Top coaches under 30 rocking WTA tour

Martic, Sakkari, Svitolina and Mertens find success with coaches under 30.

Sandra Zaniewska coach of Petra Martic©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

Petra Martic finds herself in rare territory this Roland-Garros, not least for her breakthrough run to a Grand Slam quarter-final.

Four times the 28-year-old had fallen in the round of 16 at a major. But injury-free and with her confidence replete, the Croat is on a roll.

Martic largely puts it down to one bold move – hiring Polish former player Sandra Zaniewska as her coach.

This was a player-coach arrangement that stood out on tour, given the duo’s respective ages.

Zaniewska, who peaked at world No.142 seven years ago, is a year younger than her charge.

While not prevalent in the men’s game, Martic is among an increasing number of players on the women’s tour putting their faith in younger, less experienced coaches.

“True [it feels like validation],” Martic said after beating Kaia Kanepi on Sunday. “When I started working with her, everybody was doubting my decision. People underestimated it, people even laughed at it, said I did a crazy thing, what am I doing?

“I'm not serious about my career because she's so young and inexperienced. But I always knew. I heard this girl talking about tennis and I knew she knows what she's doing. “

Rising Greek player Maria Sakkari is another who has made great strides this season with a maiden WTA title coming in Rabat last month and a subsequent debut in the world’s top 30.

She attributes a large part of that rise to the influence of her coach, Tom Hill.

At 24, Hill is only a matter of months older than Sakkari.

Following her opening-round victory in Paris, Sakkari was asked about being coached by someone her age.

“Well, it is different, I have to tell you, because I always had older coaches,” Sakkari laughed. “I never had a very old coach. Last one was my grandfather.

“But it's quite nice. Because we're [Tom and I are] very good friends, as well, so we do stuff together.

“And I remember in San Jose we were riding the scooters for, like, 45 minutes. So I wouldn't be able to do it with my grandfather, I assume. So it's quite cool. We can spend time together like friends.”

Mutual respect

Another young Brit, Andrew Bettles, has fast worked his way up to a full-time coaching role for established top-tenner, Elina Svitolina.

The 25-year-old, a former hitting partner of Ana Ivanovic, joined the Ukrainian’s team in 2017 and has since played a part in guiding her to her biggest career title to date, the WTA Finals in November.

Bettles officially took over as her main coach in the off-season and was asked during this year’s Australian Open whether it was a problem being younger, without the inherent authority older coaches were fortunate to possess.

“I don’t think so. She respects me and I’ve worked and earned her trust and respect really, over the years we’ve been working,” Bettles said.

“I don’t think the age thing makes a difference. We’re both adults. It’s just the respect is there and that’s that.”

Elina Svitolina and her coach Andrew Bettles.Elina Svitolina and her coach Andrew Bettles. ©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

Some players see an advantage in being able to relate to a peer who may better understands the demands – on and off the court – of the modern game, while also offering a friendship.

Bettles could understand why.

“I guess it’s just someone she can relate to on a human level more, making her feel comfortable,” he said. “Someone she feels relaxed [around] and trusts.”

As a former player plying his trade at lower level Futures events, Bettles made the decision to turn his hand to coaching and learned from some of the biggest names in British and French coaching ranks.

“When I had no money and I was losing a lot of tennis matches, it was pretty easy. It wasn’t a tough decision,” Bettles said of the career change.

“I worked with Nigel Sears for a bit over a year, closely with him, so that was really good and then kind of with Svitolina I was more at the beginning in more of an assistant role with Thierry Ascione so I’ve learned from two experienced coaches and it’s been really helpful.”

"We have both become more mature"

When the hugely experienced David Taylor took up an offer to move home to work with Tennis Australia and Daria Gavrilova in March, Belgian Elise Mertens turned to a familiar figure in her professional and personal life.

Her 26-year-old boyfriend and former coach, Robbe Ceyssens, stepped back into the role.

After a split last year, the pair rejoined forces and on the eve of her Roland-Garros campaign, Mertens told HLN how the relationship had grown.

“We have both become more mature and I listen to him better,” she said.

Ceyssens was a coach at the Kim Clijsters Academy in Belgium, where Mertens trained and the pair worked together when she reached her maiden Grand Slam semi-final in Melbourne in 2018.

“I'm very proud of her, as a coach, but also as a boyfriend, and I told her so,” Ceyssens said at the time.

Breaking with what’s tried and tested is no easy decision.

Martic knew hiring Zaniewska was the right move even before the Croatian won her first title in Istanbul last April.

“I was a bit shaky at the beginning, because I also wanted to prove that I did the right thing,” Martic told reporters in Paris on Sunday.

“But after a month or two, I really kind of just let go of this thought and I just kept on playing my tennis, and I was just improving, I think, from [one] week to another and here I am. I think there is no better reward.”

It’s trust before trophies, regardless of age.