The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Stephanie Livaudais, December 17, 2019
Coaching updates: Osaka’s big hire, must-click links in women's tennis, interview with Alison Van Uytvanck, Greet Minnen
Coaching updates: Osaka’s big hire, Muguruza’s quest for inner peace
Every tennis fan’s favorite off-season spectator sport is tracking the many turns of the WTA coaching carousel – the feverish end-of-year hiring and sacking and swapping of coaches. The hires always reveal something about where a player’s head is at and what their priorities are – and of course, the poaching always makes for great drama.
This week’s biggest coaching news came out of the Naomi Osaka camp, who announced she’ll be working with veteran WTA coach Wim Fissette. The Belgian man has brought lots of success to the likes of Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep in the past – but he doesn’t tend to stick around after his player wins a Grand Slam. So to me, this hire broadcasts that Osaka has the Australian Open weighing on her mind, after failing to defend her first Slam title at the US Open.
Meanwhile, Osaka’s ex-coach Sascha Bajin has gotten off to a good start with talented Ukrainian teenager Dayana Yastremska. Their kooky videos on social media have raised eyebrows, but they seem like they’re having a good time. It’s Bajin’s third coaching assignment of the season: he was abruptly dumped by Osaka shortly after she won in Melbourne, and then he in turn dumped France’s Kristina Mladenovic about a week before the WTA Finals.
Despite those few marks on his record, Bajin has a great pedigree: he guided Osaka two both Grand Slams, and was Serena Williams’ longtime hitting partner. Yastremska’s hire shows the 19-year-old is ready to get serious and make good on her prodigious talent in 2020.
Putting aside the potential locker room drama that’s brewing, one coaching trend to watch is the number of female coaches that seem to be in hot demand. As a tennis fan, in the past I always associated female coaches with Fed Cup, because that seemed to be the only place where they had a consistent presence and influence. On tour, everyone was coached by male coaches, with the occasional exception of a player’s mom. But increasingly, female coaches are becoming players’ first picks, and playing a central part in the ever-revolving carousel.
Just this season, one of the most fascinating off-court sagas involved the coaching fate of Spanish legend Conchita Martinez. The Wimbledon winner and former World No.2 started out the season on a trial basis as one of Karolina Pliskova’s not one but two female coaches, alongside Rennae Stubbs. In March, Conchita was hired on full-time as Stubbs departed, but by November Conchita and Pliskova had suddenly parted ways, despite a successful season which saw Pliskova finish at World No.2.
But it didn’t take long before Conchita was snapped up again – this time by fellow Spaniard Garbiñe Muguruza a few weeks later. The hire was met by a sigh of relief from Tennis Twitter, as Muguruza had been coachless since Wimbledon after finally ending her unhappy relationship with Sam Sumyk. After Sumyk, Muguruza herself had been working with Anabel Medina Garriges, another retired Spanish great whose crowning coaching achievement was guiding the mercurial Jelena Ostapenko to the 2017 French Open title. As Sumyk’s coaching philosophy for Garbiñe was “I like to see her in constant mental suffering” (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s not that far off), to me her hire of the easy-going and affable Conchita seems like part of a search for inner peace.
There are still a few weeks left before the 2020 season kicks off in Australia, but that’s plenty of time for the coaching carousel to take a few more turns. Of course, even then no one is safe, as Bajin found out earlier this year, and as Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig learned after Sloane Stephens poached away coach Kamau Murray – just one week before the US Open.
You guys do know you will all have to see each other next year, right?
On to links!
This Week in Women’s Tennis
As I mentioned before, lots of coaching changes during this time of the season, and this week is no different:
Again, the biggest news is Naomi Osaka hiring Wim Fissette as her new coach.
Kiki Bertens has hired Elise Tamaela, after ending her longtime partnership with Raemon Sluiter.
Elina Svitolina added recently retired ATP pro Marcos Baghdatis to her team.
Big women-coaching-women news: Sandra Zaniewska, former coach of Petra Martic, has joined Alize Cornet’s team.
The WTA 2019 Year-End Award winners were announced, and no surprise, Ashleigh Barty is the well-deserved Player of the Year.
By the way, there’s actual tennis happening right now – here’s the latest from WTA Limoges.
