Just under a fortnight back, Maria Sharapova split with her coach of three years, Thomas Hogstedt of Sweden, not long after she crashed out in the second round of Wimbledon. Soon afterwards, she announced that Jimmy Connors, the feisty American who won eight Grand Slam titles, would be her new coach.
Connors was the quintessential street-fighter, scrapping and gutsing and battling and grunting to victory when he had no business outlasting far younger opponents. He left nothing behind in the locker room; by the time he left the court, victorious or otherwise, he had nothing more to offer. The audience was as drained as the left-handed battler himself. In a lot of ways, Connors was the peoples' champion, a two-time Wimbledon titlist whose triumphs came eight years apart but who was always more than the titles he stacked up.
Sharapova is 26, currently ranked No. 2 on the WTA Tour, has won four Grand Slam crowns and has been on the professional circuit for 12 years now, having announced her arrival as a 17-year-old in 2004 when she stunned Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final. Hers is the face that adorns a billion billboards. She is the face of women's tennis today, riding on her extremely good looks, flowing blond hair and her power-packed tennis - perhaps in that order. Admittedly, she hasn't won as many Grand Slams as several of the greats in women's tennis, but there is no reason for her to look back on her career and feel ashamed. She is a multi-millionaire with more than two-thirds of her life - all other things being equal - ahead of her, and if she didn't win another title in her life, she wouldn't be recognised as a lesser player.
So why go to Connors now? Why continue to put body and mind on the line? Why go the extra yard? Because. Because she wants to get better, because she wants to win more crowns, because she is not content to rest on her laurels, because she is an ultra-competitive sportsperson driven by ambition and desire and hunger. Because, most importantly, she believes her best is still ahead of her.
Now, Sharapova is but one example of a professional sportsperson trying to stretch the boundaries. There is no guarantee that Connors, who coached Andy Roddick for a couple of years in the mid-2000s, will necessarily spur her to greater deeds. But the fact that she is willing to make the effort alone is credit to her spirit, especially considering that she is in pursuit of individual glory in a very individual sport, and is answerable to her self and her conscience more than anything else.
Switch tracks, and you will find a similar mindset creeping into team sport as well. Cricket in general. And Indian cricket, in particular.
Sometime last year, it came to light that Robin Uthappa, the supremely talented but vastly underachieving Karnataka batsman, had turned to Pravin Amre in a bid to resurrect his flagging career. Uthappa and Amre are as different as chalk is from cheese. Uthappa is the intrepid modern-day cricketer, flashy and flamboyant on and off the park, unafraid of public glare. Amre was a dour, hard-working, grind-the-bowling kind of batsman, uncomfortable in the limelight and an unimpressive public communicator. How on earth did this unlikely combination materialise?
It came about because of the Indian Premier League. Amre was the batting coach with Pune Warriors India for whom Uthappa has been playing for the last few years, and having sussed up what Amre had to offer within the confines of a team environment, Uthappa wanted greater personal attention from the man who made a fighting century on debut in South Africa more than 20 years ago. Amre was more than willing to oblige - for a fee, of course - perhaps thrilled to bits by the fact that someone who had made his international debut more than six years ago was willing to fight his way back into the reckoning even though several other young turks had left him lying reasonably mid-table in the pecking order.
Uthappa didn't have the greatest Ranji Trophy season last year, his natural aggression the first casualty as he reworked his game with a marked emphasis on occupation of the crease. He was unrecognisable as the free-stroking, free-spirited opening batsman of the past, both in appearance and approach. Even accounting for the transitional phase, he was taking far too long to bridge the gulf between presence and performance, and it wasn't until he was given a talking-to by his own state coaches towards the end of the Ranji campaign that the Uthappa of old resurfaced.
Now older and infinitely wiser, Uthappa knows that the now-or-never period is fast approaching. He is still only 27, but the Indian batting line-up is packed already, with several others of his own age or younger snapping at the heels of those in the playing XI. Uthappa continues to swear by Amre, utilising the off-season to work with his mentor in Mumbai. It will be foolhardy to read too much into the triple hundred he made in the Safi Darashah Trophy in Bangalore last week, but he has something to build on as the season unfolds.
Taking a leaf out of the Uthappa book, someone with greater success at the international level too requisitioned the services of a personal coach last month. Gautam Gambhir has achieved plenty more than Uthappa has; he has played 54 Tests, 147 One-Day Internationals and 37 Twenty20 Internationals to the younger man's 38 ODI appearances and 11 T20I caps. Gambhir has nine Test hundreds and averages more than 44, while his ODI average is a little under 40 and he made that wonderful 97 in a winning cause in the 2011 World Cup final. But at 31, after a series of sub-par performances, he finds himself out of favour with the selectors and is aware that the sands of time are quickly running out on him.
Gambhir turned to Woorkeri Raman, the former India batsman who has coached Bengal and Tamil Nadu, for guidance, assistance, assurance - whatever you want to call it. Raman spent a week with Gambhir in Delhi, not so much working on his high right elbow or a decisive stride forward, one is sure, but talking through things, assessing his fellow left-hander's state of mind, his desperation to return to the national team, what it means for Gambhir to represent India.
Two instances are hardly sufficient to be branded a trend, but there is no denying the fact that increasingly, even within team environment, players are reaching out to individuals independent of that environment for personal attention. Dinesh Karthik sought out Prasanna Agoram, a video analyst who has been involved with both Royal Challengers Bangalore and the South African national team of which he is an integral part now, as far back as 2011, utilising not just Prasanna's expertise in his chosen field but also the fact that he is a very good student of the game who has been extolled publicly by Hashim Amla. In the last two years, Karthik has gone from strength to strength, returned to the Indian team and established himself as a key member of the one-day set-up, another shot in the arm for personalised coaching.
Needless to say, it's a delicate balancing act, having a personal coach while being a part of a team, a personal coach whose inputs might be vastly different from that of the national/team coach. It is up to the individual concerned to figure out what works best for him without stepping on toes or ruffling feathers. Not many were amused when Mohammad Azharuddin turned to Zaheer Abbas for tips when India were touring Pakistan in the late '80s, but the same set of individuals had no qualms when Owais Shah approached Azhar for help. That's the price one has to pay for stepping out of one's comfort zone. Karthik, Uthappa and Gambhir have had the courage of conviction to do so, Karthik having already reaped the benefits. How Uthappa and Gambhir shape up in the season ahead, and what strides they take in their comeback bids, will make for interesting watching.