”If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” – Henry David Thoreau
“When I arrived in the professional tennis world with innovative ideas ten years ago, people thought that I was crazy, an idealist and a dreamer,” Patrick Mouratoglou recalled in his 2007 book, Educate to Win. “But that did not stop me. Convinced of the validity of my method, I persevered until the day I would be able to prove the effects.”
Although the hyper-ambitious Frenchman began producing junior world champions—Gilles Muller (2001) and Marcos Baghdatis (2003)—he proved that he’d truly arrived as an elite coach of pro players in 2006. That year, the colorful Baghdatis, who had trained at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy for eight years, upset No. 3 Andy Roddick, No. 8 Ivan Ljubicic, and No. 4 David Nalbandian to reach the Australian Open final.
Despite resistance from the French Tennis Federation, which informed him that it trained the best players and he could have “the second- and third-stringers,” Mouratoglou wasn’t deterred. His reputation and list of world-class clientele grew steadily and included Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Aravane Rezai, Jérémy Chardy, Laura Robson, and Grigor Dimitrov. Mouratoglou’s burning desire to coach a Grand Slam champion was finally fulfilled last year in a most unpredictable way.
Serena Williams had suffered a shocking first-round loss to No. 111 Virginie Razzanno at the 2012 Roland Garros and was so distraught she didn’t leave her hotel room for two days. Since that debacle came just four months after an Australian Open fourth-round loss, Serena sought answers to try to revive her once-brilliant career. She got them—technically, tactically, and psychologically—from Mouratoglou, who invited Serena to train at his academy near Paris.
Kindred souls despite their extremely different backgrounds—he born into a wealthy family in Paris, she raised in a violent, crime-ridden black ghetto in Compton, a city in Los Angeles County—they hit it off immediately. They were both on a quest to be the best: Mouratoglou the best coach of his era and Serena the best player in tennis history.
Since they joined forces 17 months ago, Serena has won four of six Grand Slam events plus two Olympics gold medals, one in singles and one doubles with her sister Venus. She has also captured 12 other tournaments and racked up an astounding 109-5 record.
Serena says she shares “something special” with Mouratoglou. Affectionate Facebook photos have sparked speculation their relationship may be romantic as well as professional.
In this revealing interview, the charismatic, 43-year-old Mouratoglou talks candidly about how he achieved his dream to become a top coach despite starting out as a self-described “poor Don Quixote.” He also explains how he and his superb team turned Serena’s career around, discusses his famous academy and its most talented juniors, and analyzes several topical tennis issues.
You were a promising junior player in France at 15 when you suddenly quit tennis and didn’t pick up a racket for seven years. Why?
My parents have a business background. They like sports, and tennis is definitely one that they really love, but they are amateurs. I started playing because I was at the tennis club with them every weekend. But when it started to become more serious for me, they became anxious about my future, wondering if it was a reasonable choice to jump at that opportunity, not being able to measure my real potential and having no idea about the way to fulfill it. They decided that it was a better choice to stay in a discipline they knew and felt comfortable with, in terms of a future for me.
So they would not give me the conditions to practice professionally, and I had to go to normal school. Therefore, I decided to stop playing. I was very disappointed, and it did not make sense to me to play without having a chance to succeed.
Seven years later, I was working with my father in his company and I took the racquet again to play with a friend who asked me to. I got a shock! I suddenly realized how much I loved this sport.
The next abrupt turning point in your life came when you were 26. You were being groomed to take over your father’s prosperous renewable energy company when you told him your passion was for something else. What happened then?
I worked for six years with my father in his company. I started doing basic things the first few years, then I grew in my position, and finally I had the responsibility of several companies of the group when I was 25 years old. Then my father asked me to become his partner. He told me that I was ready to go to the next level and start creating new businesses with him.
I felt very honored by his words. I answered straight away: “I enjoy what I am doing here a great deal. Thanks a lot for trusting me and offering me this, but I do not think it is my destiny. I think my destiny is tennis. I missed the first chance a few years ago and I don’t want to miss this one. I do not know yet exactly what I am going to do, but I will start a tennis academy because I feel this is my way.”
You told USA Today: “When I said to my friends I want to become the best coach in the world and win Grand Slams with players, they said to me, ‘You are crazy, you don’t know anything,’ which was true.” If you didn’t know anything, why were you so confident you could, or even would, succeed?
I always think positively. I always consider that I can do whatever I want to do in my life. It is just a question of time as I am so motivated, so enthusiastic, and I always believe. When my friends gave me that answer, I was shocked but I thought: “Poor them, they are so wrong. Of course I will make it and they will be surprised. They just do not have the right attitude.”
By the way, I think that my attitude is one of my strengths in my job. I always believe in my players. I often help them to be more confident. For me, my player is always the best, and I am convinced that they can achieve anything.
How much of your motivation to produce champions is to derive a vicarious satisfaction from their success that you could not achieve in your own tournament career? And is that kind of motivation a plus or a minus?
For sure, my story with tennis started with a big frustration. But I always consider that frustration can be a huge motor. All the bad things that happen in your life, you can use in your favor. That was how I dealt with my frustration. I thought: I will help other people do what I did not have the chance to do. I couldn’t be the best as a player, so I will be the best as a coach.
In your poignant, instructive book, Educate to Win (Amphora, 2007), you write about how much Marcos Baghdatis’ reaching the 2006 Australian Open final meant to your career and reputation: “In the beginning, the entire tennis industry wondered how a highly respected coach like Bob Brett, one of the greatest tennis coaches of this era, could associate his name with mine, a poor Don Quixote with grand, almost indecent ideas. I had almost no credibility. I knew that, and yet, alone against the powers that be, I firmly held on to what I believed. I knew I would succeed. Despite the amazing results I had obtained with junior players, my credibility had not improved. And suddenly all the work I had done over ten years was finally being recognized. The entire tennis world suddenly realized I was there, that I existed and that they had to recognize my work.” Please tell me more about Marcos’ development and breakthrough and your own development into a leading coach by challenging established ideas and deeply ingrained prejudices in the general public.
I first saw Marcos Baghdatis in “Les Petits As” in Tarbes, a kind of World Championship for under 14-year-old players. I liked his game and his attitude on the court and thought this young guy could make a very good professional player. I got in touch with his father who was determined to send him abroad because in Cyprus, Marcos had no chance to succeed. That is how everything started. He joined my Academy, and the young Cypriot became European Champion under 16, and then Junior World Champion in 2003.
We had a very strong relationship at that time. I was like a second father to him and he was like a son.
No one believed in Marcos at that time on the tennis market. When I talked to manufacturers, they all told me that he won’t be a top player.
In 2006, he finally reached the final of the Australian Open beating Roddick, Ljubicic and Nalbandian and losing to Federer in four sets. Tha
t same year he reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon and became No. 8 in the world. He was aged 21.
The story of a young Cypriot leaving his country aged 13 to pursue success and the charisma of Marcos and his great game made a big boom in the whole tennis world. The name of my academy became famous, so was my work for the first time.
At the start, to the entire tennis world, I didn’t exist. I had no career as a player, I wasn’t well- known as a coach, and I was running an academy with ideas that were different from those [Nick] Bollettieri and tennis federations around the world. I was preaching for individualizing of work in all the coaching areas.
If I can make an analogy with another sport to illustrate my thoughts, I would take the Formula 1.
In that discipline each car has a solid motor, which provides an incredible speed and amazing aptitudes for its pilot. In order to be the more efficient and consistent throughout the race, the motor needs adjustments and details here and there, either very small or more important, all of which can make a difference. A high-level player has already a strong basis of shots, game ... but in order to be better and more efficient, our role is to work on the details, which are different for each player, and that can make the difference and bring him to the next level.
I was young, free, and I was not afraid of anyone. I was saying out loud what you are not supposed to say out loud, especially in the tennis world which is so conservative. Once Marcos showed the entire world that my system was working, after all the results I had obtained with junior players, my status changed and I became highly respected.
Please tell me how Serena and you got acquainted during the French Open last year and what your early conversations were about.
