‘Asia is the future'

R. RAGU

“Asians are extremely talented and hard working. They are raw, but can be moulded into better players,” says Michael Baroch in a chat with K. Keerthivasan.

On the eve of the Asian Junior Championships at the Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium in Chennai, a middle-aged man, father of two (tennis players), looking in the direction of the playing arena whispered, “He is Michael Baroch, the man who had coached Maria Sharapova and Mark Philippoussis.”

He added: “He (Baroch) is easily one of the best coaches in the world.”

Even as Baroch was giving tips to the players, a Tamil Nadu Tennis Association official requested the coach to finish his session quickly as an influential government official wanted the court to practise. Realising the situation, the 44-year-old Australian agreed to wind up without creating any fuss.

As the Head Coach and Director of the Melbourne International Tennis School (MITS), Baroch is a tough taskmaster and a firm believer in hard work. He has a reputation for pushing his wards hard with the intention of making them better players.

Baroch, who set up the MITS in 1995, is of the view that Asia is a better place to scout for talent. This led him to start a tennis school in Singapore.

“Asians are extremely talented and hard working. They are raw, but can be moulded into better players,” he said.

Baroch also feels that Singapore is so ideally located that it is easier for the players to travel to tournaments across the globe. “Its location is ideal for the players. Though Australia is a sporting nation, it is difficult for players to travel out of Australia. That's why most of the top Australian players like Patrick Rafter and Pat Cash lived outside Australia,” he explained.

The talk of Maria Sharapova brought intensity to Baroch's voice. “I was her coach during her first visit to Wimbledon in 2003. Her biggest asset is her mental strength. She's very competitive, never gives up. She might not be among the best athletes (in the world), but she is strong mentally. It was great fun coaching Sharapova. It was a great learning experience,” he said.

“She has a lovely attitude and was great to travel with. She was the easiest to work with,” Baroch added.

When Sharapova won her first WTA tournament in Tokyo in 2003, Baroch was her coach. “I would say the three tournaments — Birmingham (she lost in the round of 16), Wimbledon (she lost in the fourth round) and the Japan Open, where she won her first WTA title — were really amazing,” he said.

According to Baroch, it was he who provided Sharapova the momentum and thrust to win the Wimbledon title in 2004.

“She had never played on grass before and my favourite surface was grass. I would like to believe that it was my teaching on how to play on grass that set her game up. The next year (2004), she won at Wimbledon,” he said.

Talking of his brief association with Philippoussis in 1997-98, Baroch said: “He was talented but a little lazy. That's why he didn't turn out to be a champion.”

Baroch learnt the basics of coaching under Tony Roche. Baroch admitted that his style of coaching has been heavily influenced by Roche's. “I was coached by Tony as a junior and then had the opportunity to be a sparring partner of Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Monica Seles and Martina Navratilova. Then Tony invited me to be a part of the Australian Davis Cup team. Tony called me over again when he was coaching Roger Federer. I've imbibed a lot working with him,” he said.

Baroch, who spends most of his time training players in Singapore, expressed his intention of developing Asians players into world-beaters. “Asia is the place to be. As far as players are concerned, there is lot of quality and quantity in Asia. This is the future,” he said.