David Macpherson had a successful playing career on the ATP World Tour, claiming 16 tour-level doubles titles and climbing as high as No. 11 in the ATP Doubles Rankings. But perhaps the Australian has been even more impressive since as a coach.
Macpherson worked with doubles legends Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan for more than a decade (2005-2016) before accepting the job as head coach of the men’s tennis team at George Washington University. However, Macpherson still gets to some tournaments to work with the Bryans and John Isner, who on Sunday became the oldest first-time winner at an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event.
ATPWorldTour.com caught up with Macpherson to find out how he balanced working with Isner and the Bryans, as they both made incredible runs in Miami, how differently they prepare for matches and what the key was for all of them to triumph.
How does it feel to have coached both the singles and doubles winners at an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event?
Just so proud of all three of them. So happy for all three of them. For Mike and Bob it had been a little while. Despite winning 114 titles it had been a little while since they’d won one. For John it was his first-ever Masters 1000 shield, so that was extra special. It was just a weekend, a great two weeks of magical times.
How were you able to balance working with all three guys during such a big event?
The schedule worked out really well. [Tournament Director] James Blake was terrific with the schedule. He did his best to work with the ATP to see that the Bryans and John weren’t playing at the same time. My coaching partner, Dave Marshall, who has been doing most of the traveling with the Bryans all year, really, he was there with me in Miami. So when we occasionally had a practice conflict, he was able to help me. I certainly had a partner down there making life easier for me.
How careful were you to make sure you had individual time with all of them?
Oh yes, definitely. John needed to work on his things for singles and his next opponent. The Bryans had to work on doubles things and for their next opponent. So we did two practice sessions every day, getting different sparring partners to try to provide the best, most productive practice. It all fell into place. But like I said, my partner Dave Marshall has been doing most of the traveling with the Bryans and he was key to making it all run smoothly.
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It must be tricky to work with both a singles player and a doubles team at the same event, so how do you approach your time with each when they can be quite different skill sets?
With the doubles practice, many times, you get two good sparring partners or doubles players and we do doubles drills, play doubles points and work on the shots that you need for doubles. And then with John, you get a different sparring partner and do singles drills and the things you need to play well in singles. It’s just a little bit of a different type of practice with the drills we do, depending on who it is. They’re different, but they’re the same, too. So much of it is the mental side of the game and in singles and doubles the same principles apply. Relaxation, confidence, trust and all of those things, one translates to the other (singles to doubles) pretty much the same way.
Speaking of the mental side, the Bryans had won 36 Masters 1000 titles and John was going for his first. So how differently did you approach speaking to them ahead of the finals?
It’s like two completely different situations. Mike and Bob had won so many, that winning Miami was something they knew they had done before. But when you haven’t done it for a while and you’re almost 40 years old, you want to grasp the opportunity while you can, so it’s a difficult mental challenge. For John, he’s won a lot of titles, but he hadn’t won a Masters 1000, so that was a difficult mental thing for him. The key was for both to focus on the task at hand, just focusing on playing the best match that they could, trying to play the smartest match they could based on the opponent they were playing and not to think about the result. Thinking about the result could get in the way sometimes.
Speaking of results, John hadn’t had the best of starts to the year before arriving in Miami, and he credited some dinners with you for the turnaround. What do you think helped him turn his year around?
He hadn’t been playing badly, but he hadn’t been playing as freely and having as much fun on the court as you need to to play well in the big moments. That was something we really worked hard on mentally before the tournament, just trying to talk through that and understanding what he needed to be thinking about on the court to help him relax. So, I think we really did a good job. We talked through it together as a team and when he was out there this was the calmest that he’s played and the most aggressively that he’s played in the big moments. He handled adversity really well this week. When he was in trouble, he didn’t panic or let the frustration get the better of him. So that was really the big difference. Now he knows what could be accomplished if mentally he’s right and now he has the confidence [to win the big events] and hopefully there will be more big results like that in the future.
Just how big of a difference can it make to play relaxed and freely?
It’s a cliche and it sounds so simple, but it’s true. We all know that when we’re relaxed, the talent flows through our body, even recreationally. If you’re out there having fun playing golf and the expectations are down, it’s amazing how well even a hack like me can play. If you’re tense and you care too much and you’re thinking about the result, if you think about losing too much and you freeze up, your footwork goes, your timing goes, your thinking goes. Really, you can’t overstress the importance of being relaxed. I think you have to look at Roger [Federer]’s renaissance in tennis to his No. 1 recovery to see how he’s been able to master those emotions. We’re trying to follow, emulate, copy or at least learn from how he’s done it.
How different were your pep talks with the Bryans and with John before their respective finals?
Everyone’s different. John and I do most of our preparation the night before, just talking and going through the possibilities and everything, the scenarios and tactics. And then on match day we really just focus on being relaxed and keeping that relaxation factor high. Mike and Bob, we do a little bit more the day of. We talk about the strategy a bit more before the match. Like, the hour before, we go over what the tactics are and what the mission is so they like a bit more right before the match, they like to go over it and delve into it, get themselves psyched up. If you watch them play, you know Mike and Bob are just a bundle of energy out there, bouncing around, whereas John’s more about just being relaxed, methodical and in rhythm. So it’s just two different styles of going about it.
Now you’re going back to George Washington University where you’re a second-year head coach. With everything you’ve done in the sport over the years, how do you go from working to a college team to going to one of the biggest events on the Tour and helping those guys win a title and how much does the college coaching help?
I appreciate how great a job college coaches around America do. It’s obviously so much more than just coaching tennis. I have a great appreciation and respect for college coaches, because you really have to multi-task and you’re in charge of a lot of different things and players and there’s so much that goes into it. In the pros, you just have one or sometimes two clients, so it’s certainly different. I have a great assistant at GW who held down the fort for a couple of weeks while I was away, managing practice… It gives you a little bit more of a freshness, I suppose. I really appreciated getting down to Miami to work with Mike, Bob and John. It’s challenging when you do it week after week after week, to keep being inspirational and keep coming up with new ideas. John has two other awesome coaches, Justin Gimelstob and Rene Moller, so we’re all just combining to try to do the best job we can for John. And like I said, Dave Marshall is with the Bryan Brothers, so it’s really working well. I really get extra fired up when I get back out there on the pro Tour and hopefully it bodes well for the college guys as well.