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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, April 29, 2015

 
Patrick Mouratoglou

Coach Patrick Mouratoglou: "Serena is nervous because she is human. But she is also the player that deals best with pressure."

Photo credit: Christopher Levy


Building Grand Slam achievement playing in a pressurized box 78 feet long can challenge even the most experienced champions.

Serena Williams has played some of her most dynamic tennis after age 30. The world No. 1 credits coach Patrick Mouratoglou with an architectural assist in helping her rebuild self-belief, knock down the walls of pressure that can box her in and create a blue-print for each opponent she faces these days.

"[Patrick] has helped me a great deal," Serena said after winning her 19th career Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in February. "There's some times when a players doesn't believe in themselves. Even me, I feel like, Gosh, I'm not going to be able to beat this person. I'm not going to be able to play well. I don't feel confident in this shot today. I don't feel confident in that."

Since Williams began working with Moratoglou in 2012, she has won six of her 19 Grand Slam titles as well as the Olympic gold medal.

"He really stood up this past two weeks, even hitting and doing things that he's never done before," Williams said of Mouratoglou after regaining the Melbourne title. "Just really encouraging and giving me great strategy on the court before every match, wonderful strategies, what to do, what to expect, as well as how to play a better game, not for today but for tomorrow."

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The 44-year-old Mouratoglou has spent years trying to build better players. Now, he's constructing his dream academy on the French Riveria.

Construction on the Mouratoglou Academy-Nice began earlier this month. The 34-court complex is scheduled to open next spring. It will feature indoor and outdoor courts, a school, training and fitness center, a pool, spa and host both elite pros and juniors.

We caught up with Mouratoglou for this interview where he discusses his coaching philosophy, Serena's biggest challenge as she continues her climb up the all-time Grand Slam leaders list and his vision of how the game will evolve over the next five years.

Tennis Now: Patrick, what was the inspiration in creating the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Nice? Is your primary goal to develop juniors into pros or focus on elite pros like Serena?

Patrick Mouratoglou: Since 20 years, I am coaching and running my own tennis academy. I love both. Helping Serena reach her goals and win Grand Slam is incredibly exciting for me, but I also love to develop juniors and work with my team bringing more people to loving tennis. I came to Nice because that was the place where all of the needs of that new Academy could be fulfilled. I had the opportunity, under the best weather conditions of France, next to a big international airport, in French Riviera, the best part of France, build the infrastructure of my dreams.

I want to give the opportunity to more people to reach their goals in tennis whether they want to become pros, get a scholarship in an American university, or come for a week training just to improve their skills. At Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, there are professional players like Serena and Novak Djokovic, as well as juniors from all ages and all levels, as well as people who just want to improve. All together 130 players full time.

TN: Coaches ranging from Jose Higueras to Emilio Sanchez to Darren Cahill have spoken about the importance of developing young players on clay to learn point construction. What is your philosophy on using varied surfaces to develop players and how much importance do you place on training on clay?

Patrick Mouratoglou: The most important quality of a professional player is the ability to adapt to any condition. I agree that clay is the best surface to learn to play and develop because it is the most demanding surface. On it, one has to learn strategy and build the points in order to win it. It is then easier to come to any other surface. That is the reason why we have a majority of clay courts—16 outdoor and 4 indoor—at the academy. But as players also need to be able to compete on any other surface, we have hard courts—9 of them—and 8 indoors.

TN: When you were coming up as a junior player, who or what inspired your passion for the game?

Patrick Mouratoglou: At a very early age, around 6 years old, my parents were spending their weekend at the tennis club because they liked to play and enjoyed the atmosphere of it. Therefore, I spent a lot of time there with them playing with other kids. I immediately fell in love with that sport and very quickly I started to stay on the tennis court around six to eight hours every Saturday and every Sunday. Nobody ever pushed me to play. That was my wish, my goal, my choice, but my mother was supportive enough to drive me to my tournaments during many years. I knew tennis was my path since the first day. At 15 years old, as my parents didn’t wish a tennis career for me, I decided to stop because I hate not to be competitive and I clearly wouldn’t have the conditions to succeed. After working six years with my father in his business, I decided to stop to go back to my first love, tennis, but creating my own tennis academy.

