Interview with Darren Cahill, Oct. 20, 2010
Going back to your days as a player, what were some of the highlights and lowlights of your playing career?
I think playing Davis cup for Australia was definitely a highlight for me. I had a pretty good year in 1988 where I got to be the No. 1 Aussie, which was a nice thing coming from such a proud tradition and history like Australia has. But for sure Davis cup play for me was the highlight and probably the lowlight. You quite often say that the most satisfying wins you have are in Davis cup, and probably the hardest losses come from there as well. You get some great memories from playing for your country.
Do you have any regrets about your playing career?
Only with the fact that I thought my career was cut a little bit short. I had a lot of knee problems as a player. I had something like, I think it was 11 or 12 knee operations before I was 25 years of age, so I was sort of struggling with the knees. I grew late as a kid, so when I was about 16 or 17, I was one of the smallest kids in my class at school and then grew relatively late. I’ve always had problems with my knees ever since then so when I was 25 I was pretty much wiped out of the game. I was out for about three years, tried to make a little bit of a mini comeback three years after that but the knee issues sort of got the better of me.
I would have loved to have been a bit healthier to have played longer, and continue that improvement, but I enjoyed every second that I was in the game.
Along those same lines, you’ve mentioned in previous interviews about how much you admired Gil Reyes. Do you think if you knew him back when you were having knee problems he would have been able to help you prolong your career?
I think as we all get a little bit older and we learn our craft a little better, we become better coaches and better trainers, and even better tennis players. I think we would all do things differently, there’s no question about it, but I was only working back then with the information that you have available to you, and back then I always believed that I was making all the right decisions and working as hard as I could to be as good as I could be. You do it thinking you’re making the right decisions, but there’s no question – had a guy like Gil Reyes gotten a hold of me when I was 17 or 18 years of age I’m pretty certain that my career would have been longer and probably more successful as well. But that’s the way it goes – I have no regrets.
How did you think your experience on the tour helped to shape you as a coach? Did you have the analytical mindset all along?
I give a lot of credit to my coach that I had pretty much my whole career, since I was about 17. His name was Bob Carmichael, and I believe him to be one of the best coaches that’s ever been in the game, and certainly one of the best coaches that Australia has produced. He’s touched a lot of players on the way up. Guys like Wally Masur, Pat Rafter – pretty much everybody that came through the tennis ranks of Australia Bob had some type of influence with.
Not only was he a great coach – he was a great person. He left a big mark on me, and I would put down most of what I learned in the game about coaching primarily to him. Not only from what I try to pass on, but also the way you go about it. He was a great man and there are many who certainly miss him.
In the coaching realm you’ve experienced success both in developing a young prodigy (Lleyton Hewitt) and sustaining or prolonging the success of a legend (Andre Agassi). If you step into the realm of full-time coaching again, which scenario would be more attractive to you?
I think you can’t really answer that until you’re in that moment. There are big upsides to both, and there are challenges to both. I think that coaching somebody that’s already one of the greatest players in the game, it’s a great challenge to try and make them a better player than they already are, and then you also have a great challenge when you take on a youngster like a Grigor Dimitrov who is coming through the ranks at the moment – I know Peter Macnamara is doing some wonderful things with him. He is a great talent, and to try and harness and maximize his talent so that he could achieve his dreams is a big challenge and a big responsibility as well.
If I was to go back into full-time coaching either probability would be more than fine with me.
What would you say are some of the secrets to maximizing a players potential?
Yeah, it takes time. I think more than anything from a coaches perspective you need to be able to listen to your player. Everybody looks at the game very differently, and everyone has a different concept of how the game should be played – where there strengths lie, where there weaknesses lie. Even to the point of coaching Lleyton and coaching Andre, how they would perceive the strengths and weaknesses of opponents were very different from their eyes, because they play a different style of tennis. Even though they’re baseline players primarily, they still play a completely different style of tennis and they were still trying to achieve different things on the tennis court, so that means the matchup against other players would be completely different.
You need to take the time to listen to your player, you need to learn from them, listen to them, and certainly together with them try to work out a way that you can put them on the path to getting improvement. And that takes some time.
