Original article by Abe Kuijl (email@example.com), published in print in Tennis.nl, special edition, April 2015
She’s been known as a mega-talent for years now, but 2014 was a year of stagnation for the still only 18-year-old Indy de Vroome from The Netherlands.
In February she suddenly showed her huge potential with a big week in Antwerp. Kim Clijsters still remembers it very well – the moment the Belgian, herself at the top of her game, hit some balls with a slender blonde girl, just 14 years old, in Rosmalen (site of the ‘s-Hertogenbosch grass tournament).
“Let’s just say I was blown clean out of my socks,” the former number 1 says with a big grin.”She played so well. I’ve always said that if there is one girl whom I think can be really good, and that I would like to help in one way or another, it’s her.”
That moment has finally arrived. Since the end of last year the Netherlands’ biggest tennis talent is training at Clijsters’ academy in her birthplace, Bree. “I’m very happy she’s training with us now, and that I’ve got to know her in a different way than just matches and a few words here and there. She’s a beautiful athlete. A girl with a goal, willing to work all out for it, with a lot of discipline.”
De Vroome got a wildcard from her new mentor for the qualifying draw in Antwerp, where Clijsters is tournament director now. She grasped the opportunity with both hands. What followed was a string of firsts: with three consecutive wins de Vroome qualified for a WTA main draw for the first time on her own merit. This included her first-ever win over a Top 100 player.
Still, de Vroome acted like this success was business as usual.
“I don’t think the results are that important, those will come anyway,” she said with conviction. “Of course I’m proud of reaching the main draw, but the way in which I did it is more important to me.”
Focusing on the process, working towards long term improvement, that’s what every conversation with de Vroome comes back to.
In the past, she spent a lot of time looking at her position in the rankings. Early last year she said she wanted to finish 2014 inside the top 150. “I’ve been focused on that way too much in the last year,” she confesses. “I think it’s better for me to let that go and work at how I want to play and how I can improve.”
The disappointing results in 2014, where, after making a brief appearance inside the top 200, she finished the year at number 213, can’t be judged without looking at the instability of her coaching staff.
Early in the year, just a few weeks into their partnership, she was abandoned by Belgian Wim Fissette, himself a former coach of Clijsters and the man who took Sabine Lisicki to the Wimbledon final. Fissette couldn’t say no to an offer from Simona Halep, and is now working with Victoria Azarenka.
Peter Lucassen, after a few months, turned out not to be the right man for De Vroome, and the season was pretty much done when she finally decided to try her luck at the Clijsters Academy.
“I know Indy somewhat, and she really is a very nice and friendly girl. But I think there’s been too much going on around her,” says Michaëlla Krajicek. “A few years back everybody thought she would be much further along than she is right now, but I think the people around her have built those expectations up too high. I was really good at a young age too, but my dad never expected me to win a certain match, never wanted me to reach a certain ranking. She must find her own way eventually, she doesn’t need parents that tell her this or others that tell her that. How is it possible to have a coach for just a couple of months, time after time? That makes you restless, does not make you better. Every coach tells you something different, and in the end you just don’t know any more. She doesn’t need a supercoach, just someone who guides her, gives her confidence. The last thing she needs is people saying that, after just two bad results, the coach isn’t good enough.”
De Vroome was signed by Nike and IMG when she was just 12 years old. For a few years now she’s been wearing the Maria Sharapova clothing line. It’s fair to say her results have been followed internationally with interest. All the more reason for Carl Maes, the experienced coach who worked with Clijsters for 10 years, to want to have some peace and quiet around the young player. Maes is head coach of the Clijsters Academy these days and works with de Vroome on a regular basis.
“The first time I saw her play internationally was in the Under 14’s. I’m glad I get to see her more now, and glad I don’t hear as much about her. She’s somewhere in a small village in Belgium, just let her play tennis there for a while. She doesn’t need the added pressure right now. We need to work on some things so she can play her matches differently. If that means lowering the pressure compared to the past, maybe that will be the key.”
When asked about de Vroome’s qualities, it’s hard for Maes to contain himself. “I think her best serve is unbelievable, her best forehand is unbelievable, her best backhand unbelievable, her best footwork is unbelievable, but, those things don’t show up all that often. She’s got tools every player would be jealous of. When you look at Indy, you think Big Stage, playing big tournaments and Grand Slams. She must start with getting into the top 100, because I think at practice she plays a higher level than that. I want to see her play matches like she plays in practice.”
