I am in the fortunate position of being at the coaching coalface on the WTA Tour. At the time of writing, I am at the China Open in Beijing, where my charge, Su wei Hsieh of Taiwan, has just lost a dramatic three setter to Caroline Wozniacki, after being a point from winning the match. As coaches, we all know the trials and tribulations of the role, so I have no need to elaborate further! Being out there on the Tour, one of the common questions I get asked is “What happened to Australian tennis?”, along with the follow up “How can it be revived?”
In my view, the answer to the second question, and the key to our renaissance as a great tennis nation, is surprisingly simple. My mantra is “Liberate the army of coaches”. The article herein looks at this doctrine.
As a young bloke, I was fortunate enough to be in the locker room when Rod Laver (“Rocket”), not so long after being the #1 player in the world, came off court at the Sydney Indoors, a super event run by a great promoter, the late Graham Lovett. Waiting for Rocket was his long-time coach and mentor, Charlie Hollis, who is rightly attributed in arming Rod with a flowing topspin backhand, at that time unheard of for left handers. The conversation went along these lines.
Charlie opened with “Rodney, what were you doing out there on your first serve? How many times have I told you to throw the ball up? You’re only 5 feet nothing and you’re trying to hit it like you’re over 6 foot tall!” Rocket said “Yes Charlie, I suppose…..” Charlie didn’t let him finish “I drove all the way from Canberra to watch that rubbish? Don’t waste my time again”. I think possibly the greatest player ever got the message, and you can bet his ball toss was different for the rest of the tournament!
What is revealing is the special relationship built on mutual trust and respect, a bond to be precise, that existed between Rod Laver and his ageing mentor, Charlie Hollis. No need for niceties. Charlie cut to the chase right away.
If you look back through tennis history, most successful players can name the one person who made the difference…..like Charlie Hollis for Rod Laver, or Ian Barclay for Pat Cash. Or Pete Smith for Lleyton Hewitt, the late ‘Nails’ Carmichael for Pat Rafter and Darren Cahill, or Barry Phillips Moore for Mark Woodforde, just to name a few.
Not that you need to win a Wimbledon title as Aussies regularly did. Every player has their own journey, but the point is, all players have a far greater chance of reaching their potential if they enjoy a fruitful one on one bond with their coach.
It’s fair to say that coach may come from anywhere, and may pop up at any moment, but it’s equally true that the most likely person to play that role is your coach in your formative teenage years, just like Ian Barclay was to Pat Cash. Well, at least that’s how it used to be until the Tennis Australia (TA) juggernaut decided to engage in and endeavour to monopolise the coaching industry, including directly employing coaches itself and designating which talented players they work with.
What is the consequence of the Tennis Australia approach? At the junior level, how many players have been lured away from their private coaches into “the system” and placed under the care of a “better” coach? Worse than that, the players have been subjected to the TA coaching merry go round. Several of our most talented players in recent years have been shunted from one coach to another, under the direction of our governing body. At Wimbledon this year, I saw an Aussie player, part of the TA system, with the fourth coach in 12 months. I don’t need to tell you that a mix of inputs like that, however knowledgeable and well meaning, is a recipe for disaster. I don’t blame the individual coaches for accepting a very attractive employment option but, as our results demonstrate, the TA player development strategy is fatally flawed in my view. After all, systems do not produce champions, people do. As a consequence, and I’m not alone in saying this, we’ve pretty much lost a generation of players who have not transitioned to the Tour. For each one of those players, there’s one of you coaches out there who’s hurting and bemoans that fact, and who wished the outcome had been different. For the sake of Australian tennis, this must not continue.
The experience I have had as a coach is revealing. Early last year, I was in discussions in relation to working with a talented Australian female player. It was early days and nothing had been consummated. However, wind of it reached TA. During an unrelated discussion I was having with a senior TA official, he said to me “I’ve heard that you might be working with such player. I’ve spoken to our guys and we’re not approving that”. Simple as that. In other words, the player’s financial coaching support package would be pulled. I replied “That’s where you’ve got it completely wrong. It should be the player’s decision, and mine, but not Tennis Australia’s!”
Shortly after that rebuff, I was asked by Su wei Hsieh if I could help her at Wimbledon. Being from a nation where the Federation has no money, she has no support, and has to do it all on her own. At 25 years of age, her ranking at that time was so low that she didn’t even get in qualifying for the singles, and she proceeded to lose first round in the doubles. I asked Australia’s highest ranked doubles player, Paul Hanley, if he would play mixed doubles with her. Paul obliged, and they went on a terrific run all the way to the Wimbledon semi finals. That was just the boost she needed. Just over 12 months later, Su wei Hsieh has won 7 singles tournaments, including 2 career first WTA titles, as well reaching the semi final of doubles at the 2012 US Open. In that time, her singles ranking has gone from 343 to 25, and she’s very likely to be seeded at the Australian Open. Why am I working with a Taiwenese player? Because she asked me and I was in a position to do so. It was a decision made not by a Federation but by Su wei and myself, coach and player, without interference. As it should be.
There are literally hundreds of you coaching around Australia who would walk over hot coals for your best talent, and who used to dream of sitting in the player box at Wimbledon, as I was lucky enough to do. If only you could believe it is remotely possible. But I suspect you know from bitter experience that you will lose your player to the “system”. After all, how can the parents turn down the inducements of heavily subsidised coaching, travel and other support? You don’t stand a chance really. You know you’ll never get the support to traverse the journey with your player but, worse than that, gone is your player’s best, if not only, chance of making it.
I even hear private coaches buying into this refrain. A Melbourne coach recently said to me “I’ve got a really good kid who I love working with, but I know I’ll eventually have to let him go to a better coach in the system”. I said to him “Stop right there. Don’t ever put yourself down like that again. You are doing a great job with that boy. Don’t be concerned that you think you do not have the knowledge to coach him at the Tour level. That may be true right now, but I guarantee you that by the time your kid is playing on Centre Court at Wimbledon, you will have acquired all the knowledge you need and, anything you’re missing, you’ll know who to seek out. The best chance for your kid to make it is if you guys go on the journey together”.
I say to any player (and parent) “You ditch your personal coach at your peril. It may not be perfect but if your coach believes in you and unselfishly goes the extra yard, you’re already well on your way”. So I say to you, the coaches “Do not give up the dream of sitting in the player box at Wimbledon”. A trusting bond between coach and player is the fundamental building block of a player making it to Tour level. Our governing body sees it differently, but hopefully one day they’ll be held to account.
I say the revival of Australian tennis has as its cornerstone the liberation of the army of coaches. Men and women just like you producing clusters of great players. I urge you to hang in and believe in yourself, and start dreaming again.
Best of luck,