More importantly, you can’t walk into any coaching job and demand respect – no matter what you’ve done, no matter if you’ve been one of the greatest players in the world, no matter if you’ve had the opportunity to coach some of the greatest players in the world. You need to earn respect, and that takes time. You need to be able to listen, and you need to be able to sit down and have meaningful conversation about the game and about where that particular player is heading in the game, and how you’re going to go about achieving that improvement in their game.
How important is coaching to you with regard to the future and you fulfilling your career goals?
I think it’s extremely important that I always stay involved in the game. I have a pretty good balance at the moment. I work with ESPN, which I absolutely thoroughly enjoy, and I also stay in the trenches – and I’m fortunate to have the opportunity – working with some of the better players in the world. Not really in a coaching role but more in a consulting and mentoring role. The Adidas player development program is really there for us to help the existing teams that are there be as good as can be. We share information. So I’m learning off all the players that I come into touch with, but also the coaches as well, and the coaches know that we’re not looking to take anybody’s job, we’re just looking to help the athlete, so we have the same interests at heart, so the actual system itself works extremely well.
In the last couple of years that I’ve been with Adidas I’ve had the opportunity to work with 12 to 15 different athletes, so for me it’s been a great challenge and I reckon I’ve learned as much in the past couple years as I did in the previous 20 because you’re dealing with so many personalities and so many different unique challenges.
For me I don’t think I would ever stop coaching or mentoring or staying involved with the game in some way. I think it’s a part of my life and it will be a part of my life for many years to come. Just at the moment it’s a different role from what I used to have.
I know that a lot of your decisions have been based on your family, and I guess that will continue to be the case because your children are a big priority with you?
Yeah, I think it’s important for everybody isn’t it? I don’t think I’m any different from anybody else. If you have a couple of young kids that are right at that age, that tweener age of 9 and 6. I think it’s much easier if you have a newborn, t hat you can still skip around the world and do your job and be away from home 25 or 30 weeks of the year. But when they get to 9 and 6 it’s right in that middle age where they sort of expect their dad to be home a little more – it gets tougher to walk out the front door.
The Adidas program comes with a few tremendous upsides for me as well. I get to do most of the training work here in Las Vegas as the players come through and train. It’s with an unbelievable company. And it’s pretty rare these days in coaching tennis, but it’s a steady job that has some reliability to it. Still, probably the biggest upside for me of all was that I got to continue my working relationship with Gil Reyes, which is something that I hold dear.
You’ve won a lot of praise from fans for your commentating. How have you developed your sense of who the audience is and what they want to hear from you?
I feel like if you’re going to be anywhere near successful on t.v. you need to be yourself from the outset. When you throw on the headphones the most important thing is to just imagine you’re sitting in a living room with a bunch of your friends and they’re asking you questions about tennis. Be yourself. I don’t think it’s more complicated than that, and I think if you want longevity in the industry, you need to be true to yourself.
I’m surrounded by a great bunch of people as well. When it comes to Brad Gilbert and Mary Jo Fernandez and Pammy and Chris Fowler, and all these guys who have been doing it – Cliff Drysdale, who’s been doing it for a long time – all these guys have had a lot more experience than me, and they do a great job with it.
If you were to go in the green room of ESPN when we’re just sitting around watching a tennis match, you’re getting the very same – it’s just a bunch of friends talking tennis.
Do you feel your ESPN duties help you with coaching? You’re scouting in a sense.
(Laughing) ESPN does the four slams. So you’re there, you’re watching a ton of matches. You certainly see a lot of tennis. You do get to see a lot of tennis matches, but it might be a stretch to say that the commentary duties help my coaching duties. I guess it can’t hurt.
I think that if you’re going to take on a full-time coaching job it’s impossible to do a commentary job at the same time because you can’t really be true to the job itself. Because you wouldn’t be there with the player during the majors, you’d be juggling responsibilities.
If anybody was to go back coaching full-time, to mix in TV and coaching would probably be a bad call.
I caught your interview with Peter Lundgren (Stan Wawrinka’s coach) at the U.S. Open, and you made some jokes to him to the effect of ‘how is it that you’re out there making it happen and I’m sort of stuck here with the microphone?’ Do you still feel that Darren Cahill’s coaching résumé is far from complete?
There’s no question about it. The next best thing to actually competing yourself is coaching. You get that rush, that energy rush. The heart pounds a little faster. The mind is ticking over the night before. You’re going through your homework and you’re hitting your checkmarks, asking ‘have I done everything to make sure that my player goes onto the court the next day ready for everything and anything that can happen on the court.’
