When I look at the great players of this generation, no one stands out more for a glaringly positive influence on their pupils than Magnus Norman. He has coached greats such as Thomas Johansson, Robin Soderling and presently Stan Wawrinka. The remarkable rise of both Soderling and Wawrinka is often credited almost solely to their work with Norman – who brought them from consistent top 20 results into the finals of slams. Those types of improvements are precisely what Magnus Norman is known for: making good players great. So it is fitting that away from the tour, Norman is the co-founder of a tennis academy in Sweden aptly named “Good to Great Tennis Academy”.
I must admit, as a late follower of the game of tennis, I was not initially aware of Magnus Norman’s own impressive career achievements. I really only became a fan of professional tennis starting around 2005, a few years after Magnus had retired, so I didn’t know the first thing about him. Around the players’ lounge I knew him as the always friendly, but quiet and universally admired coach. I knew he was different, special, and respected in a way that others were not. As I learned his personal story, I became even more fascinated; he is a tennis legend in his own right, whose career came to a tragic injury-riddled end. Yet instead of shrinking from the game, he has done the opposite; he is using his personal knowledge to propel players right to the top, helping them achieve things he fell just short of in his own endeavors. Is there any way to give back to the game you love better than that?
After learning Magnus’ story, I was an instant fan, and over the past few years I have found myself secretly cheering for his players’ successes. As a follower of Norman’s personal blog, I thought to myself: would Magnus be willing to contribute to my own Tour Wife Tales chronicle? Although completely out of my comfort zone, I mustered up the courage to ask for an interview; I could not have received a more gracious reply that he would be “honored” to participate. The privilege was truly mine, and I am so excited to publish this latest installment as a Q&A with one of the best players and coaches of our time.
Kelsey Anderson (KA): First of all, it is lovely to catch up with you here in Rome. I imagine this tournament holds some fond memories for you being the site of your Master’s title in 2000. But you had such an incredible career, one most people could only dream of; there must be so many moments that were special over the years. Reflecting back on things now, what are your favorite professional tennis memories as both a player and a coach?
Magnus Norman (MN): My highest ranking was number two in the world. I guess I should be proud about that, but I can’t help to feel disappointed. I really don’t want to sound bad, arrogant or disrespectful in any way, but I am really not 100% satisfied with my career overall; it felt like I had so much more in both my body and in my head. I was close to being number one in the world and I was close to winning a Grand Slam; I failed on both. Then I was injured for the first time, in my hip, when I was number four in the world. I never really came back to where I wanted to be after surgeries and it was really painful for me to have to end my career at 26 years old.
So, my favorite moment so far in tennis was when Stan won the French Open. I never cry, but during the ceremony I cried behind my glasses. It had been a painful loss in the 2000 Roland Garros final for myself as a player against Kuerten; the fact that Kuerten was giving the trophy to Stan, and Stan dedicating the victory to me was just amazing. All the feelings mixed together, it was too much to handle.
KA: That is interesting. I have also heard you say before that you feel you still have something to prove to yourself with respect to tennis, that you feel you “left something on the table” in your own career. You are probably the most respected tennis coach in the world right now. What does that mean to you? Have you found some peace through helping others?
MN: Thank you, that’s very nice words from you. The fact that I didn’t feel satisfied with my own career has perhaps left me with that desire and motivation to still be out here helping other players and sharing their dreams. I honestly also feel like my personality is better suited to be a coach than a player. I loved competing and training, but I never really liked or felt comfortable in front of cameras and all the other things that follow with success. I have so much admiration for the likes of Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Williams, who have been in the center of attention for decades and can still perform at the level they have year in and year out.
KA: How did your own tennis career shape your current coaching philosophy?
MN: I think it influenced it a lot. I come from a small city in Sweden (only 6000 people), and I always had to take care of my career and my training on my own. I tried to come up with new ideas of training at an early stage, that shaped me for sure as I became very interested in performance. Also, all my coaches over the years, and all the knowledge I gained from my own career have shaped me and my coaching career.
