From average player to supercoach. Polish Journalist Tomasz Lorek unravels the story of one of Sweden’s greatest unsung heroes … coach Magnus Norman. A man with a fearsome reputation to make ordinary players into great ones…
Swedish tennis is not only about the best baseliner the world has ever seen – a man from Sodertalje, Bjorn Borg.
Of course 11 Grand Slam titles won by Borg speak for itself, but it wasn’t only a combination of great serve and blistering topspin groundstrokes who made him such an incredible tennis player.
Borg is a true legend with a typical Scandinavian attitude: a mixture of rock and roll, precision on court, hard work, laid-back approach to a lifestyle and huge respect for every rival.
Borg was lucky to be born with a touch of genuine talent, but who knows how a great Swede would learn a trade if it hadn’t been for Lennart Bergelin.
Bergelin, not only a player, but also a Davis Cup captain, helped Borg to succeed. Lennart was the first Swedish player ever to win a Grand Slam as he and Jaroslav Drobny won doubles at Roland Garros in 1948.
Bergelin was an excellent coach who knew how to use Bjorn’s energy and skills and put him on an avenue of happiness. Well, Lennart has got some fantastic students…
For some reason Swedish tennis coaches become a true power nowadays with Magnus Norman, Stefan Edberg, Nicklas Kulti and Mikael Tillstroem. They earn a reputation of a true world class society. Swedish coaches are also very approachable guys who can prepare a young talent or an experienced player without a spark of champion to play well at majors.
A shocking arrival of Robin Soderling into clay courts in Paris in 2009 was a first fruit of a Swedish tennis philosophy. A man from Tibro managed to win a four sets battle with a king of clay from Manacor, Rafa Nadal. Guess, who was in Robin’s corner during that memorable spring in Paris… It was Magnus Norman, former world number two in singles ranking.
What a coincidence – Soderling made his first final in major in 2009, but nine years earlier on the same court Magnus Norman played his only Grand Slam final against Brazilian magician, Guga Kuerten… Does Magnus feel as being a part of a tremendous Swedish tennis history?
“Well, a small part anyway. My highest ranking was No.2 (June 12, 2000). I was very close to No.1. For whatever reason I didn’t manage to become a world No.1,” says Magnus.
“If I had won Roland Garros I would have been No.1, so… 2000 was an amazing year, I won against Guga at Foro Italico, but at the same time I really wanted to win Grand Slam title and be number 1 in the world.
“It was really close, so … And again, I never got a chance to play another Grand Slam final, so it still hurts a little bit, to be really honest, but yeah, that’s life”
Magnus still has a bit of a sorrow feeling about his best season in pro career.
Such a shame, Magnus, seeded at N0. 3 at Roland Garros in 2000 (Gustavo was fifth seed), because you were two sets down in that final, but you won a third one against Brazilian maestro (6-2).
“Yeah, I won the third and I was a break up in the fourth, got a little bit too emotional at that time instead of playing point by point. I was starting to feel the trophy, I was starting to feel the smell of how to become a champion and No. 1.
“I think those things make you stronger and possibly that’s why I got into coaching, because I’ve got a lot of things to tell my players about my own experience and what I could have done better in different situations. So, maybe that’s why I’m still hungry to do something more in tennis,” Magnus admits.
You can’t buy an experience, so there must be a tad of knowledge transported from Magnus’ head into the veins of Robin Soderling. Possibly that’s why Soderling has been twice a runner-up at French Open in 2009 and 2010.
“Yeah, I mean Robin was an amazing player, hard worker, really a good work ethic, so I think if I had worked with him a little longer, who knows how far we would go?
“I had him a little bit along the way. Obviously at the Australian Open in 2014 when Stan was winning it was really nice to finally win something, because I was one time runner-up myself as a player.
“I was No. 2 as a player, two times runner-up with Robin as a coach and finally to not be second, to finally win something was huge.”
