Bob Brett, who adhered to Harry’s Hopman’s coaching philosophy in a 46-year career, passed away on Tuesday morning due to cancer aged 67. The Australian worked with Grand Slam champions such as Johan Kriek, Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic and Marin Cilic, as well as many national associations, and was a friendly mentor to hundreds of coaches globally. In November 2020, he was unanimously selected by his peers as the recipient the 2020 Tim Gullikson Career Coach Award.
Brett, who focused on patience, a strong work ethic and commitment to the player, was immersed in top-level tennis from an early age and became a devotee of Hopman, the legendary Australian coach, who was a mentor until his death in 1985. Brett, always thoughtful and softly spoken, was an emotionless presence from his courtside seat. The Melbourne-born coach taught his players about life, as well as how to hit a forehand, and maintained positive relationships with each of his charges well after their partnerships ended. Renowned for his lengthy counting drills, which restarted when a player made a mistake, Brett opened an academy, which bears his name, in San Remo, Italy in 2002.
Asked about his coaching style by ATPTour.com in 2008, Brett admitted, “I benefitted from my exposure to Harry Hopman. I didn’t copy him, but a lot rubbed off on me. Work and repetition is the key in a player-coach partnership. A player must be mentally tough, with the ability to execute under pressure. It’s always a battle of their character against the other player’s character. You can guide then, provide them with examples and talk about history, but in the end you need to bring out the qualities a player has. Also, you must have an all-seeing eye for detail.”
In 1965, when attending the Victorian and Australian Championships, which were both held at Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club in Melbourne, Brett watched courtside and tried to get Hopman’s autograph. A gentleman he was sat beside asked if he wanted to meet George MacCall, who was in his first year as Davis Cup captain of the United States. Brett leapt at the chance and the next day went to meet MacCall and immediately became a ball boy to Arthur Ashe, Cliff Richey, Clark Graebner, Herb Fitzgibbon and Jim McManus during their training sessions.
“After some time, Arthur asked if I’d like to hit some balls,” Brett told ATPTour.com. “It lasted only for a few minutes before Mr Hopman came out of the clubhouse to stop it. He told Arthur off, confirming I wasn’t a member and it was unfair on other boys. The next year, I asked Mr Hopman if I could pick up balls for the Australian Davis Cup team, which he agreed.”
While Brett’s own playing career was short-lived, by 1971, upon the insistence of his father, he took two jobs: one as a postman from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., then another from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. But at the age of 20 in 1974, Brett wrote a letter to Hopman, who was working at the Port Washington Tennis Academy, located on Long Island, New York. “Hopman told me to come along whenever, but he didn’t tell me about the paperwork involved in getting a visa,” remembered Brett. “I got in on a tourist visa and worked alongside Mr Hopman for $200 per week, which I calculated to be $6.25 per one-hour lesson. He told me to watch Tony Palafox, who would be John McEnroe’s long-time coach, a young McEnroe himself, Vitas Gerulaitis, Peter Rennert, Mary Carillo and Peter Fleming.”
The Australian listened intently and watched Hopman’s every move, his technique and the two-on-one drills that sharpened a pupil’s speed, reflexes and movement. He also watched on as Hopman would feed once and if a player made a mistake, he would feed a ball to the same spot again to see if a player made a technical adjustment. Only then would Hopman, a captain-coach to 22 Australian Davis Cup winning teams between 1939 and 1967, speak to the player. “Having a conversation with him was always illuminating,” said Brett. “I initially sorted out buckets of balls for Mr Hopman, removing the dud balls, but I soon learnt that every player needs something different.”
In December 1978, upon the recommendation of Hopman, Brett took charge of the first Rossignol team: Andres Gomez, Ricardo Ycaza and Raul Antonio Viver, on a six-month trial. “Gomez was around No. 240 [in the FedEx ATP Rankings at the time] and in the next six months he got to No. 68,” said Brett, who also worked at Hopman’s academy in Saddlebrook, Florida. “Rossignol then asked me to build a full team and after consulting Hopman, who recommended six players only, I worked with Johan Kriek, who won the 1981 Australian Open, Fritz Buehning, Gomez, Tim Mayotte, Tim Wilkison, Viver, Jose-Luis Clerc and later Mats Wilander, Guy Forget and Henrik Sundstrom. No one wanted to train with each other in the first year, but when Mayotte came on board, he didn’t mind who he trained with and that changed the dynamic. Peugeot sponsored the group and gave a car to the player with the most match wins at the end of each season. So that, naturally, helped them play against each other more and more.”