KA: Most players look forward to some time away from the tour after they retire, but you began working with Johansson just a few years after stopping competitive play yourself. I read that you knew pretty quickly that being around sport was important to you. What exactly is it about tennis that you connect with so deeply?
MN: I was born with sports and I will always work with sports, however I did need some time off after having to quit my career like that. I actually had two years where I did not touch a racket at all and I didn’t watch any tennis. I made new friends outside of tennis as I was studying marketing and economics at a private business school in Stockholm. I also had a regular job at a fund manager in Sweden. However, I started to miss the sport: the locker rooms, the smell of victory and defeat.
KA: I remember chatting with you last year about your Good to Great Tennis Academy in Sweden. You mentioned that you are working together as Swedes to get another player back at the top of the game, which really connected with me. Kevin came from a small country that is also struggling to produce talent at the moment, and they need a solution. Tell me a little bit about the Academy’s mission and how it is working to achieve these goals?
MN: Yes that’s the reason why myself and a few ex-players (Tillstrom and Kulti) started the academy in the first place. Instead of complaining about the lack of talent, we decided to take matters in our own hands. We created a place for youth players to come together in order to train and travel to tournaments together. We were on court at 7am from day one. We quickly had a big demand from players both nationally and internationally.
Our goal is to work hard and to create an environment and platform that allows everyone to become the best they can be.
KA: You are obviously most well known for coaching some of the top players in the world on tour, but working with younger talent must present a completely different set of challenges. How does your coaching style adapt or change when you are working specifically with juniors?
MN: You need more patience when working with younger players. It takes more time before you see results. That is also why I have so much respect for all the coaches working with players in their younger years. Coaches that do all the base work with the players when no one is watching (early mornings, weekends etc.), it is tough work; and if you ask me, these coaches do not get credited enough for the hard work they do. The development level coaches deserve way more credit! I am very fortunate to spend time with both top players and also as a mentor to younger players and their coaches, and it’s so rewarding.
KA: I read on your blog that you have a favorite quote: “Some people dream of success while other people wake up and work hard at it.” As a player you were known for your work ethic and perfectionism. What types of things do you do nowadays to improve yourself and your ability to coach others to excellence?
MN: Yes that’s my favorite since I was 13 years old, somehow it stuck with me; perhaps I got that also from my childhood in Sweden. It is so easy to tell people to do certain things, but when it comes down to actually doing it, not many are ready to do the work. This applies not only in sports, but also in business or in private life – honestly everywhere. I have the deepest respect for coaches that are out there everyday giving their all for other people.
In terms of ongoing education, I read a lot. I try new things. I talk to people that I find interesting and that have time to give to me. I also learn everyday from the players and coaches I work with.
KA: What is one thing you believe most players on the tour could get better at? Where do you see the most untapped potential?
MN: That is very individual. As a coach, you have to be able to adopt and adjust within your philosophy to fit the player.
KA: I have heard you discuss some of the mental work you undertook with both Robin Soderling and Stan Wawrinka. If you could give aspiring tennis players a few pieces of advice that they can implement themselves to become better competitors what would that be?
MN: I would say that comes from me having to answer the question of what I think I contributed the most to Stan’s game. My answer is that I think the mental part of the game is where I have seen the biggest change over the last year. I think the fact that Stan was at an age where he was very ready to take the next step is a big factor; not so much what I did or said specifically. He had already done all the hard work together with his ex-coaches, and I came in a period where he was ready to take the next step.
KA: Now to finish, I have kind of a fun question: aside from your own pupils, if you could coach any player past or present, who would it be, and why?
MN: I think the answer to that would be Elias Ymer (96) or his brother Mikael Ymer (98).
On the eve of Wawrinka’s US Open Semifinal, it is pretty incredible to think about how powerful a partnership Stan and Magnus have had. Since their coaching relationship began, Stan has won two majors and soared to an entirely new level of tennis.
That is the power of a good coach.
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