Sweden is fifth on the all-time list of Davis Cup champions having won the title on seven occasions. Magnus Norman truly is a part of a history, because he played in a 1998 Davis Cup final in Milan. It was the last time Swedes were crowned Davis Cup winners.
Clay court, a fabulous opening match, Norman played Andrea Gaudenzi. First tiebreaker for an Italian, a second tiebreaker for Magnus. Third set for Gaudenzi, fourth set won by Norman. 6-6 in a fifth and Andrea retired.
“Probably one of my best memories to play for your country, to play for all the other guys on the bench,” he says.
“And just an amazing feeling to be in Milan in front of so many people. It was one of my biggest moments for sure and then it was a pity that it ended like it did, because Andrea had to retire. His shoulder was really in a bad shape.
“I think Andrea never really came back after that injury, so it was a tough way to finish the match like that, but we won the Davis Cup final. It’s the last time that Sweden won the Davis Cup, so it’s a small part of Swedish tennis history.”
Now, in the Swedish town of Jarfalla, Magnus runs an academy with another player who has won Davis Cup twice (97 and 98) – Nicklas Kulti and a quarterfinalist from Australian Open’96 – Mikael Tillstroem.
The academy is already a success with two Grand Slam titles won by Stan Wawrinka. What’s the secret of a Scandinavian school of tennis? Freestyle and a blowing wind mixed with an open mind?
“Tough to say. I think we’re quite down to earth type of personalities from Sweden,” Magnus admits.
“We’re not too outspoken, we don’t talk too much, we’re quite laid–back, no stardom.”
“Talking for myself I see myself a better coach than I was a player, because I didn’t like to be too much in a spotlight. I like to be more sort of behind a curtain, behind a spotlight and to try someone else to be in a spotlight. I think our mentality is a little bit like this.
“Stefan (Edberg) is the same, a little bit laid–back, so I think this kind of personality fits quite good to be a tennis coach.”
Does it mean two big egos doesn’t work properly? Let’s say if you have a fabulous player and a fabulous coach:
“Not necessarily. One has to step down a little bit. I can only speak for myself, but I think my personality fits more as a coach than as a player to be really honest.” That’s Magnus’ point of view.
Laid–back is a famous lifestyle attitude Down Under. Aussies like Pat Rafter, Mark Philippoussis, Lleyton Hewitt and Nick Kyrgios are known for it.
It seems a wonderful combination: an Aussie soil, a Swiss player coached by laid-back man from Sweden makes you a Grand Slam champion. Stan Wawrinka won his first major in Melbourne in 2014.
“Yeah, it’s true. I think Sweden has always had great support in Australia. And actually Australia and Sweden even if they are as far apart from each other in terms of geography as they possibly can, these countries are quite similar if you take away the snow and a cold weather in Sweden. I think the personalities are quite similar,” Magnus admits.
His fellow countryman, Jonas Bjorkman, former world No. 4 in singles and a great doubles player, three times Wimbledon doubles champion (2002-2004), once said once he would love to have a boat of imagination to travel to the fifties and sixties, because there was a pure pleasure of playing a game of tennis.
But honestly, would you love to be a star in the 50’s and 60’s when players used to travel by boat from Australia to England to play at Wimbledon? Five weeks on a boat, you had to be fit, you had to eat properly, how on earth they could do it? Maybe Magnus would prefer to be a star of nowadays?
“I would love to be a star of a future, because I am so interested in what’s happening next month. We were talking about it with Stan the other night that when I first started to go to Australia, it could take two, even three days to go to Australia. I had to fly via something, then to there and the flight was so long,” Magnus observes.
“Now you can fly from Stockholm to Dubai in 6 hours, whereas it used to be 8 hours. Then Dubai to Melbourne straight is like 11 hours. It used to be 15 or even more. The world is getting smaller in many ways. It’s quite interesting to see how it’s gonna be in 30, 40 or 50 years. I am more a type of a guy who is looking forward.”