TN: A common criticism of American men's tennis is we no longer develop complete players, that American men play a predictable, big serve- forehand style and can't defend the backhand. Do you buy into the notion that some nations have a characteristic playing style. French players are known as flashy, Spanish players known as super-fit fighters, Czechs as pure flat ball strikers? In American tennis, how much of a stylistic limitation is related to a system or is it ultimately up to the player to develop the complete game?

Patrick Mouratoglou: I agree with that vision even though there are exceptions. I think it is a combination of three factors.

The first one is the system and each country defines its own one with a way to train players insisting on parameters that are different in each system. For example, the Spanish system insists on hitting many balls on clay, with a lot of physical training for many hours. This helps developing a type of game that you need to be super fit and a big fighter to become a top player.

The second is the culture—if the country also promotes a certain kind of behavior. For example, the French mentality gives a lot of credit to people who are gifted rather than promoting winners or fighters. That is one of the reasons why French tennis is full of talented but non-winner players.

The third is the influence of the national champions. It is always easier for kids to identify themselves with the best player of their country. That is the reason why they are influenced by the type of best player of their country. If the Czech champions hit flat, the kids will be keen on adopting the same style of play.

TN: What achievement or moment working with Serena gives you the greatest satisfaction?

Patrick Mouratoglou: When I started with Serena, I thought that it was a great honor for me to work with such a champion. She already had achieved everything possible in tennis, won all four Grand Slams and reached No. 1 in the world. My action as a coach would have a meaning if I could really help her do better than in the past. I am satisfied because 2012 and 2013 were some of the best seasons of her career. She broke all her records and came back to No. 1. She won 30 percent of all her Grand Slams in three years with me and spent half of the weeks at No. 1 also during that period, and she is still at that spot. This is my greatest satisfaction because it was her goal: Come back to No. 1 and win as many Grand Slams as possible.

TN: What has been the biggest challenge working with Serena and what was the most demanding or difficult moment of the partnership?

Patrick Mouratoglou: The biggest challenge is to keep her competitive at 33 years old. She has been on tour for 17 years, so that is a real challenge. It is always difficult to work with her because the pressure is much higher than for any other player. People expect her to win all the matches she plays, and any defeat is considered as a failure. The most difficult moment is after a loss because she is very disappointed.

Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams
Photo credit: @SerenaWilliams

TN: I often see you taking notes during her matches. What are you writing?

Patrick Mouratoglou: A tennis match is an incredible source of information. It is the moment when you see what works well after being worked during practice as well as what needs to be worked on and improved. I also write comments about the strategy that I decided to propose to Serena, what works well or not, what she does or not. I also always discover new information about the opponent because their game is constantly evolving and this information will be useful when Serena will play them again.

TN: Serena sometimes consults her notes during matches. What do her notes contain?

Patrick Mouratoglou: This is a secret. The only thing that I can tell you is that I always make a speech to her before every match. After that, she takes a paper and a pen and writes down a few things that she wants to remember during the match.

TN: How important is video analysis to your coaching? How do you use it?

Patrick Mouratoglou: Technology in general is a great help for us as coaches. Video gives us the opportunity to detail technics, to review the strategies of the players. The statistics given by different new technologies so as Babolat Play, Playsight or SAP, will bring our job to a new level.

TN: What is your position on the on-court coaching rule? Are you in favor of adding on-court coaching in Grand Slams?

Patrick Mouratoglou: I think that there are pluses and minuses concerning the on-court coaching. I think that it has a positive impact on the show. It is great for people watching TV to hear the coach’s advice to his player and to measure if it works or not. By the way, as many of them interact in their own language, it would be good to have the English translation. On the other hand, even though it can be useful short term for the player because it can help her win the match, I believe that it is negative long term for the players who then tend to expect the solution from the coach instead of learning to figure out solutions to win when things get tough.

TN: Why did Serena and you decide to make changes to the support team? How have new additions to the team helped?

Patrick Mouratoglou: Esther, the long term physiotherapist decided to stop working on tour after many years. She felt like it was time for her to change and come back to a more “normal life”. I regret her [departure] as she is a very sweet and positive person that was bringing joy to the Team.

Concerning Sascha, it is between Serena and him. The positive thing is that we have been able to maintain a good stability even though two long term members of the Team changed and I am happy that it did not affect at all the results as Serena did not lose one match since then.

TN: Serena is known as one of the mentally strongest players in the game. At the same time, during the last year she's admitted being very nervous at Grand Slams and returning to Indian Wells. As a coach, how do you prepare your player knowing the pressure on her will always be greater than on her opponent?