After Serena’s defeat in the first round of Roland Garros, she stayed in Paris for a few days, and she contacted me to train. She went to my academy in the Yvelines. She asked me what I thought of how she played, and asked my opinion about her game and the way she should develop. I gave her technical comments on what I had seen during her the match that she had lost to Virginie Razzano, and what I had noticed continually during training. She told me: “Okay, let’s work on it.”
So the next day we started working on some technical points of her game. When I went to Wimbledon with my player Grigor Dimitrov, she asked me if I would help her for this tournament. She said: “I want to win Grand Slams again. I am ready to do whatever it takes in order to achieve that.”
So we started to work. She then won Wimbledon and two gold medals at the [London] Olympics and the US Open. At that point there was no question about interrupting the collaboration that was working so well.
You have likened your coaching style to that of a doctor who is both a specialist and a generalist. What exactly did you mean by that?
It means that the coach is at the center of the entire process regarding the player’s development. The coach has to understand more than tennis technique and tactics. He also needs to understand psychology, to have a good idea of the physical training, of nutrition, medical issues, etc. Everything that has to do with the player, he needs to understand.
Even though the coach has specialists around him, which is necessary, he should always be the one to advise the player or to take decisions for him because he knows where the player stands at in every area, and there are, of course, interactions among all the disciplines.
“Great parents have shown us the way, notably in professional tennis,” you wrote in Educate to Win. “That is why for almost ten years now, I have not agreed with the theories of coaches or of certain Federations. I am convinced that the essence is not found in the sport but in the mental qualities of the athletes. Mental qualities are acquired at a very young age and directly depend on the education a child’s parents have given them.” Who are the great tennis parents—past and present—and what are the most important and valuable mental qualities they inculcated in their children?
For me without any discussion, the best tennis parents of all time are Richard and Oracene Williams. They educated two No. 1 players in the world and multiple Grand Slam event winners. Luck has nothing to do with that. I also respect a lot, the work of Martina Hingis’ mother [Melanie Molitor] and the mother [Yuliya Maleeva] of the Maleeva sisters [Manuela, Katerina, and Magdalena] who all reached the top 10.
Those parents raised their kids with a goal and their eyes constantly focused on that goal. They taught them the importance of working hard, and of being very professional on and off the tennis court.
What Richard and Oracene Williams added to those attributes was the self-confidence they instilled in their children. That is what Mr. Williams’ theory was based on: A tennis match is won thanks to a few major points here and there. The stress peaks during those crucial moments. The more self-confident player of the two will have more serenity and will deal better with her emotions in those moments.
In Educate to Win, you expound on the “7 Commandments of Coaching.” What are the seven commandments? And how have they helped you coach Serena and other players?
I created my method year after year from coaching professional players as well as kids at my academy. The original version of seven commandments in my book evolved into “10 Commitments of the Coach,” and it explained how to think, organize, and analyze in order to become a winning coach.
I won’t describe all of them, but I will give you two examples. The first and most important commitment is titled “I am the one responsible for the results.”
When you live on the tour or go in tennis clubs and meet the teachers, you meet some coaches who blame their player or his entourage for the bad results. They forget the most important rule: coaches are paid to make results. Complaining is not a coach’s attitude.
When you consider yourself responsible, then you look for solutions. When you blame others, you just find excuses for not being able to achieve results. And if you think a little further, players are often in the same kind of situations: either they complain on the tennis court and in a way express why they are losing, or they fight and look for solutions to win.
When you accept the Rule No. 1, you have the right attitude, and this is the basis for success.
I used to work at the very start of my career with a young female player who was around No. 500 in the WTA rankings. She was tanking a lot of matches, which is probably one of the worst things that a player can do to a coach. It would have been easy for me to complain about that and said, “Look, however good my practice sessions are, since this player is tanking the matches, she cannot progress in the rankings.” I did not complain about that. Instead, I thought: “I have a mission which is to find a way to stop that destructive and inefficient attitude.”
