WASHINGTON, D.C. – With his star pupil, John Isner, playing in the London Olympics, famed tennis coach Craig Boynton decided to tag along with James Blake to the Citi Open.
The 48-year-old Boynton, who resides in Tampa, Fla., chose a good tournament to join Blake. The American had his best results of the season, losing to second-seeded Alexandr Dolgopolov in the quarterfinals.
Many star players have stopped by Boynton’s academy, Saddlebrook Tennis, to train throughout the years, including three-time Grand Slam champion and recent Hall-of-Fame inductee Jennifer Capriati and four-time major winner and Davis Cup Captain Jim Courier.
Boynton’s primary responsibility now is Isner, who he began coaching in March 2009. Since then, Isner has become a tennis folk hero for his epic 70-68 fifth-set victory at the 2010 Wimbledon, defeated both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic and earned a spot in the top 10.
The long hours and constant travel have not diminished the former touring pro’s passion for tennis, and he looks forward to coaching Isner and Blake to continued success during this summer's hard-court season.
Q: What’s your current coaching situation? I know you’re coaching John Isner, and you’re here with James Blake, as well.
A: John and James are best of friends. The situation is I’m primarily John’s coach, first and foremost. But when they play at the same tournaments, I’ll help James, also, during the time I’m not with John. John being over at the Olympics and working with [USTA coaches] Jay Berger and Mike Sell, I was available this week. So naturally I came up with James.
Q: James seems to be playing with a lot of confidence lately. What have you guys been working on specifically?
A: James has got one way to play, and I’ve just been reinforcing that that’s the way he has to play. James’ game is going to be determined by how healthy he is. Right now his legs are under him. He can move. James’ speed is one of his biggest assets. And obviously playing without pain is a lot fun. It’s key.
Q: You said he has got one way to play. What do you mean by that?
A: Just [be] aggressive. He’s got to take balls early. He’s got to look to finish. He can’t let the ball sit. He’s got to create chaos. If there’s an opening there, he’s got to go after it. So it might look like redline tennis from a casual observer, but that’s just the way James plays the best.
Q: John Isner is having a breakout year. What’s been the key to his success?
A: It really started at the end of last year at the Masters series in Paris. The way he was playing was a bit of a glimpse to the future of his capability. He believes he can do it. He’s established the fact that nobody wants to play him, and [it’s] just going out and playing big-man tennis.
Q: James Blake talked about the camaraderie he has with the American players. From your perspective, why are they so close?
A: From as a far back as I can remember, the U.S. guys always really got along well. It’s a close-knit society, maybe a fraternity, if you will. They’re all just really good, nice guys. Any one of these guys you’d want to have as neighbors. John and James are great people. They just happen to be great tennis players. I think every generation behind them sees that. It’s how you build tradition. If someone is getting out of line, someone in the group sets them straight.
Q: What about the generation before them? Why do you think there was more of a distance?
A: Andre [Agassi] and Jim [Courier] were pretty close. Andre, Pete [Sampras] and Jim were vying for world No. 1 at some point. It wasn’t like they weren’t friendly, but they didn’t want to give too much away. They would talk in the locker room and enjoy [each other’s] company. They weren’t as close as the group now, but they were friendly.
Q: Talk about a typical match day vs. a typical non-match day.
A: Non-match days at home are one thing. A non-match day on the road is generally a day off between matches. If everything is clicking, you just go out and hit a few balls to keep your timing. If there’s something specific that needs work, you throw work at that. Match day is warming up and eating around your match time. You warm up, stay relaxed, go over the game plan and execute the game plan. And depending on what time you finish, [you get] food and cool down. It’s a real big process.
Q: What other players have you coached?
A: I coached Courier in the '90s. I’ve worked with Alex Kutznetsov [and] Jeff Morrison. I traveled a little bit with [Jennifer] Capriati. I traveled a couple weeks with Pete [Sampras]. I also worked with Mardy Fish a couple years ago. Through Saddlebrook, I was working with Mardy full-time, and then Mardy moved to Los Angeles. Then I started with John [Isner] full time [in March 2009], then with James [Blake] these past few weeks.
Q: How is life on tour different as a coach compared to as a player?
A: Well, there’s a lot more pressure as a player, obviously. Our job in comparison to everything is a lot easier than what they do. [Coaches] help manage them, help them be their eyes, understand their good habits and bad habits and keep clarity of the game plan. You may only have to do real work a few minutes of the day, but that few minutes can help keep the train on the rails. I don’t mind the travel. We get along well. The hardest part is probably being away from the family. But the family understands that I’m doing what I love.
Q: What is your advice for rising juniors and kids picking up the sport?
A: I would get around good people that know the game, that have a clear plan, a clear vision for what you ultimately want to do with your talent. And just to plan your work and work your plan. You can get caught up a lot in rankings and ranking points, but you really need to set aside time to develop. Once you get to the [professional] level, that is the fruit of all the work that you’ve done. I think that’s kind of been lost a little bit. There might be a guy that’s No. 8 in the country that has a higher upside than the guy who’s No. 1. It’s just working on the God-given talents that you have and just get to being the best you can be. John [Isner] is a great example of that. He was always second or third tier in juniors. He got to Georgia and didn’t really start doing anything until his junior year. And then, he kind of hit the ground running.