Courtney Walsh | The Australian | December 26, 2011 12:00AM
WITH the sun mid-sky on a brilliant blue day in Melbourne last week, Jack Reader strolled from the Albert Park courts looking more like a rock star than an elite tennis coach.
With his unruly dark locks barely constrained by a cap from the Port Elliott Tennis Club about 80km south of Adelaide, Reader dumped his racquet, reached for a cigarette and inhaled the scent of snags from a nearby barbecue.
It is not what would be expected from our Davis Cup coach Tony Roche, for example, but Reader is atypical in the tennis game despite being the coach of world No 15 Alexandr Dolgopolov. He would probably be unusual in any game where financial riches can be decided by a millimetre.
It is hard to imagine Reader, who described himself as a high-class bum when Dolgopolov surged into the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, identifying with the batting camp that our struggling Test players were called to across the botanical gardens at the MCG, for example.
Chatting to The Australian over a coffee as Dolgopolov slugged it out with a hitting partner, Reader discussed everything from the shark attacks in Western Australia to the brilliance of meat barbecued in South America before the talk turned to his charge.
There should be no doubting the nous of Reader, an Australian who toured the globe as a fun-loving journeyman and later worked as a pub operator in New Zealand and model for an ANZ banking commercial before turning to coaching, because he has moulded Dolgopolov into one of the most exciting players in the world.
It is not uncommon for a player to make rapid ranking inroads in a season and then stall, partly because they have more points to defend the following year but also because opponents know more of their strengths and weaknesses.
But Reader, who spent much of his childhood in Port Lincoln on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, is confident Dolgopolov will continue to rise.
“There is no defence, just attack. He still has a lot of improvement in him,” he said.
“When we first started, all I tried to do was get him healthy because as far as striking the ball goes, I can only learn from him.
“I know what he can do, and start to plot what he can add into his game, what he can use a bit more. All that comes with experience, which makes you a better player by knowing what you can do out there.”
Dolgopolov is whippet-thin. While taller than Rafael Nadal, the Ukrainian is more twig than tree trunk in build, yet Reader has no plans to send him to a gym, given the power he already generates off the ground.
“We don’t do weights — it’s only a little yellow thing he’s hitting,” Reader said. “It’s not like footy where you’ve got to give a knock, take a knock. He’d be bounced all over the show in football. But if you’re timing is right in tennis, the impact is not so bad. It’s only a little yellow ball after all.”
Dolgopolov begins his assault on the top 10 as the third seed behind Andy Murray in the Brisbane International from Sunday, and then plays for, ahem, Australia with Pat Rafter in the World Tennis Challenge in Adelaide the week before the Open, with Reader preferring its more relaxed atmosphere to tournament play in the Sydney International.
“I’m really happy with that because I have a lot of time for Pat,” Reader said.
“It will be a lot of fun. Obviously everyone really wants to win, but it’s no big deal and the crowd’s there to watch some fun tennis.”
Part of Reader’s confidence that Dolgopolov, whose most recent grand slam performance was a loss to Novak Djokovic in the round of 16 at the US Open, will not stagnate next season is due to the inconsistency of his performance through this year.
While he was brilliant on occasion and claimed a title in Croatia, he fell in the first round 11 times. Not helping was that the right-hander fell ill with pancreatitis following the tour swing through Indian Wells and Miami in March, with Dolgopolov winless through the first four clay court events as he struggled.
“He couldn’t eat, couldn’t digest. That was tough,” Reader said. “He ended up losing first rounds at Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome, and three of those are big tournaments. By Wimbledon he was spent. Exhausted.”
Dolgopolov headed to South America last year for a string of claycourt events after his breakthrough in Melbourne, but Reader said the plan this year is to reduce tournament play and focus on preparing for the majors.
Since September, boyhood friend Dimitry Brichek has been travelling with the pair as a hitting partner. Reader put Brichek through a fortnight-long boot camp in South Australia to bring him up to a level good enough to ensure Dolgopolov is working hard during his practice.
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