One day, she played a match in front of most of the players of my academy and completely tanked the match. One hour later, we sat at the table to debrief about that match as we always did. She felt humiliated and hated herself for what she did.
I spoke to her in those terms: “I don’t care how it looks, but it is not the right way to improve your ranking, and this is what we want. It is my mistake. This should not happen. I probably did not prepare you well enough for this match. Next time I’ll be better because I want you to win, but you will have to help me.”
She felt that I got her back, that I was caring, that I was not blaming her. She couldn’t tank anymore after that because she felt this would have been too dishonest to me and because she wanted me to be proud of her. Then she rose very fast in the rankings.
Rule No. 4 is “Enter into the player’s world.” If you are named CEO of a new company, in the first few months, you won’t make any major decisions. You will need to understand many things before doing that like: How is the general market doing at the moment in that area? Who are your competitors? What is the philosophy of the company? What are its resources, its strengths and weaknesses, and its history? Who are the people working for you? Once you have a clear overview of the situation, then you will be able to start making decisions and direction changes if needed.
When a coach starts to work with a player, it should be exactly the same. The challenge is to make him or her win in the short term while you are collecting all the information needed.
Each player has his own history, his own conception of the game, his personal language because the same word doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone, his medical issues, his relationship with his parents and friends, his conception of the relationship with a coach and an idea of what a coach can bring to him or her, an attitude on the court, a type of game, and strengths, and weaknesses. It takes a long time to collect all the pieces of the puzzle. When some are missing, it is risky to make a decision. I’ve always taken the time and made sure I had all the information needed in order to act with efficiency and get the results that I expected.
“If you just stick to what she says, you’d be wrong most of the time,” you told USA Today. “You have to understand what’s behind [it] all of the time. You have to anticipate. You have to learn another language.” How would you analyze Serena’s complex personality? Also, how is she different from the way some people perceive her?
She is a lady. You know ladies, they often want you to guess what they would love to have or what you can do for them. The other aspect of her personality is the ability that she has to be very feminine, nice, and funny in her personal life, and also to be able to click once on a tennis court to become a real killer.
After Serena won her first French Open title in 2002, her results declined there. She reached the semis only once in her next seven Roland Garros appearances, hitting her nadir with a first-round loss to No. 111-ranked Virginie Razzano in 2012. What were your thoughts and Serena’s thoughts going into Roland Garros this year?
When we arrived in Roland Garros, I knew she had the ability to win the title as she came having won all her matches on clay in Charleston, Madrid, and Rome. We did not think about the previous years. The past has to stay in the past. There was a new page of Serena’s history that was being written so it was important to focus on the present.
What went through your mind when Serena, who had lost four consecutive quarterfinals at Roland Garros, was serving down 2-0 in the final set against 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, and she had to stave off three break points before she pulled out a 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 quarterfinal victory?
I cannot say that I was very confident at that moment because the match was in a way escaping from her, but I know what Serena is capable of doing. She was so motivated to win, she had the level to win and she is a champion. Sometimes, when everyone thinks that the match is lost, she is able to suddenly raise her level because she refuses to lose. So I thought, “Well this game is very important, but even though she loses it, she can suddenly click and win four games in a row.” So with Serena, you always have to expect the unexpected.
The great untold story of 2013 was Serena’s phenomenal, unbeaten clay court season in which she won five tournaments—Charleston, Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros, and Bastad—going 28-0, while dropping only three sets. Before that streak, clay had always been by far Serena’s worst surface. What did Serena do differently or better this year on clay?
Well, first of all, winning Roland Garros was a real goal for us this year. It was the tournament that had remained most elusive to her.
I was sure she could really play her best tennis on that surface even though the [2004−2012] results were not reflecting that. Serena needed to be more consistent to win on clay, because that surface forces you to be more patient. Her fitness should allow her to play more shots than what she does most of the time on hard surface.
I think that she did really improve in those areas and that paid off.
“Every part of Serena’s game has improved in the past year,” Tennis Channel analyst and former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport said during the French Open. “That’s such a remarkable thing to do in your 30s. Most players start to go downhill then. It’s been quite the opposite for Serena.” That’s a terrific compliment! Is Davenport right? And if so, how do you explain it?
