They walk together, the tall man with the sprinkling of gray in his hair and the baseball cap pulled low, and the tall woman, so tanned and carefree, and the two laugh at something, laugh loud and hard.
They are friends, Robert Van’t Hof and Lindsay Davenport. Good friends. The 40-year-old coach and the 23-year-old pupil who has won her first U.S. Open and first Wimbledon titles in the last 10 months, are just good buddies.
Davenport, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, doesn’t feel comfortable getting a haircut in her hometown of Newport Beach. You know how it is when you’re not blond and blonder in Newport Beach. Van’t Hof doesn’t dress up and never minds if his tennis shorts are wrinkled or his cap has sweat stains. Yet both live among millionaires in Newport Beach and act as if they should be mowing the lawn and not winning Wimbledon on it.
In professional tennis, men and women both, a coach is horribly disposable. Upset loss to a lower-seeded player? Coach is gone. Player doesn’t work hard and gets out of shape? Dump the coach. Room not ready at the hotel? Upgrade not available on the flight? Practice court not available? Fire the coach. Fire the coach. Fire the coach.
And yet Van’t Hof and Davenport have been coach and player for seven years. The deep secret to this healthy, profitable, wonderful partnership? “Gee,” Davenport says. “I guess we just trust each other.”
Davenport was 16 when she met Van’t Hof. She was taller than all the girls she knew and heavier than most. She could hit a tennis ball harder and noisier than most guys and her coach had just moved to Idaho and her family had just moved from Rancho Palos Verdes to Murrieta and her parents’ marriage was beginning to founder and she was the new girl in a new high school.
Van’t Hof had just finished a 12-year professional playing career. He had spent three years at USC but had left without his degree to play tennis. His highest ranking as a singles player had been 24th in the world, as a doubles player 20th. He had made a nice living, but with a wife, two children and a third on the way, retirement from the working world was not an option.
On the day Davenport walked into the old Palisades tennis club in Costa Mesa, having driven 60 miles from Murrieta--"I clocked it,” Davenport says, “the 91, the 55, wow, I was 16 and just clueless about that trip, I guess,"--what Davenport remembers about Van’t Hof is that “he was just so nice to me.
“It was a time of my life when things weren’t so great at a new school and not so great at home. I started going to Robert once a week, then twice a week and then six weeks later, I called him up and said, ‘Do you think you could take me more days a week?’ I didn’t have any friends at the new school yet, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself, and Robert made me feel comfortable.”
As a player, Van’t Hof had always been understated, careful and precise. His approach to Davenport was the same. Van’t Hof never considered that he might be coaching a future No. 1 player, that he would one day be sitting in the player’s box at Wimbledon as the coach of the champion. The thing is, Davenport never thought about herself that way either.
For three years, Davenport and Van’t Hof worked together when Davenport was in town. Davenport traveled with USTA coaches and Van’t Hof was coaching and traveling with Todd Martin.
At the end of 1995, with her back aching and her body tired, and facing the mirror and the fact that she was, in her own words, “too darn big,” Davenport called up Van’t Hof and asked him two things: “I wanted him to start traveling with me,” Davenport says, “and I wanted him to help me get in shape. I was ready.”
Van’t Hof never told Davenport that she needed to lose weight. “There are just some things I wouldn’t be comfortable bringing up to a woman,” Van’t Hof says. “Her weight is one of them.”
But when Davenport brought up the subject, the training was on. Van’t Hof ran with Davenport, lifted weights with Davenport, sweated with Davenport.
That’s why it worked. Van’t Hof didn’t berate his pupil, he suffered with his pupil.
“The thing about Robert,” Davenport says, “is that if he stopped coaching me tomorrow I would still call him up every day and find out how his kids are doing and want to know what is going on in his life.”
To be the coach of a professional tennis player often means putting away your own ego. As much as teaching strokes, the coach must often stroke the player. Except Davenport is not full of ego herself. She will carry her own equipment bag. She can check herself into a hotel. That’s how she has always been.
Davenport’s parents didn’t meet Van’t Hof for six months after he began coaching their daughter. It was Davenport’s job to get herself to and from school and tennis practice and if that meant making a 120-mile round-trip every day, then it was up to Davenport to make that drive.
What Davenport likes about Van’t Hof, she says, “is that no matter what, whenever I look at him, his expression never changes. No matter how bad a shot I hit, he’s not, like throwing up his hands or shaking his head.”
In the second set of her first Wimbledon final against Graf, a seven-time champion, there was a rain delay. Even though she won the first set and was leading in the second, Davenport was getting jumpy. Her stomach was churning, her shots were getting tight. “I was just feeling the situation all of a sudden,” Davenport says.
During the rain delay, Van’t Hof came to see Davenport. “He came running in,” Davenport says, “and tells me how great I was playing, how impressed he was with what I was doing and how he liked how aggressive I was being, and he told me to just keep going for my shots.”
“Well,” Van’t Hof says, looking at Davenport, “that was the truth.”
Trust. Davenport believed her coach. If he said she was doing the right thing, then she would keep doing it.
Davenport didn’t lose a game after the rain.
Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: email@example.com.