Brett, who also worked with Harold Solomon, John Lloyd, Peter McNamara and Paul McNamee in their late 20s, found his star rising and when Gunter Bosch resigned as Becker’s coach after the 1987 Australian Open, a new opportunity arose at the age of 34.
Becker, explained in his 2004 autobiography, The Player, “When Bosch left I had to find a new coach, but Tiriac was against my choice, the Australian Bob Brett. ‘Him? What’s he got that you could possibly need? He’s never been in a Wimbledon final! How could you have any respect for him? But Brett was tough – exactly what I needed. He made it very clear what he expected from me: willingness, discipline, willpower, punctuality. Three hours’ training in the morning, three hours in the afternoon. ‘What you do afterwards doesn’t interest me.’ It was a pure business relationship. Brett treated me like a grown-up.”
Brett enjoyed his greatest success as Becker’s full-time coach from November 1987 until February 1991, shortly after the German won the Australian Open and became World No. 1 on 28 January 1991. Becker immediately bought into Brett’s work ethic and readjusted the German’s service grip early on. “We played golf and chess and Boris was inquisitive,” said Brett in 2008. “He was very good at being able to execute was I told him. His understanding of opponents was very good too and I encouraged him to work hard, but also the value of recovery.”
They won the first of 18 tour-level titles together at the 1988 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells (d. Emilio Sanchez) and Becker enjoyed the best season of his career in 1989, when he captured the Wimbledon (d. Edberg) and US Open (d. Lendl) crowns, and developed his powerful game on multiple surfaces. Brett, who woke at 5 a.m. each day and went for a run, was a completely different personality to Becker, but the pair fitted together to reach 26 tour-level finals (18-8 record) during their three-and-a-half-year association.
Brett was soon hired by Goran Ivanisevic’s father, Srdjan, in 1991 and fine-tuned the Croatian’s groundstrokes and volleying. “Goran was a superb athlete, he loved his country and wore his heart on his sleeve,” Brett told ATPTour.com. “He didn’t say a word in our first meeting, which I thought was odd, when I was trying to ascertain what Goran wanted to achieve. I didn’t touch his serve, but wanted to channel his energy in a positive way” In a four-year partnership, which ended at the end of the 1995 season, Ivanisevic won nine titles from 17 tour-level finals, with runner-up finishes at Wimbledon in 1992 (l. to Agassi) and 1994 (l. to Sampras). Ivanisevic got Brett a Centre Court ticket in July 2001 when the Croatian won Wimbledon with a five-set victory over Patrick Rafter in the final.
Brett then coached Andrei Medvedev to the 1999 Roland Garros final, took Nicolas Kiefer from outside of the Top 50 to World No. 4 and assisted Mario Ancic, with the Croatian’s parents driving 20 hours one-way from Split to San Remo for an initial three-day visit. In the summer of 2004, Ivanisevic bought a promising 6’3” 15-year-old to San Remo. Brett’s nine-year partnership with Marin Cilic, saw the Croatian develop technically and powerfully en route to the 2005 junior Roland Garros title and World No. 9 as a pro. When Cilic captured the 2014 US Open crown, Brett was one of the first people the Croatian called when he returned home.
The Australian coach also spent up to 20 weeks of the year working in Japan. He was supervisor of the Japanese Davis Cup team from 2003 to 2006 and coach at the ‘Shuzo Challenge Top Junior Camp’ from 2000, where most of the top male players in Japan were coached by him and Shuzo Matsuoka. Until recently, he continued with the camps and the male national junior team. He was a high-performance consultant for Tennis Canada between 2006 and 2008, and Brett played a large part in remodelling training camps and performance programmes as Director of Player Development for the British Lawn Tennis Association in 2014 and 2015. He was also the first principal of the Bob Brett/now Patrick Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Montreuil, an eastern suburb of Paris from 1996 to 2002.
Brett, the recipient of the Tim Gullikson Career Coach Award in the 2020 ATP Awards, passed away at 2:15am on Tuesday, with his two daughters, Katarina and Caroline, by his bedside.
Bob Brett, tennis coach, born 13 November 1953, died 5 January 2021.
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