It is simple to explain. Serena is an unbelievable champion. She never has enough. She always wants to improve, to become better, to win more. When you have that kind of mentality, you are just different from anyone else.
You’ve said Serena is a completely different player compared to when she was 20, the year she didn’t enter the Australian Open and then won the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. In what ways has Serena changed the most as a player?
If you look at videos of Serena when she was 20 years old, you really see a different player. Her shots were not as strong as they are now, but she was coming forward much more. She was very fun to watch.
Your academy offers every surface: clay, grass, and two types of hard courts—something very few other tennis academies, clubs, and centers offer. Why is this important both for aspiring, young players and for world-class pro players?
We do not have grass courts at the academy. But it is true that we have all other surfaces. It is very important for professional players to train on the surface on which they will play in tournaments. For young people, the clay court is the best area to learn. It requires you to master tactics, it prevents points being easily acquired. It requires you to work the point in order to earn it. It therefore teaches good values at a high level.
Many coaches have been impacted by learning from their own coaches. Which coaches have shaped your approach to coaching? And specifically, how?
I was lucky to have had the best teachers. For the first six years of my coaching career, Bob Brett worked with me at my academy and taught me the key points of my job. Then I had Peter Lundgren and Tony Roche work with me at the academy, people that I really appreciated. I learned as much as I could from each of them, and I hope they also learned something from me too.
But if I have to say, the coach who inspired me the most is Jose Mourinho, the soccer coach. His approach, and his professionalism, in the way he prepares the matches is always inspiring for me. I believe soccer coaching is much more professional than tennis coaching. In my coaching, I am more inspired by soccer coaches.
Your website (www.mouratoglou.com) says the philosophy of Mouratolglou Tennis Academy is unique. How and why is your philosophy unique?
My philosophy is unique because I was the first one to be promoting a personalized plan for each player 15 years ago when all the academies’ and the [national tennis] federations’ philosophies were based on the volume of players.
It is also unique because throughout the years I developed my own method that is getting results with all the players I worked with. My method is based on adaptability, and that is what makes it unique.
Why has France, a nation with a glorious tennis heritage, produced only three Grand Slam singles champions—Yannick Noah, Mary Pierce, and Amelie Mauresmo—and only five major singles titles in the past 30 years?
France has a great tennis culture. The French Tennis Federation is a very strong organization that is very efficient in scouting and offering tennis solutions to every player who has potential. The competition system is one of the best in the world, and the French coaches are really good specialists for technique.
On the other hand, the French culture and the French mentality are not very adapted to produce champions. French people in general lack ambition, and get satisfied very fast with what they have. That explains why France develops so many good players, but struggles to create champions.
When asked about being romantically linked with you, Serena recently said she doesn’t “mix business with pleasure.” However, she also said she shares “something special” with you? What exactly is your relationship with Serena?
I believe her answer is great. Why do you want me to give another one that obviously won’t be as good as this one?
Serena recently said, “I’ve always played for winning. It’s almost as if I needed to win. Now I play for fun. It’s a fun sport.” Since Serena is extremely competitive, how did she make this major attitude change? What role did you play in this change?
I think Serena wants to change the way she sees tennis. She is the biggest winner of all. She has this culture that was transmitted by her parents. This is really a part of her. She can’t get rid of it. For sure she enjoys the sport more and doesn’t practice with the same state of mind as before. But she will always have that killer instinct on a tennis court when it comes to competition because she is too competitive and refuses to lose.
After winning her fifth US Open and 17th Grand Slam title, Serena said, “My goal is to get as many majors as I can, while I can, and stay healthy.” The Open Era leader is Steffi Graf with 22 major singles titles, and the all-time leader is Margaret Court with 24 majors. Do you think Serena will break their records?
I believe it is too early to speak about that because we are just so far away from those records. Many things can happen before then. At the moment, Serena is healthy, she has the motivation; but in life, no one knows what can happen. The closest records, the ones of Evert and Navratilova, are beatable for Serena. She is not that far from them, but Steffi’s record is really far away. Serena has to win six more Grand Slams to beat her and she is already 32 years old. With Serena, everything is always possible, but it’s much too early to think about it.