Civilisation, progress… sometimes we have mixed feelings about it. You need to work hard to appreciate what you achieved. Nowadays people use internet, they surf via websites, whereas twenty years ago we used a typewriter and people were more into reading books. What’s Magnus point of view?
“We were also talking about this lately with Stan. Especially in the world of tennis it’s a never-ending job,” Magnus says.
“It’s a never-ending season. For example, holiday for Stan after Davis Cup final in 2014 was basically 10 days. And then the pre-season starts again and then you’re in Australia again, so it’s like a never-ending season.
“I think what I did wrong was maybe you have to learn that sometimes you should stop and go outside of tennis world and look back with fresh eyes to appreciate what you have done. But at the same time it’s quite tough. Stan said that himself.
Before the 2014 Davis Cup final in Lille we thought winning a Davis Cup was like: wow, my career will be fulfilled, all my dreams come true and it would be amazing, but straight after the Davis Cup final you start to think about next season.
“So, it’s like never-ending, but sometimes you need to try to stop a little bit, step out of the tennis world, slow the pace down and try to save a moment. But it’s not easy. That is also one of the reasons why the best players are so successful: they’re never happy, they always want more, more and more… Anyway sometimes you need to slow down and appreciate what you have done and then move forward again.”
Aussie Mark Woodforde, a phenomenal doubles player who won 67 tournaments, came to the conclusion that doubles is like jazz whereas singles is like pop music. Does Magnus like this kind of analogy?
“Oh yes, I think it’s a very good analogy,” he says.
“Maybe as a jazz, as a duo dance that you need to know what the other guy is doing, where he’s going, who’s leading, so it’s a little bit like this.
“Personally, I have a lot to learn when it comes to coaching doubles. I think it was one of the smartest moves that Swiss captain, Severin Luthi decided to bring an Aussie, David McPherson, the Bryan brothers coach, into a Swiss team. Both Stan and Roger said that it was very helpful. They talked a lot about doubles, where to serve and how to move.”
Strategies, a magic word in a game of doubles, right…?
“Yeah, strategies. It was a nice lecture about how do the doubles players think and how they are able to win matches.”
“With these guys who are so skilful, if you can give them a small advice, they will immediately pick up and they would do it. So it was quite smart and it was nice to see how they were playing. It was a really good doubles match in a Davis Cup final.”
Roger Federer … 17-time Grand Slam champion and an Olympic gold medalist with Stan Wawrinka in doubles from 2008 Beijing is still humble enough to listen to David MacPherson.
MacPherson, born in Tasmania, has won 16 titles in doubles and works as a coach with Bryan brothers.
Roger admitted he didn’t know many things about playing doubles. It was so good to hear it from a multiple champion.
“It’s fantastic. Singles and doubles are two separate things, so it’s always nice to listen to MacPherson,”
“He knows everything about doubles. David is scouting doubles and he looks at the players in a different way than I do as a singles coach.
“I think it’s one of the key things for a guy like Roger. I remember when I was growing up playing tennis. I was in one of the trainer rooms when all the physiotherapists were working. I was a little bit younger and there was also Andre Agassi in the same room at the same time.
“I remember I was quite young, I was sort of in the corner, usually not saying too much, mainly listening to people…
“There was Agassi and maybe his coach. I can’t really remember who else was there. But I remember they were talking about strings. Andre was telling his coach and his physiotherapist that he tried this new string and it gave him so much control and so much spin and he played so much better.
“He thought he could improved so much with this string. I was there as a junior thinking: this man won so many Grand Slams titles, but he wanted more success!
“He wanted to improve. I think this is a sign of a great champion. A true champion always wants to improve and looks for new things and this is one of the things that I remember.”
Magnus Norman was born in Filipstad, a little town located 294 kilometres from Stockholm. A perfect place to play bandy. As previously mentioned, it’s so important to slow down a pace if you’re a professional tennis player. A team winter sport for a tennis pro, why not?
