Tuesday, February 7

‘It’s awkward’: how tennis stars tread tricky tightrope with coaches | Tennis

TOt the beginning of a bright new season in January, during a post-match press conference in Melbourne, Simona Halep was charged with assessing all the essential coaching decisions she had made over the years on the way to becoming a champion.“I was lucky because I found the right people almost all the time,” she said, shrugging. “It was not that difficult, let’s say. I just went with my feeling, with what I felt, so what I felt, I did. I think I made the best decisions for my career.”

Halep discussed the subject of coaching with more confidence than any other player interviewed, yet within weeks her team had splintered. In February, five months after a surprise split from her longtime coach Darren Cahill, Halep announced the dissolution of her partnership with the Romanians Daniel Dobre and Adrian Marcu. She said she would play on her without a coach for her personal growth and to “see how much I can do on my own”.

Not so much, it turns out. In Indian Wells last week, Halep had already executed a sharp U-turn, hiring new faces for her team. After only two tournaments, she said she realized just how hard it is to train, travel and play matches without a coach. Even an extremely successful 30-year-old player with 16 years’ experience under her belt is still figuring things out each day.

In most prominent sports, primarily team sports, the coaches have significant power and they control much of an athlete’s career. Many other individual athletes, meanwhile, are dictated by national federations. Then there is tennis, where the athlete is simultaneously the employer and the business itself, hiring people around them then going on to the court to perform alone.

“When I spoke with athletes from other sports, they’re shocked,” says Daria Kasatkina, a former Top 10 player, laughing. “They’re like: ‘Wow, how do you do this?’

Having so much autonomy over their careers comes with many obstacles. A common theme is the strange power dynamic of employing people, often much older than them, to instruct and criticize them. “You have to find resources to maintain your team and to be your own little company,” says Garbiñe Muguruza. “I felt the hardest was to hire people to tell you what to do, to be humble, to say: ‘If I look for the best team, the best coach, I have to listen to what they say.’ Even if I am the owner of this boat, I hire a captain that is going to guide it.”

Simona Halep in action at Indian Wells last week, where her brief experiment in playing without a coaching team came to an end. Photograph: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports

As tennis has professionalized over the years, players’ support casts have grown dramatically. It is now not uncommon for them to travel with multiple coaches, physios, fitness coaches, agents and even psychologists. Milos Raonic once referred to himself as the “CEO of Milos Raonic tennis” after employing a third coach.

“I guess to some extent it would be much easier if someone told me where I have to play, where I have to be, if I didn’t have to think about it too much,” Raonic says. “I’m constantly trying to figure out the way I can give myself the best chance to play healthy, play week-in and week-out.”

Towards the end of last year, coaching decisions became a large talking point after Emma Raducanu chose not to extend her partnership with Andrew Richardson, her temporary coach during her remarkable run to the US Open title. It led to some criticism of Raducanu as she eventually chose to hire Torben Beltz permanently.

But for some players those teenage years are unavoidably brutal. Tennis players spend their youth preparing their game and bodies, yet many feel they are left to learn about how to deal with the enormous responsibilities as they go along. Despite all his success, Andy Murray speaks with disdain about his experiences as an employer: “I don’t like it, personally,” he says. “I’ve found it difficult. It’s something that, as an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old, you have zero experience of how to deal with those situations.”

According to Roger Federer, the act of giving out salaries at such a young age is strange in itself. “It’s awkward at the beginning. Being young, paying salaries, it’s not very usual. That’s why I enjoyed the time I had support from the federation and I didn’t have to worry about these things,” Federer told me in 2018.

Murray argues that players should be able to receive some help with making major career decisions early on in their careers. “It just feels a bit odd, employing people at 19 years old that are 20, 25 years older than you, that have way more experience and way more knowledge than you,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like that’s how it should be. It feels like it should be the other way round or that there should be someone – a performance manager, or whatever – to help take the onus off the individual.”

With this unusual dynamic come relationships that must be maintained yet are not always easy to. “Maybe now you’re paying the salary [you think]: ‘I don’t like it, I’m going to get rid of him,’” said Federer. “But it’s just so wrong and I was lucky I never thought that way or felt that way. I always looked at it as, well, they’re older, they’re more experienced, they know what they’re talking about.”

Naomi Osaka concurs: “I feel like it’s really important that we all communicate regularly because we want to make sure we’re on the same path, we kind of see the same goals,” she says.

With it being all too easy for players to blame others, exert their power and make emotional decisions when things aren’t initially going well, patience is required. “You have to be really patient,” says Kasatkina. “But it’s tough because we have tournament by tournament, points here, points there. You defend something here, you lose something there. Everything is so fast and you also want everything fast.”

Over the past year, Murray has been caught up in the coaching carousel as he split with his longtime coach Jamie Delgado, then underwent multiple trial periods before rehiring Ivan Lendl. “Something I have struggled with over the years, really, [is] communicating how I feel about certain situations and then being worried about whoever the person is who you’re working with, how they’re going to take that and how they’re going to respond to that,” says Murray.

Andy Murray with Ivan Lendl in 2016
Andy Murray with Ivan Lendl in 2016. The pair have resumed their partnership once again. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

Such miscommunications only lead to perhaps the most dreaded aspect: firings. Some coaching splits can be seamless, as evidenced by Félix Auger-Aliassime, who describes his parting of him with his long-term coach Guillaume Marx in 2020 as “probably one of the toughest decisions I’ve made in my young life”. Since then, however, he has grown and reached the Top 10

A classic example of the drama that can follow occurred at the US Open in 2019 when a 21-year-old Aryna Sabalenka announced a split with her coach Dmitry Tursunov after losing in singles. A few days later, she penned a dramatic letter on Instagram imploring him to return. By the end of the week he stood by her as she lifted the US Open women’s doubles trophy. They split a few months later.

“I also had some bad experiences earlier in my career when I finished with coaches,” says Murray. “I would try to have conversations with coaches and it didn’t go well. When you’re 18, 19 that can influence how you go about those situations later in life when those experiences potentially have not gone well and it’s been a bit messy.”

The subject of splitting simply brings Kasatkina to laughter: “It’s like breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s pretty tough. Sometimes he doesn’t expect or you don’t expect [it]. Most of the time players finish their cooperation, but sometimes also the coaches don’t want to continue to work. Most of the time it’s not finishing on a good note.”

All of these complications don’t even begin to address the unique obstacles involved for women’s players, with so many employing male coaches and team members. “There are very different dynamics and especially being a female that’s in charge of a team and boys on a team and most of the time a female that is younger than most of the team,” Maria Sharapova told me in 2018.

“For the girls it’s tough to go to the man and say ‘you’re fired’,” says Kasatkina, laughing. “It’s really tough. But sometimes you have to work out how to do it. Of course, it’s best to finish your cooperation as, maybe not friends, but on good [terms]. You can’t always do this unfortunately.”

Kasatkina, 24, has already been a professional player for eight years. Born in Russia, her career ambitions led her to move to Slovakia alone at 17 and she now resides in Spain. Still, she vigorously shakes her head on the subject of whether she feels like an adult after assuming all that responsibility for so long.

“Still not. Not in career, not in life. I can be serious but I think there should always be space for a kid because tennis is a game. I think kids are playing games the best,” she says. Then she laughs.


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