You coached immensely talented Grigor Dimitrov from March to June 2012. What areas did you focus on the most? Dimitrov fared poorly at the majors this year, losing in the first round twice, the second round once and the third round once. What happened? And what is your evaluation of the 22-year-old Bulgarian and his chances to become a top 5 player and win major titles?
Grigor is first and foremost a fantastic personality. I love the man first. We spent a fabulous time together. He has the ability to play great tennis, but I think he is not there yet on a regular basis.
He has so much potential in his game, but he doesn’t always make the right choice of shot. We worked hard on this. My goal was to stabilize him a bit and make him play more rationally and more efficiently. Talent [alone] does not always allow people to win.
He made significant progress during this period. I think he is not so far from his best in terms of level. However, right now he has difficulty producing consistently high-quality tennis because he too often overplays shots.
He is not yet mature, but I’m sure he will succeed in the future. He needs to feel perfectly confident with his coach in order to be effective because he is a very emotional and sensitive person.
Serena recently said she “hates” on-court coaching because “it takes away from the integrity of tennis.” She added another reason: “Well, they have that in regular tournaments, just not in Grand Slams. As for me, I don’t want anyone out there on the court with me. It’s my moment. I grew up when tennis was just about you. I’m going to leave the sport with it just being about me.” Are you in favor of on-court coaching? And why, or why not?
I agree with Serena. One of her great strengths through all these years is her ability to find the solutions to win, even when she is in trouble. She has always been able to do it by herself, which is what we expect from a great champion. It is therefore logical that she does not appeal to on- court coaching during games. She is very professional in her preparation. We always do a debrief pre-match where we set goals for the match. But when the match starts, it’s her time.
On-court coaching is a very good idea for coaches, but not necessarily for players. Coaches have the opportunity to change the course of a match. I’ve done it several times, so it’s very challenging and very rewarding. This gives us yet more impact on the final result of the match. However, it creates dependency on the part of the player who tends to rely more on the coach and doesn’t learn to find solutions to win. So I think on-court coaching is a handicap for the development of the tennis player.
After Serena showed excellent poise during her 7-5, 6-7, 6-1 victory over Victoria Azarenka in the 2013 US Open final, she explained how she tries to attain the perfect mental game: “If I’m too competitive and I’m too excited, then it doesn’t go well for me. I get too tight. Or if I’m too relaxed, then I don’t have enough energy, and that doesn’t work out, either. So it has to be the perfect blend.” What are the keys for Serena and other players to attain the perfect mental game so they can play their best tennis?
All the players look for their state of excellence during matches. No one always finds it, but with good mental preparation, you can get mentally ready for the match most of the time. Then it is about being able to keep it throughout the match.
Serena needs to be competitive to perform optimally during matches. She can’t be relaxed. She feels that sometimes she becomes too competitive and it doesn’t work out, but I think that she loses her way when she thinks too much about winning and forgets her match goals. This explains sometimes the ups and downs. But I also believe she made real progresses in this area during the last year and a half because when she sometimes loses her way, she reacts very fast and comes back to the good state of mind.
Last year David Taylor, Australia’s Fed Cup captain, who has guided former world No. 1s Martina Hingis and Ana Ivanovic and now Samantha Stosur, told The Sydney Morning Herald: “I think the limitations in women’s tennis are mental. They all play great. It’s just what they believe they can do in the big moment. Henin was better at it; the Williams sisters are better at it than their peers, and they’re the ones who have won most of the Grand Slams in the last decade. It’s very unusual in men’s tennis to have ranking fluctuations like that of [former world No.1 Dinara] Safina, for example.” Do you agree with Taylor?
I agree that limitations in tennis are mostly mental. I would also say that, in life, most people have the ability to do much better if they believed more in themselves. This is not a woman thing, but a human thing. Most of the players don’t believe they can beat Serena, but I would say the same for men against Rafa.