“It was quite a funny story actually, because … First of all not a lot of people knows about bandy. It’s a sport played on ice, but on a soccer field, Magnus says.
“Outdoors, you play it in the winter. Each team has eleven players, one of whom is a goalkeeper. It’s a little bit mixed between ice hockey and soccer. It’s quite physical, it’s a speedy game. It’s funny, because I had to choose between bandy and tennis when I was fourteen.
“I got a letter from a Swedish bandy federation asking me to go to Russia to play for the national team. And at the same time, exactly the same day I got a letter from a Swedish tennis federation asking me to go to Florida to play Orange Bowl. So, I had to make a choice: Russia or Florida? Two letters in one day! Unbelievable… I chose Florida and then I won Orange Bowl when I was 14, so then tennis was always a priority and a true number one sport after that.”
Contrary to ice hockey, you don’t play it within three periods. The game of bandy is normally played in halves of 45 minutes each. Players use bowed sticks and a small ball.
“I still play bandy in Division Two in Sweden. Every time I am back home in the winter, I like to pick up the skates and go to play bandy. Not only for fun. We play in a league. For sure it’s not professional, but the level is quite ok,” he admits.
Guess if Stan Wawrinka tried to play a bit of bandy…?
“No, I don’t think so (Magnus smiles). I will try to explain it to him what it is, but I think he knows now. Swiss people are pretty good on skates, they’re good at ice hockey, but I don’t think they play bandy. It’s only played in the nordic countries, in Scandinavia and Russia. So, it’s not a big sport, but maybe that’s the beauty of it?”
So, Magnus is not regretting picking up a tennis racket instead of playing bandy as a professional athlete?
“No, not at all. Actually I always enjoyed a little bit more individual sport than team sports, ” – he clarifies.
Magnus wants to see Swedish players being successful. He watched a men’s doubles final at Rod Laver Arena in 2014, when his countryman Robert Lindstedt fought to lift a trophy. Lindstedt was a three-time Wimbledon finalist with former partner Horia Tecau (2010-2012). Finally Robert captured a maiden Grand Slam crown at Australian Open with Lukasz Kubot. Lindstedt was first Grand Slam winner from Sweden since Simon Aspelin at the 2007 US Open.
“I know he has been so close to win a major trophy so many times… I remember 2014 in Melbourne really well. Watching Robert play was an amazing experience,” he says.
“I think the men’s doubles final is played on Saturday, the day before men’s singles final. I remember watching doubles final and I was really happy for him. Even if it’s doubles, he has put a lot of work to come back to the sport. He had a lot of injuries, he had problems with his arm a little bit, so yeah I was really happy for him and Lukasz also, because both of them are great guys.”
Radek Stepanek, a phenomenal doubles player (he collected 18 titles), used to say that sometimes it kills you when you’re too much into a game of tennis. Radek, twice a Davis Cup winner for Czech Republic (2012 & 2013), reckons that Lukasz Kubot thinks about tennis even when he’s sleeping! Is it a perfect recipe to be successful on court or sometimes you need to say: hello, let’s go fishing, rock climbing, skydiving, whatever…
“I think you need a mix actually. I don’t think you will become good if you don’t have a passion. You really need to have this inner passion to become a good player. You need to practise a lot, you need to think about tennis, read about tennis, watch the tennis.
“From what I see from all the juniors, from all the players that I have been coaching, all the players that I have observed, they have this inner passion. For example when a coach is not watching, they will more or less practise even harder. They play for themselves, so I don’t think you can become good if you don’t have this special grit and determination. I would say hunger and determination… I don’t know Lukasz that well personally, but from what I have seen from Robin (Soderling), Stan (Wawrinka), Elias Ymer, who I helped him since he was 12, I see they all have this in common.
“Not that I need to tell them something. They automatically want to become better all the time.”