So, it’s a great feeling to play a small part in a player’s successes, and you get that feeling when you feel like you’ve let your player down that makes you work even harder. There’s nothing that can beat it. Once you stop playing tennis, there’s nothing that can beat coaching. It’s tremendous. If you take it seriously it takes over your life. You never stop thinking about it. You never stop thinking about how you can become better, how you can alter the training. You never stop picking the minds of people that have been there before, and talking to other coaches and making sure that you turn over every single stone.
I think if I was go back to full-time coaching I would still have that big decision to make. Okay, if I want to go back to full-time coaching I have to step away from ESPN, and that’s a big decision because ESPN is an unbelievable job. It’s a job that most people in tennis would love to have, and I felt that I was incredibly fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to even get a trial at ESPN and now that I’m there I feel like I can easily be with them for a lot of years.
But all the people that have coached like Brad and myself that have now jumped into commentary gigs, there’s no question that you still have that deep down burning desire to coach again.
I think it’s really admirable how important your family is to you, and I’m not sure if everyone possesses that loyalty to their own. Did your father’s career and the way he went about his business play a role in shaping your views on family?
It’s a little bit different for Aussie sports. He was an Aussie rules football coach for many many years. But he got to sleep in his bed, he got to go to work in the morning, and he was home to put his kids to sleep. It’s not the work. It’s the time away from home. When the kids are younger than 4 and 5 you can take the kids on the road with you. Once they get to 6 through 12 or 13, school plays a big role as well, so the kids need to be in one place in order to proceed with their lives as well.
So you need to make the decision. Do you want to go for a part-time job? I’m not big on part-time jobs because I don’t feel that you do justice to both the job and also the player that you take on. Or do you take the full-time job and spend more weeks away from home? A lot of people don’t have a choice. They have to take on the full-time jobs to keep putting food on the table for their families.
I was just in a very lucky position that I had a couple of options. The ESPN role and the Adidas role meant that I could see my kids grow up during these important years. I feel very fortunate to be in that position but you never know what might happen down the track.
And I had full support from my family as well. My wife thinks the world of Roger and she was kind of pushing me to hang in there and see whether or not I would get offered that job. I’m not quite sure if it’s because she gets sick of me after a couple of weeks at home and she wants me out of the house.
Do you talk tennis with your children? Do you coach them?
My little boy refuses to let me coach him but he loves tennis. He’s out there trying to play like Rafa. He’s 9 and he’s just starting to play some little tournaments around Vegas, and he loves the game. He’s also really involved in baseball. He and Jaden Agassi have actually been playing on the same baseball team for four years and they have a pretty successful team.
You’re really “forbidden” to coach him, or is that an idea concocted by you in order to ensure he has more fun with the game?
No, no, it’s his choice (laughing). He doesn’t want to hear it from dad he just wants to get on the court and play. There’s no coaching. It’s just play. ‘Let’s play dad.’ Definitely his choice and that’s fine. As long as he’s out on the court and he’s running around and he’s swinging a racquet I’m all good with that.
Do you knock it around with him?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
What are a few of the most important life lessons has tennis taught you?
It’s a great sport for problem solving. You’ve got so many times when you’re out on the court where it’s one on one, things are not going well, you feel like the loneliest person on the planet, and you have to figure out a way to fix it. I think that you can take that skill through life as well. If you can take the emotions out of what’s happening, and just learn to fix a problem, then you can get a lot more done. And I think tennis is wonderful for that. Because it is one on one and you don’t get any help. Most of what you do on the court you need to prepare for before the match, you need to go out there and execute during the match, and then you need a run-down of how you accomplished that after the match. It really does set you up in planning and problem solving as you go through life, so I think it’s a wonderful sport for that.
What would be the nicest thing that somebody you coached could say about you?
It doesn’t matter. We go out there and we do our very best. For me getting a smile after someone has a nice win. For me that’s everything. It is a tough sport at times, and it’s a lonely sport. And the fact that a lot of players make the effort to come here to Vegas – it’s a long way from home for a lot of the players – and they train their hearts out to try and become a little bit better. If we can help them do that – both Gil and myself – and help them realize a few of their dreams, for us that’s everything. So they don’t need to say anything. They just need to come here and work as hard as they can, and that’s more than enough respect.