"Federer and Nadal always introduce themselves, even though everyone knows who they are"
They may well be the people who spend the longest on court during tournaments, but they are often not actually competing in the events in question. We are talking about hitting partners. Take Thibault Venturino. He makes himself available twice a year to work with some of the tour's finest during Roland-Garros and the BNP Paribas Masters. We caught up with the Frenchman – who is currently ranked 1112th in the world and spends most of his time on the Futures circuit, far from the limelight of the Grand Slams – to discuss the hitting partner's peculiar role, what the expectations are in general and his specific experiences with the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, who regularly request his services when they descend on Paris.
How did you wind up becoming an official hitting partner at Roland-Garros and the BNP Paribas Masters?
It all started at the 2014 edition of the BNP Paribas Masters, thanks to an agent I knew well. During qualifying, he was asked whether he knew anyone who was available to serve as a hitting partner, and when he told me about the opportunity I jumped at it. That's how it began. I reprised the role at Roland-Garros 2015 and I haven't missed either of the Parisian tournaments since. The set-up is really well organised and it works well.
It's somewhat rare to be a long-serving hitting partner the way that you are. Generally the names tend to change from one year to the next depending on availability and which players are around. Is it an active choice on your part to keep those dates free every year?
Yes. They're tournaments that fit in well with my schedule, because Roland-Garros falls around the same time as the team events in May, while the BNP Paribas Masters is at the end of the season, so I've always got pretty good availability in those periods. Being in contact with the best in the world is a great training exercise, and since we're paid a small sum to boot – around €120 a day – it's a nice little extra in terms of financing my year on tour.
Could you describe a typical day for a hitting partner during tournaments?
I arrive every day between eight and ten in the morning and I stay until I'm told I'm not needed any more! That's usually at around seven in the evening. Players generally request us while they are booking their training slots for the following day, but sometimes they need someone at the last minute, so we've got to be adaptable. When we're not on court, we wait in the Players' Lounge to remain on hand, while making the most of the spare time to have a bite to eat and relax.
"I'll always be able to say, 'Yes, I've played with Roger Federer'"
Do players tend to request a particular hitting partner or not?
It depends. Sometimes they're looking for someone with a particular type of game to prepare for a specific match – a lefty, for example – but they often like to keep practising with the same hitting partner that they start a tournament with. That's what happened with me and Novak Djokovic at the 2015 BNP Paribas Masters, and we picked up where we'd left off at Roland-Garros this year. They like to have their little routines, so once they've played with us, they often want to keep it going. Especially when they're getting results! [laughing]
Read more: Djokovic captures first Roland-Garros title
Isn't it overwhelming to find yourself face-to-face with the top players?
Yes, of course it can be a bit. When I found out that I was going to play with Roger Federer in Bercy in 2014, I put myself under huge amounts of pressure. He is such a big deal in the tennis world that I was afraid of not cutting it. I told myself, "You'd better not hit any air shots!" Afterwards I realised that I'll always be able to say, "Yes, I've played with Roger Federer." I was similarly daunted by Nadal, above all because I'd seen him practising before, notably with Kevin Anderson. And when I saw that Anderson, who was on the verge of the top ten at the time, was knackered after 15-20 minutes, I said to myself, "How on earth am I going to cope?" That gives you an idea of how extraordinary his intensity is.
Read more: Rafael Nadal, Roland-Garros king of Kings
"I was surprised to see Rafael Nadal get up to come over and greet me"
And how did it go?
The first time, we played for two hours. It was really intense, but I held up well in the end. He hits a very heavy ball. It goes by quickly, it's quite something. Nadal is a workhorse and he gives 100% from the first point to the last, while Federer is more of a magician. Every time he touches the ball, it's just incredible. You get the impression that he's never going to mess up; he can do whatever he wants. He could probably use his handle [instead of the racquet face] and it'd still be similar! When you see Roger at tournaments, he's relaxed: the bulk of the work has been done beforehand. And the fact that he looked quite laid-back during practice helped me to loosen up too. He doesn't care if you miss a few shots and that takes an enormous amount of pressure off.
You've been lucky enough to rub shoulders with some of the greatest players out there. What sort of relationship do you have with them?
I've played with Roger Federer on several occasions and nowadays when we bump into each other he shakes my hand. Suffice it to say that Federer saying "hello" to me is a real thrill. I've also played with Rafa plenty of times and he's a real gentleman. Federer is lovely and über-cool, but you still feel a certain distance with him. Nadal gives off the impression of being more approachable. He's got a slightly shy demeanour and he doesn't try to catch people's eye. We don't share a lot off the court, but he's always really pleasant.
Do you have any special memories of them?
I find it amusing that they always introduce themselves, even though everyone knows full well who they are. It's funny. The first time I played with Rafa, he arrived two or three minutes late and seemed really agitated. My first thought was that maybe he didn't want to play with me. He was grumbling a bit while warming up with his physio, but just before we started hitting, he came over to me and apologised for the delay. It turned out he had nothing against me! Another day, he and his team were sitting there in the players' restaurant at Roland-Garros and I walked by them. I didn't dare bother him and so I took up a seat quite far away. I was surprised to see him get up to come over and greet me. He was under no obligation to do so, but that just goes to show how nice he is. He's got no airs and graces about him, there's nothing for show – he's just a thoroughly good guy. I bet he has a tough time turning down any of the numerous requests he must get.
The price of success: even during practice, Rafael Nadal's every move is followed keenly!
What about Novak Djokovic?
Djokovic is possibly the player I've hit with most. I have a good time with him and I also get on well with Boris Becker [this interview took place before Djokovic and Becker parted company], who often asks whether I'm available when he's booking practice courts for Nole. I've even got his phone number, which is awesome! He must be the best known player whose number I've got, alongside Gaël Monfils. When you're on court with Novak, you feel like he can't miss; he seems to go into robot mode. Even from the most difficult of positions he finds the mark – his defence is insane!
"I dream of hitting with Andy Murray - I'd love to do backhand rallies with him"
Which other players do you regularly practise with at these tournaments?
There's Kei Nishikori, Tomáš Berdych… I've played with most of the current top players. I've had a good thing going with Berdych in recent times. He's really nice and friendly. He and his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, have requested me repeatedly. In fact, a while back I took advantage to take a sneaky selfie with Goran. He was one of the players I used to enjoy watching when I was a kid.
Who do you dream of playing with?
I dream of hitting with Andy Murray. He's the only one of the leading players I've yet to play with. I'm a big fan of his game and I'd love to do backhand rallies with him, but it's a tall order because he rarely uses hitting partners – his coach Jamie Delgado is enough for him. Apart from that, I've played with all the top guys but never with my idol, Pete Sampras… Now that is even less likely!
At the same time, you're still trying to break through on the tour. What are your aims for 2017?
I was dogged by a few injuries in 2016, which caused me to drop down the rankings after reaching 850th in July. At the moment I'm around 1100th, which means I'm going to have to put my nose to the grindstone in the Futures. My aim is to get closer to the ranking required to contest Challenger events, because the playing conditions are usually much nicer than in the Futures, albeit in France we're pretty well looked after on the latter front.
Isn't it too difficult to go out and chase ranking points on a tight budget?
I'm not at all downbeat about it. I don't know how high I can rise, but so long as I can get by financially, I'll do everything in my power to pursue my tennis career to the end. I'm going to have to take more care with my scheduling, though. I'd really like to crack the top 500 before the end of next year [by which time he will have turned 30 years old]. And I'm giving myself two more years to see how far I can go, because you don't just have yourself to think about, there's your family too.