US Open.

"It was one of the best dinners I've had in my life, with my childhood idol," Djokovic said. "I had just become No1 in the world. He gave me some advice that I still keep in my head: trying to keep it simple, trying to get the right people around me and get me the right support, to protect me from any kind of negative influence that you can have as a successful professional tennis player."

Sampras observed: "He's fun to watch, he's passionate playing for his country. It's everything I love about sports. He is so good, so gracious.

"You know where he's at. He's handled it great and I'm proud of him. His movement, first of all, is unbelievable. I've never seen someone move that well, change directions, defence to offence so quickly. Obviously, he serves big, has got a great forehand, great backhand, he doesn't miss and he's a fighter. He's got this extra gear."

Now he has an extra coach, too. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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