Magnus knows what it takes to be one of the best players on a planet.
Crucial question: is it easier to work with a genius who always wants to push the boundaries or it’s better to stay with a hard worker without a special talent to play tennis?
“For me all the players are unique. I don’t think you’ll reach the top of a game if you don’t have a gift and a special talent,” he says.
“And I don’t think you’ll reach top if you don’t work really, really hard. I am sure all the best players in the world, no matter if it’s soccer or tennis or playing the piano, they have worked really hard to be on top. You’re born with a gift maybe, but in order for this gift to develop you need to work hard. You need to have this work habit as well. If you can combine these two things, then the greatness will be there.”
South African, Wayne Ferreira, former world No.6 in singles, a Hopman Cup winner in 2000 (with Amanda Coetzer), a silver medalist from Olympic Games in 1992 (with Piet Norval) told me that everyone is flattering Stan Wawrinka about his one-handed backhand.
Does Magnus agree with Wayne’s Ferreira point of view?
“Yes, for sure. For me it’s one of the best forehands on ATP tour. And one of the most heavy forehands when it’s really there.
“Sometimes, when Stan doesn’t have a confidence, it may be a problem, but everybody can see that he’s at a high level on his forehand. I think that’s one of the things that we have worked on a bit throughout last year and a half to become a little bit more consistent with a forehand.
“Not to play too close to the net, not to play too close to the lines, maybe play it with a more height of the net, don’t go for the lines too much, so that’s one of the things that we always try to improve a little bit on.”
At the 2014 Australian Open Stan became the oldest first Grand Slam winner (28) since Croatian Goran Ivanisevic (29) won the 2001 Wimbledon. Goran was unseeded at the time and ranked 125, got a wild card.
Does it mean that sometimes it’s better to reach a pinnacle of your career when you slightly older?
“I think it all depends on a personality and how you handle the things,” he says.
“I think one of the most important guys in Stan’s team is his fitness coach, Pierre Paganini.”
“He’s sharing duties with Roger Federer. For me, Pierre is a master of making the plan of work for a whole year. He knows when to play, which tournaments, when to have the practise week. Pierre is someone who even if he’s not with me at the tournament, I will text him for an advice.
“Pierre has known Stan since he was very young. I think Pierre is one of the guys that really deserves the credit, at least for Stan, for making him so fit.
“Stan is 29 years old and he’s so lucky. Stan didn’t have a big injury when he’s older. It’s one of the things that always gonna be helpful when you’re coaching all the players: to have a right balance between playing and not playing too much and resting. And you always have to be focused and motivated.
Wawrinka is also a funny man. It’s scary to be too serious in life… One of his dreams was to do skydiving after he won 2014 Australian Open.
“I think he did it in Gstaad before he won a Grand Slam. He has, like I told you, this ability to sometimes step out of the world,” Magnus admits.
“The way he has been handling the whole situation with his first Grand Slam final in 2014 was. I didn’t see that he was nervous before the match with Rafa. He was quite laid-back.
“The whole 2014 season was up and down. But Stan was able to win Monte Carlo, he was still able to play quarters at Wimbledon and US Open and he won Davis Cup.
“Despite winning a Grand Slam he was still able to relax and he was still able to do more. It’s easy when you win big thing like this that you go down a little bit, because: shit, what’s now? I won a Grand Slam and what’s next? You got a little bit empty, but he handled everything really well.
“I think that comes from his personality as well that he’s kind of a laid-back man. When he won in Melbourne in 2014 the celebration was not unbelievable. I kind of like that.”
Winning his first ATP Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo and beating Roger Federer in a final must have been a great thing for Stan. What is even more important, Wawrinka won it on clay court. It was like climbing on another platform…
“Truly amazing. And it came a little bit out of nowhere, because he didn’t play well in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne and all of a sudden he won in Monte Carlo. Obviously his record against Roger is not great, so it was a big thing for him to win Monte Carlo,” Magnus admits.