Now, about the fluctuations, I don’t agree completely. Big fluctuations also happen in men’s tennis, even though in both cases, they are unusual. The case of Dinara is very special as she had a very strong relationship with her coach and lost her way when they ended their collaboration. So I would not make a general rule with this one example. Most of the current top 10 players have been in the top10 for a few years, such as Wozniacki, Serena, Sharapova, Azarenka, Errani, Kerber, Li Na, and Kvitova.
During Serena’s 6-1, 6-2 demolition of light-hitting Sara Errani in the 2012 US Open semifinals, Martina Navratilova analyzed, “Where Serena has improved the most is her footwork. She is really setting up early and quickly with her feet.” Do you agree?
I completely agree that Serena improved her speed a lot on the first two steps. She reacts faster and uses that time to move up to the ball. This gives her the ability to accelerate the game more often, and that give her opponents less time.
Correct footwork is very important in order to perform well. I always pay a lot of attention to footwork, and I really make my players work on it a lot.
In February, you rightly criticized the highly flawed WTA ranking system, saying: “Nothing against Azarenka, who had an unbelievable year too, but it’s a bit shocking to win two Grand Slams, the Olympics and the Masters plus some other tournaments—Serena won Madrid, Stanford, and Charleston too—and to be still number three.” What do you suggest to produce accurate and fair rankings?
I’m not an expert when it comes to the ranking system and the allotment of points. However, I believe it was shocking that Serena was ranked No. 3 in the world in September 2012 after she had won two Grand Slam titles, the Olympics, Madrid, and Charleston.
To rectify this problem, I suggest two reforms. First, if a gold medal at the Olympics comes just after winning a Grand Slam in terms of prestige and achievement, they shouldn’t give you only 685 WTA points, but at least 1,500. Second, the difference between winning a Grand Slam title and reaching a final is huge. However, the points difference is not—2,000 for the winner and 1,400 for the finalist. There should be a much bigger difference.
More generally, the public should understand pro tennis rankings better. Rankings should be based more on the quality of results and less on the quantity of tournaments. Players who win Grand Slam tournaments should reach the highest rankings, instead of the players who play the most tournaments.
To illustrate the injustice in the WTA rankings, three women [Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, and Caroline Wozniacki] have ranked No. 1 with no Grand Slam titles, while in 2012 Serena won two major titles, plus the Olympics, and ended the year ranked No. 2.
In April, Nadia Petrova told Sport Express magazine in Russia: “Serena is such an important figure for our sport. There really aren’t that many really outstanding personalities in women’s tennis. For example, Agnieszka Radwanska is playing well, but still is not the best. Vika Azarenka, admittedly, not all see her as the leader of our tour. Kvitova, Stosur, Kerber—great players. But Serena is only comparable to Maria Sharapova.” Do you agree?
This question has more to do with marketing than with sports. If you look at the records, of course, none of the current players can compete with Serena. If you consider that element, and Serena’s charisma, she is a sports legend. So, of course, I agree with Nadia Petrova. Tennis needs players like Serena, Roger, and Rafa.
Serena has an apartment in Paris. She is steadily improving her command of French, and she’s further embracing things French by taking an art class. How popular is Serena in France?
Serena’s popularity has increased greatly this year because she won Roland Garros. The fact that she did all of her on-court interviews in French was very much appreciated by the French public, and her popularity in this country rose considerably in the past year.
Before the start of the 2013 Wimbledon, noted coach Nick Bollettieri said, “I believe for Roger Federer to win this tournament, he has to come forward a lot more. I don’t believe that a one-handed backhand today has the chance, match after match against two-handed players. When you’re up against Djokovic with that two-handed backhand, Murray with the two-handed backhand and then Nadal with that heavy, heavy crosscourt forehand, the one-handed backhand will probably come behind.” Do you agree with Bollettieri that the one-handed backhand is a liability today? If so, do you think it will become extinct, except for use as an approach shot, drop shot, defensive shot on the run, and an occasional change-of-pace shot?