The biggest challenge for Maes right now is getting De Vroome to drop her “wanting to be perfect” attitude. “What every player has to learn, not just Indy, is that being perfect does not exist. If you play ten matches, 2 will be really good, and 2 will be really bad. Those four matches are not going to determine your career. It’s those 6 other matches that determine if you will be a Top 100, Top 50 or Top 20 player. Indy has to learn to play within that.”
“You can play the best match of your career, and still lose 45% of the points during that match. That’s normal. Tennis is a game for losers, more than any other sport. You must be able to take a hit. Even when you are a Top 50 player, you win about as many matches as you lose. Indy feels like she has to be perfect and in control all the time. That’s impossible. I don’t want to see her play perfect tennis. I want to see her play average tennis, and still win. That’s when the fun starts.”
The fun continued in Antwerp, where, in the main draw, de Vroome got a surprise win over Top 50 player Tsvetana Pironkova. That was her first win on the WTA Tour. Like Clijsters before her, the Bulgarian hardly knew what hit her during her first confrontation with de Vroome.”Her level was Top 10,” the 27-year old, semi-finalist at Wimbledon in 2010, said. “She’ll be one of the future big stars in women’s tennis.”
In 2015 de Vroome will travel the tour with an Argentinian coach from the Clijsters Academy. 35-year old Mariano Pettigrosso, a former Top 5 junior in Argentina in a generation with David Nalbandian and Gaston Gaudio, can’t really point to any weaknesses in his new protégé.
“Both technically and physically, she doesn’t really have any limitations. That’s a rare thing, even among top players. Everybody has a weaker stroke or lacks fluidity when moving. I don’t see those things with Indy. Now she has to bring all that into her matches, that is the main thing right now.”
Maes elaborates on that: “We must find a way to make her play more efficiently during a match. The most impressive shot from the sidelines may not be the most impressive shot from the other side of the net. It’s not like the other side of the net goes ‘wow’ when the people on the sideline go ‘wow’. Maybe they’re just thinking ‘oh nice, I’ll just steer that one back across’. I’ve compared Indy to Mary Pierce once. She was someone who played a very impressive game, but wasn’t very efficient in getting results. I think that might be the case with Indy too.”
Although neither Maes, nor Pettigrosso, nor Clijsters have any complaints about de Vroome’s technique, there is one glaring problem in her game. For years now the number of double faults per match has been astonishingly high. Sometimes she hits 20 or more in a match. Fissette once blamed this partly on female hormones. Confronted with this, his countryman and colleague Maes has a good laugh. “I don’t know women well enough to say that,” he says, winking.
Maes is, and this sounds strange, in favour of hitting double faults. “When I worked with Yanina Wickmayer last year, I told her: Yanina, the day you come to me and tell me ‘I played well, I didn’t hit any double faults’, I will probably tell you you didn’t serve well, you probably just pushed the ball across.”
While softly tapping his fist on the table for emphasis, Maes says:”Indy must hit double faults. Otherwise she isn’t hitting through the ball. That is a different approach, one which will set your serve free. You can miss a whole series of forehands by playing risky shots. After the match nobody will talk about 20 missed forehands, whereas 20 missed serves are looked at as a disaster. Sharapova won Roland Garros while hitting 12 double faults. Indy potentially has one of the biggest serves in the women’s game. She must hit double faults.”
De Vroome’s adventure in Antwerp ended, after four victories, in the second round of the main draw, but not before taking a set from Top 20 player Dominika Cibulkova. After the match, she dismissed the ‘dream week’ qualification about what happened. “I learned a lot during this week, something I can build on for the coming tournaments. It’s good to see I can play at this level and I feel I belong here. I’m disappointed I’ve lost, because I feel I could have gotten more from this match.”
De Vroome isn’t surprised by the level of her play. “During practice I play at this level all the time, and now it is coming through in matches too. If you only think about how you want to play and what you want to do on court, instead of thinking about winning points or whatever, things will happen automatically. I’m glad that is happening now.”
Where can this lead? Fissette mentioned in the past a place in the Top 20. Clijsters thinks that’s a bit premature. “As a player I would never say those things, because I know how hard you have to work to get there and to stay there. It’s easy for the outside world to put a label on it and to put pressure on it. She is a girl that has everything to play beautiful tennis. We’ll see how far that will take her, because it takes a lot, including a big dose of luck.”
Translation by Marco van Elst (@Backstop5)