In 1999 Magnus Norman won a clay court tournament in Umag, Croatia, defeating Jeff Tarango in the final. Sounds like clay court was his favourite surface?
“I would say my game was suited a little bit better for a hard court. I won seven titles on clay and five on hard courts, but I would say outdoor hard court was maybe my best surface. If I’d play really well, this was my favourite one.”
Magnus won his maiden ATP tournament in Bastad, Sweden in 1997. Obviously on clay court…
A lot of players praise Nicklas Kulti. Nicklas was ranked No.1 in junior singles, he won Australian Open and Wimbledon junior titles in 1989. He seems to be a very talented tennis coach. What’s so special about him?
No one knows him better than Magnus.
“Nicklas Kulti? First of all, he’s a great friend. We started the Good to Great tennis academy together. The thing with Nicklas is he has a good experience, he was very talented as a junior. He was No.1 in the juniors in the world and everybody thought he was going to be a No.1 in the world on professional tour, they called him next Edberg, but he was not really living up to the expectations.
“His highest ranking in singles was I don’t know, maybe 30 or something like this (32 in May 1993). I think he has a lot of juniors who he helped to make a transition from juniors to pros, so…”
Sweden… Everyone who is involved in music business, would say: yes, Abba was a worldwide success. But Sweden also has a fabulous bloke in a world of motorsport. Tony Rickardsson is a six-time world speedway champion. Only a Kiwi, Ivan Mauger has got six gold medals in speedway individual competition. We know Thomas Enqvist, former pro and former world No.4 is very much into motorsport, he loves ice racing, but how about Magnus Norman?
“I like bikes. Tony is a very, very likeable person. He comes from a part of Sweden where they have a very, very nice dialect. When he speaks Swedish, maybe you don’t know about it, but when he speaks Swedish, he does it with a really genuine dialect. He never changed. Tony is very likeable, not only because of his dialect, but just about the way he is. Pure accent.
“Like Cockney in London. A little bit like a north accent. I don’t think you can dislike him. Tony is very well recognised in Sweden. and what he has done for motorsport is a huge achievement. And also on a world stage of motor racing is just incredible.”
Tony Rickardsson, a great speedway champion, knew precisely when to relax and how to relax after a tough speedway meeting. If he wanted to go dancing, he did that, but always in a very sensible way. He was so serious when it came to a professional speedway racing. Does Magnus think that in tennis it also helps you to be successful when you know how to behave off the court?
“Yeah, for sure. I am sure that Tony like any of the successful athletes has a talent. You need to have this gift, then you need to work hard to achieve a world championship title with a sense of modesty. I think he has done really well.”
When Magnus doesn’t play bandy or work with Stan, he watches Swedish TV…
There was a time in 2014 when Travis Pastrana and his Nitro Circus Live has been performing at the Rod Laver Arena. Rod Laver Arena is a great venue with music concerts, sumo shows, freestyle motocross, so many various events. Maybe if Stan Wawrinka is going to win in Melbourne a second time, maybe Magnus and Stan are going to do a tandem backflip on a motocross bike?
“Yes, that’s a good bet actually. You’ll have to ask him,” he says.
It would be good to do it together. We’re both very competitive, so… We have to do it within a same team. Pool with a foam would be cool. Let’s see. I think he has a good chance. He’s playing well. But then of course, everybody is improving. This year it’ll be really tough, so many good players. So, it’s gonna be tough, but yes, I think Stan is hungry to do more.”
Let’s finish our conversation in a way Tony Rickardsson would do it. Please, correct my Swedish if I’m wrong: tack sa mycket (thank you very much).
“Tack sa mycket” – Magnus smiles.
It was a pure pleasure to talk to a man who has a unique talent. He knows how to bring the very best of Stan. If we would have a time machine, I am pretty sure Magnus Norman would go to Ballarat in Australia long before anyone knew about gold miners…