Just before the end of 2018, the tectonic plates shifted beneath the WTA world. No less than eight players broke up with their coaches. Including Venus Williams, ending her 11 year run with David Witt. It got me thinking that even though I only play recreational tennis, it is still an important part of my life. I want to excel even at this level of the sport. Then I realized how lucky I was to have found the perfect coach simultaneously with my re-entry into tennis.
I got back into tennis about 11 years ago. Prior to that, the last time I’d actually picked up a racquet was in 2004 while we were collecting items to sell at a garage sale. I plucked my 1991 Prince CTS Lightening out of the sale pile telling myself that I’d need it one day.
That day came in the early spring of 2008. A friend, learning that I’d played tennis from the age of 10 through my sophomore year in college, decided that I needed to be on her women’s league team. In
her angst to fill her team roster, she selectively chose from the information I gave her and ignored the fact that I had not stepped onto a court in over 20 years.
Along with commitment to the team match schedule, there was also an obligation to make time for weekly tennis practice with the team’s coach. I was all for it. Having been away from the sport for so long, I was ready to get back between the lines again. I showed up that day in a well-worn pair of shorts and a t-shirt because I’d long disposed of all my tennis attire. (Which in hindsight, I’m thankful for. I can’t imagine the looks my retro 80’s Ellesse, Fila and Slazenger wardrobe would have earned!) I also brought a bottle of water because I knew I was going to put in some long overdue work on the court. And slung over my shoulder was my tennis racquet case toting my Prince CTS Lightening. I was proud to own that racquet. It was the one that Jennifer Capriati, the rising new kid on the WTA circuit in the early 90’s, was using to slay her older opponents.
My new coach, a bronzed, fit and energetic lady with an accent I couldn’t quite place, walked over and we were introduced by the friend who had recruited me. “What the heck is that?” She asked pointing to my weapon of choice. “We’re going to have to change that.” She opened her racquet bag which housed a dozen new Head demo racquets and picked out 2 which she thought I should try out. She listened to the tension of the strings as she tapped each in the center with the other racquet head then handed me both. “Let me know which one you like the best.” She instructed.
My first thought, “Well, I don’t like either of them. I like my Prince. If it’s good enough for now, Hall of Famer, Jennifer Capriati, then it’s good enough for me. And who the heck are you anyway?” By the fact that all of this ran through my head instead of out of my mouth probably let’s you know that I usually just do what people tell me to do. I avoid confrontation better than I play tennis. But I was put off by her unsolicited advice. I took the pink racquet from her and headed to the baseline. Fortunately, some crucial fundamentals were still engrained in me as I swung her stupid racquet. After a few minutes and some helpful suggestions from her, things started to click. And the racquet actually felt good. Better, in fact, than I’d remembered any racquet ever feeling. And it made an incredible sound each time I hit the sweet spot which seemed to be a bigger area than the one on my Prince relic.
We did several drills and I kept up. She watched me and I was a little more willing to listen to her now. And then...I fell in love again...with tennis. It was in that moment that I realized how much I missed it. I loved playing tennis but over the years, had totally forgotten about it. I couldn’t even remember why I ever ended the relationship. I couldn’t be more grateful to this lady for re-introducing me to my long-lost love and making the reunion such an effortless one. Maybe she knew what she was talking about after all. Okay, she did. Turns out she was a student of the great, Nick Bollettieri. Sharing court time with the likes of Monica Seles, Jim Courier and such. She played D1 tennis at the college level and as a USPTA professional, she has made her passion for tennis into her career. Oh, and she’s from Louisiana. That’s why she sounded funny to me. I think I only know one other person from the bayou region.
Before the last drill, she came up to me and took the racquet out of my hand. “You need this one.” She said, handing me another demo. Even though I’d come to enjoy playing with the first racquet I’d chosen, I decided to trust her. With much less apprehension now and much more excitement than before, I swung the the new racquet she insisted was for me. A sleek, white and gray, power-loaded Head AirFlow 5. A beauty. After a single solidly struck forehand, I knew immediately and thought, “She so gets me."
Not everyone is as lucky as I was to find a perfect fit with a coach. But it is important to be diligent and try out as many as necessary to find someone who is more than a just a ball machine. A good coach should:
Compliment your personality - Like with any successful relationship you have to get along with each other. Your coach should understand who you are and what makes you tick. There will be times when self-motivation is low and you’ll want someone who knows how to encourage and inspire you. And isn’t scared to kick your butt.
Understand and agree with your goals - You've got to work with a coach who sees your vision and will collaborate with you to map out the best path to get you where you want to go.
Want to achieve your objectives as much or more than you do - Again, you want someone who will embolden you but who will also help you overcome limitations you think you may have and rally you to aim higher!
Be passionate about tennis - She’s got to love the sport. And love playing and teaching it. Otherwise, you’ll never get even a glimpse of your goals. Any coach you come across who seems to just be out on the courts to make a buck is an outright imposter.
Like Venus, I’ve been with my coach for 11 years now because she and I are in sync in all the ways mentioned above. And unlike Venus, (which I am in so many ways) and her breakup with her longtime coach, I can’t see my tennis future without mine.
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