Patrick Mouratoglou: Serena is nervous because she is human. But she is also the player that deals best with pressure. She is able to lift her level like no one while playing the big matches. My role is to feel her mental state and influence it to re-equilibrate it with talking to her. That is one of the reasons why I make a speech to her to her before every match.

Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams
Photo credit: Christopher Levy

TN: Players ranging from Agassi to Lendl to Navratilova have noted the game changes every five to seven years. Where do you see the game going in next five years? Will spin become even more of a factor?

Patrick Mouratoglou: It is always difficult to guess the evolution of the game. The current generation of top players: Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, are great in covering the court and making a very little number of errors. They are fantastic in defense, but also know how to dictate.

I believe that the next generation will add the capacity to take the ball very early. We will come back to being more aggressive but with the same ability of making very few errors. At the Academy, we teach players to use topspin in order to have more margin over the net and limit the percentage of mistakes, but at the same time, move up to the balls in order to accelerate the game.

TN: Do you coach players to play the ball or the opponent?

Patrick Mouratoglou: I think you have to be able to play both. Concentrate on your own goals: Dictate the game and play with your strengths, but at the same time, know how to use them to hurt the opponent’s weaknesses.

TN: What makes a good coach? How much of your work is technical, tactical, psychological?

Patrick Mouratoglou: Some coaches are very good technicians. Some others are specialists for tactical and strategy. Some others base their job on the mental side. I believe that a good coach should be able to master all those matters. Because we do not know in advance the need of the player, we have to be able to use the right tool at the right time. If we don’t have it, we can’t help the player. I think also that nothing is 100 percent technical, tactical or mental. All the problems we have to solve is a combination of factors. That is why we need to be able to activate those three matters but also the physical.

TN: When you look at young players like Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, Eugenie Bouchard, Garbine Muguruza, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend, Belinda Bencic, whose game really excites you? Of the younger women players who do you think is will have the best long-term success?

Patrick Mouratoglou: I think that there is a very interesting young generation coming up with many good players with exciting games. Most of them play an aggressive tennis with strong and powerful shots.

TN: Some say standardizing surface speeds have created kind of a generic baseline game. Do you agree?

Patrick Mouratoglou: I totally agree with that analysis. The loss of the serve and volley players is a consequence of that decision.

TN: Coaches like Edberg have advocated a more distinct difference between major surfaces, like when the Wimbledon grass was faster and produced a lower bounce Do you see any changes in surfaces or surface speeds in future and do you think that is something tennis should consider?

Patrick Mouratoglou: Unfortunately, I do not think, that we will come back to how it was in the past. I regret it. Tennis is and should remain diversified. Different styles of tennis, personalities, ages, etc… Killing diversity is not something that will make the tennis become a bigger sport.

TN: When you were a player which players did you like to watch play? Now that you're a coach, who do you like to watch play?

Patrick Mouratoglou: As a player I loved the serve and volley players as I was one. My favorite ones were Yannick Noah, Pat Cash and Patrick Rafter. Now I am more in the process of analyzing, and I find all of them interesting for various reasons. For example I love to watch Roger because he is the one who plays the cleanest and the most beautiful tennis ever. I love to watch Novak, because his defense and his ability to take the ball early when needed are amazing. I love to watch Rafa because he is an ultimate fighter and I am impressed by his intensity.

TN: How close is Grigor Dimitrov to winning a Grand Slam title? What will it take?

Patrick Mouratoglou: Grigor is close and far at the same time from winning a Grand Slam. He is close because his level of play is impressive, very close to the best ones. In Wimbledon 2014, he lost a close match in semis to Novak, so in a way he looked close to reaching his first Grand Slam final. But he is also far because, there are many details that make a big difference between a top player and a Champion. He can make it. I am convinced that he can win a Grand Slam. This combination of many details, knowing better his own game and imposing it without rushing, keep on improving his serve that is great but that not secure his service games enough, etc.

TN: The game is played in a rectangle. How have you been able to think outside that box, develop new methods and what excites you most about this sport after all your years of playing, studying and coaching it?

Patrick Mouratoglou: Since the first day I started this job, I’ve done things different from other people. I am not trying to be different, I am following what my feeling tells me to do. Whether it has been done or not is not important for me. What is important is the fact that I think it is the right thing to do. I will always keep that philosophy because it is the one I believe in.

 

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