This is a post I have wanted to do for a long while. With tennis season starting this week, and the first major about two weeks out, I wanted to recognize some of the folks that do not get the headlines, but keep the sport going, the coaches. Particularly the coaches of the top players. They have the toughest job in the sport. They are not trying to build their pupil’s game from the ground up, they are trying to find that extra 5-10% that will give their player an edge over other top players. It is a tough thing to find. Here is a look at these unsung heroes and heroines.
Sven Groeneveld- This 50 year old Dutchman has been at it a long time. After retiring as a player, he coached Mary Pierce and Monica Seles to the top of the game. He spent the early and mid-2000s working for the Adidas player development program. This was highly lucrative. During this time, he coached Serb Ana Ivanovic to her first (and so far only) Grand Slam title at the 2008 French Open and led Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki to the number 1 ranking. In late 2013, he accepted the role of Maria Sharapova’s full time coach. This was a pretty gutsy move. Sharapova was in the midst of the second long injury layoff of her career. No one knew what the future held, but he took a chance to work with the most intense player on the planet. His faith was rewarded when he brought Sharapova the 2014 French Open crown. His passion and energy for Maria’s work is amazing as he lives and dies with her all over the world. As pictured below, I have never seen him sit down during a match. He continued to stand by the Russian after another long injury layoff from July-October 2015. He has added more safety to Sharapova’s massive shots. He has her healthy and motivated for 2016.
Jerome Bianchi- The man behind Groeneveld in the white hat is Sharapova’s physical trainer, Jerome Bianchi. This former French rugby player has the task of keeping Sharapova fit. This is a real challenge. Sharapova’s serving shoulder was surgically repaired in 2008, before he came aboard. By all accounts, that limits what she can do on the practice court. She has to save her best for the match court. Since Bianchi joined Team Sharapova with Groeneveld, I have not seen her lose matches due to her fitness… at all. Sharapova praises his energy publically whenever she can, affectionately referring to him as “Turbo”
Severin Lüthi- Roger Federer is arguably the greatest player to ever live. He has been through several coaches throughout his remarkable career. This list includes the former coach of Pete Sampras Paul Annacone and legendary player Stefan Edberg. However, there has been one constant on Team Federer since day 1, Swiss National Team coach Severin Lüthi. He has toured with Federer since 2007, but was sort of a consultant before that. Either as the head coach or one of many, he has always been there, making tweaks to Federer’s game to keep him fresh. In recent years, the goal has been for Federer to shorten points by coming into to the net more. Look, Federer is 34 now, an age where most tennis players are long retired. However, Federer is still a threat to win any tournament he enters. It is reasonable to conclude Lüthi (pictured below holding practice balls for Federer) deserves some credit for that.
Patrick Mouratoglou- This Frenchman pictured below assumed the coaching duties for Serena Williams in the spring of 2012. Coaching someone as talented as Serena may sound like a cushy gig, but he came along at an interesting time. Serena had not won a major since Wimbledon 2010, a lengthy drought by her lofty standards. She missed most of 2011 with illness and injuries. She was inconsistent in early 2012. Rock bottom came at the French Open with her first round ever opening round defeat at a major. Williams, a part-time Paris resident began training at the Mouratoglou Academy. Within days, the coaching arrangement was formed. Mouratoglou became the first person outside the Williams family to take on a significant coaching role with one of the sisters. Credit Serena for realizing she needed a fresh set of eyes. She instantly became more engaged and went through fewer bad patches of play on court. Since Mouratoglou took over, Serena has won eight majors and an Olympic gold medal. Not to mention, the fact that Williams is not talking about retiring despite being 34 years of age. Those results speak for themselves.
Marián Vajda-This 50-year-old Slovak has been keeping a watchful eye on world number 1 Novak Djokovic since 2006. Meaning he has guided Djokovic to all 10 of his major titles and his Olympic bronze medal. To my knowledge, he has never given an interview. So, no one knows that much about him, but I will say a few things. Djokovic has a reputation for being somewhat of a clown on the tour. However, Vajda was able to get him to take the sport seriously, get fully fit, and develop that killer instinct necessary to win majors. However, he did not take Djokovic’s lighthearted personality away. Also, at a time when Federer and Nadal were winning everything and no one could break through, not only did Djokovic breakthrough, he began to dominate his two main rivals. Vajda was a decent player and was able to break into the top 40 any early 90s, despite not having loads of natural talent. That kind of “grinder” is the perfect balance to Djokovic. He began splitting coaching duties with Hall of Fame player Boris Becker two years ago, but rarely misses a tournament.
Judy Murray- For my money, the most interesting story in tennis is that of Judy Murray. Not only is she a woman who has left an indelible mark on the male-dominated arena tennis coaching, but long before she was a tennis coach, she was a mom. The two roles just happened to intersect a bit. She put tennis racquets in the hands of her two young sons Jamie and Andy when they were toddlers. Rather than ship them off to some fancy academy, she taught them the game herself in rural Scotland. 20+ years later Jamie is a world-class doubles player and Wimbledon champion. Andy is a two-time major singles champion (including Wimbledon) and Olympic gold medalist. Both boys have long since moved on to other coaches, but Mom is always watching the matches as if she is out there battling with them, in a way she is. I also cannot overstate the importance of the fact that the Murray brothers are homegrown Wimbledon champions. The UK is obsessed with tennis, but did not see one of their own win their major for 70+ years before the Murray brothers. The British Tennis Association was so impressed with Murray’s work with her sons that they put Ms. Murray in charge of developing Britain’s next wave of female tennis talent. Since then, she has had two British girls break into the top 40 under her watch. She has said that she prefers teaching the game to kids and stopped coaching on the women’s tour last year. She now travels around the world with her boys and their coaching teams full-time.
I am not sure how many people will read this piece, but I have so enjoyed writing it. There are dozens of other coaches who work just as hard to see their players succeed. People like Darren Cahill and David Kotyza. I will leave my readers to Google those names. Professional tennis is a year-round sport. Both top tours are full go 11 months a year, there are tournaments six of the seven continents. Just the traveling and figuring out which tournaments a player should play and not play has to be a daunting task. While I’m sure these coaches and all others are compensated quite well, it is not a glamorous job. They are away from their families 11 months a year, and their names are not the ones on the trophy. Most of the time, all they can do is helplessly watch as their player battles and hope the non-televised drudge work put in on the practice court pays off. They have to take the highs and lows stoically. If they get too up or down, the player will do the same. Then, all involved parties are in trouble. They have to know what their player needs to hear at any given moment. Next time you watch a player win a tournament, notice the first people they thank are their support team. That is no accident. So, here is to the ultimate road warriors in all of sports as they get ready to tear up the globe in 2016. First stop, Australia.