No, I do not think the one-handed backhand will disappear. Nadal actually causes enormous problems for players who use one-handed backhands, but Nadal is an exception. When you see the quality of [Stanislas] Wawrinka’s or [Philipp] Kohlschreiber’s one-handed backhands, I do not think it is a handicap for players, more to the contrary. Each type of backhand has its advantages and disadvantages. At the moment, the one-handed backhand is doing quite well. At the last US Open, four of the eight quarter-finalists had a one-handed backhand—[Tommy] Robredo, [Mikhail] Youzhny, Wawrinka, and [Richard] Gasquet.
Do you work closely with Sascha Bajin, Serena’s hitting partner for the past six years? How much credit does he deserve for Serena’s great success during the past 16 months?
Sasha is a great guy, and it is motivating to have him on the team as he is always very pumped and enjoys his work. What is important in a team is that everyone plays his role, focus on his task, and be efficient. I am in charge of the coaching side, and I share that with Serena’s father as he built her as a tennis player. Esther Lee, the physiotherapist, is in charge of Serena’s body. Mackie Shilstone and Sebastien Durand handle the fitness side. And the chef [Lauren von der Pool] that travels with us is in charge of the nutrition.
Sascha’s tasks are logistics, and being Serena’s hitting partner. Of course, he has played a role in Serena’s success as he is a great hitting partner and that pushes Serena to play stronger. His contribution is equal to that of any other member of the team.
After Serena defeated Victoria Azarenka in the 2013 US Open final in front of a highly supportive crowd, she told them, “I definitely felt the love out there today.” Although Serena’s misbehavior in the 2009 semis and 2011 final at the US Open intensified her public image as a polarizing, controversial champion, do you think she is finally winning over many of those American fans who used to dislike her? And if so, why?
The American public loves a winner. Serena may have been controversial in the past, but she is a great champion. Eventually, people will remember, above all, the great achievements of champions. [John] McEnroe was also controversial, and he is now loved for what he represents to the American public. People have learned how to understand and appreciate him better. I feel that Serena is now much more loved than in the past for the very same reasons.
In his new and acclaimed book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, David Epstein writes: “Studies of elite athletes in Australia and Canada have found that those performers who go on to be the best try a variety of sports—and learn a range of skills, like running, jumping, and throwing—and then start to focus on a particular sport as teenagers.” Considering that most of today’s champions started focusing on tennis at a very young age, what other sports do you recommend for tennis players, and how long should they play them?
I agree that other sports help the global development of the abilities that are necessary to master tennis. Most of the sports that use a ball are helpful. For example, soccer and basketball develop the reading of the ball trajectories, the direction changes in the footwork, the acceleration on short distances, but also the cardio-vascular system and hand-eye and foot-eye coordination.
Young players can start playing two or three sports at the same time, but they have to stop two of them between the age of 12 and 14 when they need to increase the volume of their tennis training.
Please tell me about the most talented young players training at your academy and why you find them especially promising as potential pro players.
I will focus on one girl and one boy. Yulia Putintseva, from Kazakhstan, has trained with us since she was 13. She did well in the ITF juniors by reaching two Grand Slam finals at the US Open and Australian Open. She is 18 years old and reached the top 100. She is a very special player because she practices and competes with extreme intensity. She doesn’t always control her emotions well yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before she reaches a very high level.
Enzo Couacaud is a French national junior champion, who is around 20 in the ITF junior rankings. He’s also started playing pro tournaments and is currently No. 462 in the ATP rankings. I like very much the calmness and maturity he shows on the court. His backhand is one of the best I have seen. Enzo also has very good potential.
What changes in tennis technique and tactics do you foresee during the next ten years? And how are you taking these changes into account in your teaching and coaching?
Tennis has evolved considerably over the last 15 years because of the slow surfaces. Pure attackers disappeared, and now tennis is dominated by the players who cover the court exceptionally well and know how to be aggressive by taking measured risks.
Today the serve and [serve] return have an important place in the game. The tennis of tomorrow will probably need to be more enterprising with players trying to exploit every opportunity to take the game on their terms by attacking the second serves of opponents. Of course, I take into account all these parameters in my training goals.
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