The Coach Who Somehow Made Serena Williams Better

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One could argue that Patrick Mouratoglou is the best coach in tennis. Sure, when you inherit an athlete with the pedigree of Serena Williams — as the Frenchman did in the summer of 2012 — you have a starting point unlike any other. But consider this: Since Mouratoglou took the reins, Williams has won eight of 13 Grand Slams she’s played in (she had won 13 total in 13 years on tour prior), and has gone 211–15 overall, winning 93.3 percent of her matches.

The numbers are staggering, particularly for an athlete who, at 33 years old, is now facing opponents who were little girls when she first won the US Open in 1999.

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What Williams is trying to do at this year’s Open — complete the calendar Grand Slam — hasn’t been done in tennis since 1988, when Steffi Graf went four for four at the majors.

The Mouratoglou approach is this: numbers don’t matter; history doesn’t count on the court. Play the ball in front of you. That’s all any tennis player can do, including Serena Williams.

“As a coach, I have a responsibility: fulfill my player’s potential,” Mouratoglou says. “Not everyone can do what Serena achieves, because she is unique, but all the players can get better, improve their rankings, win more matches, tournaments… That is the mission of the coach: make a real difference.”

That difference, Mouratoglou says, is not found through a one-size-fits-all system of training and practice. At the Mouratoglou Academy in France, where Serena went after a first-round loss at Roland Garros in 2012, tailored systems are developed with elite players.

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“There is no recipe for coaching, just a method that allows me to find one special and unique recipe per player,” Mouratoglou explains. “They are all totally different: personality, style of play, strengths, weaknesses… My strategy consists in discovering my player by getting into his or her world. Then I build a plan to bring him to the next level.”

Here, Mouratoglou reveals more of that plan — which he has used partly for Serena — and which you can apply to your own tennis game. Heck, use it for your everyday life. This guy is oozing life-coach/French philosopher. Have a glass of heart-healthy red wine while you consume his knowledge, too.

How much of tennis is mental and how do you go about coaching that side?
Tennis is a very complex sport because it is very technical, tactical, physical, and mental. It requires a lot of abilities that all interact with each other for the better or the worse. Each time I make any kind of modification in any of those areas, it will automatically have influences and consequences on the other ones.

I always have a pre-match talk with my players. The best way to have the maximum chances of winning is by having the best possible preparation. I want my player to know the opponent before the match, his strengths and weaknesses, his style of play, his patterns, his mental, his behavior on court, etc. The best way to get the victory is to not be surprised. I propose a game plan with the goal to use my player’s strength against his opponent’s weaknesses. When you start a battle, it is always necessary to have a plan as precise as possible. No room for luck.

You’ve said before that Serena’s ability to come through the toughest of matches might be one of her greatest assets. How do you apply that to the pressure she’ll face in New York while going for the Grand Slam?
It is important to have perspective. Serena has already achieved so much in her career that she doesn’t have to prove anything anymore. Plus, she has put herself in a good situation with playing so well those last years. Serena has the right to fail in the US Open, because she will have many other opportunities. And this right to fail might be her best asset to overcome pressure in this tournament.

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For someone who is getting into tennis in his adulthood or is a recreational player, what are the things that he should focus on to improve his game? 
To have a proper technique seems very important in my eyes, because it is a tool that any player needs to be able to achieve on court what he wants and needs to. I would spend enough time on the technique also to be able to execute a variety of different shots, which will give him in the future a lot of different options of play.

What’s the best workout you recommend for players to be in shape on the court? There’s a lot of lateral movement in tennis, and stopping and starting.
Movement from side to side with constant stops and starts is one of the particularities of this sport. That is the reason why I like my athletes to do both general workout to improve their cardio, their speed, and their strength, but also a lot of more specific training that can be done on court where they have to use the specific technical tennis footwork with short distances, direction changes, sprints, and balance.

Who’s the greatest tennis mind you’ve encountered? And why?
I love speaking about strategy with my good friend Martina Hingis. She is the most strategic player in the history of the game. The way she sees the court and the different options of play, the way she conceives a plan to win a rally reminds me a lot of someone playing chess.

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Name your must-dos for every tennis player, whether beginner or elite.
1. Hire the best people around you. A good coach can make you become better than you ever thought of being. It is an investment on your future.

2. Give your maximum intensity at every practice. Better a shorter, very intense practice than a longer one with less quality.

3. Play matches: competition, learning to win, using what you work in practice is a must.

4. Fight in every match. You can’t imagine how many matches you can win that you actually lose because you don’t believe enough in your ability to win and then you stop to fight.

5. Never be satisfied with what you produce. Always want to improve and do better. Once you are satisfied, you stop progressing… while others continue.

Lastly, who are your picks to win the US Open?
[Laughs.] On the woman side, I guess you have an idea… On the men’s side, I think that Novak Djokovic has a bigger chance than others. He is quite dominating.

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