Serena Williams is Tennis.com’s Women’s Player of the Decade.
Speaking of Serena, this is sweet: Caroline Wozniacki, who is retiring after the 2020 Australian Open, is bringing good friend Serena to Copenhagen for her ‘Final Match’.
Here’s Jon Wertheim on what’s next for Coco Gauff, America’s latest tennis phenom.
I love the mental image of Bianca Andreescu celebrating her US Open win with late-night pizza in New York, from this lovely column in The Star.
From Blair Henley, a great look at how social media has changed the business of tennis – on and off the court, for better or for worse.
Catch up with Chinese trailblazer Li Na, who made history as the first Asian-born tennis player to win not just one but two Grand Slam titles and galvanized China into a tennis revolution.
On Nina Pantic and Irina Falconi’s great podcast, hear from Fed Cup captain Kathy Rinaldi discuss what it’s like leading Team USA as the Olympics loom.
From Reem Abulleil for The National, an early look at the talented Mayar Sherif, who became the first Egyptian women’s tennis player to qualify for an Olympic Games and hopes to continue her rise on the tour in 2020.
Ajla Tomljanovic is looking forward to taking on Maria Sharapova at an Abu Dhabi exhibition match.
Forza Francesca! Italy’s legendary Francesca Schiavone, who won the French Open in 2010, revealed that she’s overcome her battle with cancer.
How Sloane Stephens is leading the next generation of African-American girls into tennis, according to Refinery29.
Tweet of the Week
Five at the IX: Alison Van Uytvanck & Greet Minnen
For this week’s Five at the IX, I’m recalling another one of my favorite interviews of 2019 with Belgium’s Alison Van Uytvanck and Greet Minnen. Proud and out lesbians, Van Uytvanck and Minnen are girlfriends, doubles partners and occasional singles rivals who are using their viral fame to increase visibility for the LGBTQ+ community in tennis.
They made history as the first out lesbian couple to compete in Wimbledon doubles this year, and I caught up with them at a US Open Pride panel, which also featured Billie Jean King.
Here are some excerpts, from both the panel and my chat with them:
Q: On the experience of taking part in the panel…
VAN UYTVANCK: [The host] Nick McCarvel had asked me to do it a couple of times and it was so tough to schedule it, but this time I was like, ‘Yeah let’s do this.’
We came onto the stage, and I told my girlfriend Greet, ‘Whoa, there’s so many people in here! I was really surprised at seeing so many people. It was a great show, and I hope we can inspire other people as well.
I was so inspired hearing everyone else telling their story, it was amazing. I didn’t know all of the other athletes, because I’m a Belgian. But I was inspired by a lot of the stories I heard, and hope we can keep doing [these events].
Q: On the couple’s own decision to come out…
MINNEN: I feel like when we came out as a couple together, it didn’t feel like such a big step for us because we had already told our family. For us I think it was a bigger step to tell our families than the world.
But the [players] accepted us very well, and in the locker rooms we didn’t have any problems. I think on the women’s side it’s still a little bit different to the men’s side. But, well we experienced only positive reactions. It was really amazing that we only got positive reactions.
Q: On what it would mean if a top male player came out…
VAN UYTVANCK: I think if one of the top guys were to come out, it would mean a whole lot more to the world than [say, a retired player]. As I was saying before, I think that the world is a little bit more normal for female players to come out than male players.
And I don’t want that. I want male players to come out easier, it would have an impact, I think.
Q: On why the couple is now using their social media platforms to inspire other LGBTQ+ athletes…
VAN UYTVANCK: I think we did that because we are so happy together, and we just wanted to show the world that!
We just realized, ‘We are lesbians, and who cares?’ We are the same like anyone else, we don’t have any disease. We wanted to show just how happy we were, and we used every platform we could. We hope we can inspire others to come out at their own tempo.
We will keep doing it. (grins)
Q: On what the sport can do to be a more inclusive space for LGBTQ+ players and fans…
MINNEN: I think to keep doing events like this and keep talking to everybody. I think, if we keep just showing that we are here, it will come eventually. It will keep growing for sure.
VAN UYTVANCK: And like Billie [Jean King] said earlier [during the panel], just come out when you feel you’re ready. The more people who will do it, the more it will be accepted. That’s my advice: be more open.