Survival guide: Coaches share strategies on thriving in new normal

 - Chris Oddo

What do top coaches do to ensure their players thrive in these difficult times?

Iga Swiatek, Roland Garros 2020, fourth round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

How to thrive in tennis’ new normal, when scheduling uncertainty reigns supreme and the possibility of catching coronavirus is a lurking threat? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and creativity is a must. 

When the pandemic shut down the tennis season, coaches on tour were forced to figure out ways to ensure that their players would be ready for a season that had no set start date.

As creatures of habit that rely on set schedules and the excitement of practice with a competitive goal in mind, many coaches found themselves at a loss when tournaments were cancelled in waves this spring.

"It wasn't easy to prepare the plan, it wasn't easy to have some goals. It was really difficult to find a reason to practice,” says Piotr Sierzputowski, the coach of Poland’s Iga Swiatek, who is through to the Roland-Garros quarter-finals in both singles and doubles this fortnight. "Of course we knew that at some point it's going to start, but there was still uncertainty." 

When it comes to preparing elite athletes, uncertainty is the enemy. Sierzputowski says Swiatek needed a goal to work for - but for a while, there was none. 

"Of course she is a young player and she can improve a lot,” he told “But she is a beast of the competition so she needs to have some kind of rivalry and it's not easy for her to just practice for practice's sake." 

Even now that tennis has returned, it’s not the same care-free tour that it was before the pandemic changed the way we carry out our daily lives. 

Karim Kamoun, the husband and fitness trainer of Ons Jabeur, says that the only way to move forward was by being flexible and upbeat about the new reality. 

"Everything is different,” he said. “We are wearing a mask in the gym, wearing a mask on court, so we have to adapt and we have to accept this situation and we're trying to be positive about everything and we're trying to put the work in."

That work has paid off. Jabeur made the second week at Roland-Garros for the first time in her career. Kamoun says that the goal remains the same. Making the top 20 is Jabeur's 2020 vision quest, so the only way to get there is to put in the hard yards. 

"The challenge is to keep the same positive attitude and work like everything is as usual,” he said. “We don't have to feel the change, we keep working, we keep the same behavior."

When the tour shut down in March, Fernando Vicente, coach of Andrey Rublev, said he felt depressed. After years of dealing with injuries, his charge was finally in good health and making progress. Rublev started the season winning back-to-back titles and reeling off 11 consecutive wins, then suddenly tennis was stopped indefinitely. 

"I was a bit depressed, feeling like 'Why now?'” Vicente said. 

But the Spaniard says there were some positive aspects to the tour shutdown. There was more time than ever to add layers to Rublev’s game. 

"I was thinking ‘Okay now we're going to have huge time’, and we prepared with the fitness coach and the physio,” said Vicente, who is a former top-30 player. “We had to improve his mobility, we needed to improve his legs, his defensive game, his touch, his net game, serve-and-volley, all the things that you don't have time to do because a normal offseason is different.”

Rublev hit the ground running after lockdown, reaching the US Open quarter-finals and claiming the title in Hamburg before reaching the second week at Roland-Garros. 

Elina Svitolina’s coach Andrew Bettles saw a similar opportunity for his player. 

“On the positive side we had a time to really work and go back to basics and start again,” he said. “You're never ever going to have such a long period where you can train. Elina worked with a new fitness coach, and she kind of pushed herself incredibly hard. It was nice to kind of see that and see her motivation.” 

Svitolina has managed well, reaching the quarter-finals in Paris after skipping the US Open. But Bettles admits that reaching peak performance in the age of coronavirus can be a daunting challenge. 

“I don't think anyone has lived through anything like this,” he said. “Everyone is kind of just navigating it, and as a sport we are trying to find our way and trying to get back to some sort of normality.” 

Tennis players always need to improvise on the court, but this year, more than ever, they need to improvise off of it. 

"You have to be really open-minded and truly optimistic to live in these kind of times,” Sierzputowski says. “That was the biggest lesson, to be prepared for the unexpected." 

As the second week of Roland-Garros heats up, players don’t just have to worry about realizing their dreams on the court, they also have to be careful to stay safe in a truly dangerous environment. 

“I think you just have to be really responsible,” Bettles said. "As it is with the virus and whole of society, you’re not looking out just for yourself. You're looking out for other people.” 

Andrew Bettles, coach of Elina Svitolina, Indian Wells 2019© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT