Caroline Wozniacki: “She was a girl who was trained to achieve one goal or another from the start”

From small, thin girl on the Køge Tennis Club courts to world’s best. A weekly schedule, extra training and a family that gambled everything. By Mikkel  Hemmer-Hansen, Jyllands-Posten https://jyllands-posten.dk/protected/premium/sport/ECE9261914/det-var-en-pige-der-blev-traenet-efter-et-eller-andet-maal-helt-fra-starten/

The glass trophy gets a big kiss.

She’s done it before.

Caroline Wozniacki reached 25 tournament wins on the WTA tour when she won the Hong Kong Open in October 2016.

Another achievement for the 26-year-old Dane, who has achieved much in her career: two US Open finals, over 150 million Danish Crowns in prize money, and been number one in the world. That was in 2011, when she won the Danish Sports Name of the Year award.

She’s a success story. But very few know how hard she worked as a child on the courts of the Køge Tennis Club, and how much Caroline and her family have done and sacrificed to go all the way.

Like all other tennis kids at the Køge Tennis Club, Wozniacki began by playing with a big foam-rubber ball because it was easier to hit and not as hard to get over the net.

“Ball play takes up most of the time at that age level. They play with foam-rubber balls and often on the half court. It’s about keeping focus on the play aspect so the children stay motivated. But she quickly went past that level and started playing on the full court,” relates lawyer Helene Treschow, who was children’s coach at the Køge Tennis Club while she studied law and coached Caroline Wozniacki for a short time.

Caroline Wozniacki started playing more and more with regular balls on the full court, both with big brother Patrik and her father Piotr, who began coming more and more often to the club along with her mother Anna. It was a family project.

Sometimes Caroline would hit against a wall that’s still standing today at the club, though it’s now overgrown with weeds. But she often trained with her father.

“When Piotr trained with her, it was more concrete: a basket of balls to the forehand, and a basket of balls to the backhand,” says Helene Treschow.

Caroline improved a lot and began to beat older players. She trained with several teams, both those with older players, and with the boys.

Practising with the club champion

At one point, Piotr turned to the clubs best male player, club champion Peter Buser.

“Piotr himself wasn’t very good at tennis, so he got hold of people who could play with her. Piotr asked me if I would hit with her. I was a kid of twenty, and I could hit the ball a bit harder. She was bloody good already as an 8-year-old. She hit the ball well, she hit it cleanly and hard,” relates Peter Buser.

Also read: Interview with Piotr Wozniacki: “I’ve forgotten to enjoy myself and I regret that”

He describers the whole family as friendly, nice and very ambitious.

“There was a plan. There aren’t many girls of 8 who are set up to play against boys of 20. She was given harder match-ups to get her used to return shots that came with greater pace. There was nothing accidental about it,” says Peter Buser.

The amount of tennis was increased.

“Piotr was always on the court, whether it was Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday. He took her to other countries to play tournaments so she could see what was necessary. They were thinking big already then. A lot of time and money was spent,” says Peter Buser.

Later on, a new coach arrived. It was Jan Hansen, who at that time was part-time coach at Køge Tennis Club.

She always had talent for her two-handed backhand, while the rest of the shots needed more work

“She improved a lot. Apart from the normal training with the club’s coaches, I spent a lot of extra hours with her. She always had talent for her two-handed backhand, while the rest of the shots needed more work,” says Jan Hansen.

During that time, Piotr became more and more interested in coaching.

“He absorbed everything from the coaches she had, and his interest began to grow. He absorbed what he could use, and what he saw that was a good fit for Caroline. We talked a lot about what was best for her,” says Jan Hansen.

Sunday was an off-day

She began to beat senior players already as a 9-year-old.

“The first time she played a senior team match, there wasn’t a T-shirt in her size. On her, it was a tennis dress”

“The first time she played a senior team match, there wasn’t a T-shirt in her size. On her, it was a tennis dress, and she played against players who were almost twice as tall as her,” says Helene Treschow.

The amount of tennis was again increased, and the weekly schedule was systematised.

“Her whole week was planned. She was off every Sunday, and she could play with her friends. She practised tennis and did her homework on the other days. When she was 11, she often trained in the morning before she went to school, and then again in the afternoon after school,” relates Jan Hansen.

Piotr Wozniacki had been a professional football (soccer) player and her mother had a career as a top volleyball player (ed note: volleyball is huge in Poland). That had an influence on the effort and the seriousness.

“They had an idea about what was needed. They both knew that something extraordinary was required to go all the way. Maybe that’s why it was so planned from the beginning. Some may wonder at that approach. They came from Eastern Europe, where it was more structured and tougher, some might think. But it’s what was necessary to get to this level,” says Jan Hansen.

The family went all the way to make Caroline better.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve seen a lot of good players, but no one who has trained and sacrificed so much for it. It was a girl who who was trained for one goal or another from the start,” says Peter Buser.

Always with a smile

Caroline Wozniacki herself described the period and years at the Køge Tennis Club like this:

“I often think back to when I was 10-11, and my dad and I drove out to the Køge Tennis Club at 10 in the evening because the courts were busy until then. I’d trained at 6 AM there, and we went out there late in the evening to train some more,” said Caroline Wozniacki to Jyllands-Posten in 2015.

All agree that it was tough on Caroline. But was it too much?

“I never saw a girl who looked sad. She always had a smile on her lips. There’s a lot of talk about how Piotr was a hard man, and he was, but she always seemed happy. I never experience her being forced to play against her will. And they still have a good relationship. He’s still her coach,” says Peter Buser.

Jan Hansen is of the same opinion.

“She loved tennis and she was always happy and positive. She quickly got ambitions because she realised she was good. There were times it was tough for her, no doubt about it. Who wouldn’t feel it was tough while training six days a week? Sometimes her father encouraged her to train. But the vast majority of the time she just trained and loved it,” says Jan Hansen.

At the age of 11, Caroline Wozniacki became senior club champion at the Køge Tennis Club, and a few months later, she shifted to Farum.

“There were better training facilities at the Elite Centre in Farum, and more good players. The family invested so much in her that they moved with her. They lived in Herfølge, but it was too long a drive to training, so they got an apartment in Farum,” says Jan Hansen.

It picked up speed from there, and she became Danish champion at 14, and declared in an interview after that her goal “was to become number one, the world’s best.”

Non of those three coaches have experienced anything similar either before or after.

“What happened then was completely unique. I’ve been a top 10 player in Denmark and seen a lot of talents, and I’ve coached a lot of talented players, but I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen anyone spend so much time on it. What they did during those years was completely unique,” says Helen Treschow.

Do you think another player from Denmark will come along with the same level as Wozniacki?

“I hope so, but I don’t think so. That’s why we need to appreciate her. She’ll be gone in one or two years, and there’ll be a huge hole in Danish tennis,” says Jan Hansen.

 

Translated by MAN

 

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Umpiring: Aurélie Tourte, a woman in the chair

Translation of this online article

Aurélie Tourte
Aurélie Tourte,  standing on the left, the most highly ranked French umpire when she got her Silver Badge in 2014, travels around the world at the beck and call of tournaments.

It wasn’t love at first sight between umpiring and Aurélie Tourte.

“Me, I liked playing tournaments or team matches for my club in Plaisir (the Yvelines),” she explains. “I discovered umpiring via the ITF Futures organised by TC Plaisir and during team matches. Without being completely seduced.”

Around 20 at the time, Aurélie was taken in hand by two umpires who give her the chance of umpiring in Deauville during the ATP Rennes Challenger. It was the turning point.

“I was able to see professional umpires at work, and it started to interest me. Gradually, encouraged by Maryvonne Ayale, President of the CRA (Regional Umpiring Commission) and the Yvelines League, I got taken with it and started passing my certificates.”

In 2014, Aurélie umpired for 26 weeks (Roland Garros, US Open, Monte Carlo,  ATP 250s, the WTA tour, ATP Challengers), which led to her being granted the Silver Badge in December of last year.

“I was proud about getting it, but it wasn’t necessarily a surprise, as I’d umpired quite a few matches and got good evaluations.”

In 2015, her programme up to June was just as busy: Feucherolles, a Fed Cup in Sweden,  then Marseille, Acapulco, Monterrey, a break in March, the Saint Breuc Challenger, Monte Carlo, Marrakech, Aix-en-Provence, Strasbourg (WTA) then Roland-Garros. The objective was straightforward: getting to know the Top Ten players of the WTA and ATP. “I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. So I need to learn to talk to them, to get ‘run in’.”

Temping as a nurse

Despite careful planning, expenses (travel, hotels, food sometimes covered) paid, Aurélie still hasn’t made the choice between professions. A nurse by training, she takes advantage of the shortages in French hospitals to work as a temp when umpiring gives her the time. Of course, in daily life, the travel isn’t easy to manage.

“Sure, my apartment is more of a furniture warehouse,” smiles the 31-year-old woman who still lives in Plaisir. “And as a woman it’s difficult fitting it into family life.  But now that I’m the highest ranked French woman, I’d like to see where it leads, as there have been only two French Gold Badge umpires in history (Anne Lasserre and Sandra de Jenken).”

Among the necessary qualities required she cites, randomly,  excellent sight, good communication with the players and the public, but also being able to make quick decisions. And especially a strong character. What’s not obvious: “Promoting women’s umpiring is complicate in France as it is elsewhere. You need to find your place in a man’s world. But you learn about yourself, you discover countries, people, ways of life. If you have a passion for it, you must grab on to it.”

This passion has allowed Aurélie to experience some big moments such as the 2012 Olympics, where she was a line umpire for the five finals, and being in the chair for the mixed doubles final at Roland Garros in in 2013.

 

Translated by Mark Nixon

Interview with WTA Rising Star, Magda Linette

Original article: http://www.przegladsportowy.pl/tenis,magda-linette-nominowana-w-turnieju-wta-rising-stars,artykul,604497,1,289.html

Andrzej Soboń: You have been nominated for the WTA Rising Stars event that will be played alongside the WTA Finals in Singapore – is it a big honour in your opinion? How do you like your chances in the voting?

Magda Linette: I knew what nominations were about and I was really glad when I got an email from WTA. I remember a situation from a year ago when I was training with a player who took part in it. It’s an opportunity to see the WTA Finals from the inside. This competition is only a small part of it but it would be a great adventure! I know that Bojana Jovanovski or Caroline Garcia are ahead of me when it comes to success and they’re more popular than me. I’m happy about having been nominated. I’m secretly counting on the possibility that I’ve been able to gain at least a little of fans’ support and that’s enough for the second place which will give me the entry.

If you take a look back at your match against Agnieszka Radwańska at the US Open, would you change something in your game?

I’d play more calmly at the beginning. Now, thanks to experience, I’d know what to expect. I’d be more relaxed coming out on the court, more regular. I wouldn’t give away so many free points, especially at the beginning. Tactics would be similar, it wasn’t bad. I had too many unforced errors. Maybe I could have played more offensively but I got pushed back and gave her chances to play deep and high balls. I could have gone to the net in a couple of key points, play aggressively. Yes, I’d work on that.

Your first match in the second round in a major tournament made you more nervous than usual?

I don’t think so… I was just nervous before a match against Agnieszka. We had a bigger court in round two, I also knew that more people would be watching it. The fact that it was the second round didn’t hinder me, on the contrary, it helped me – I could be calmer because of the money. I earned more, so I knew it would be easier to work during the second part of the season. I gained more points so I won’t have to worry about defending my points from the previews season.

You had your leg wrapped at the US Open. Was it a serious injury?

I had a pulled muscle but that bandage hindered me in the first match so I didn’t put it back on. It’s all right now, fingers crossed. I hope I won’t see more plasters or bandages because I’ve had enough of them lately!

You said you’re focusing on your serve. How’s the training going?

We started working on it not that long ago. I had had some shoulder problems, I had to get stronger. My frame is not too imposing, we had to work hard to straighten it up, to make me stronger so that I could train properly. Before we managed that, when I’d served an hour or more, I had my arm bandaged for a week or two after. The workload was too big. We are beginning to work harder on my serve just now and there’s still a lot to do. We want to make it more effective and sustain it over a lot of matches. Of course, that’s not the only thing we’re working on but we want to visibly improve this element.

You are a bit on the sidelines of the Polish team, you haven’t been a part of the Polish Fed Cup team for some time. What’s your relationship with Agnieszka and her team?

I think that this recent Fed Cup team was really Radwańskas’ team which is still functioning. I just didn’t feel I belonged there. I practise in Croatia, I have Croatian coaches that aren’t on good terms with Polish coaches. But my relationship with both sisters is quite good. We’re not friends but we chat nicely, we joke. And not being in the centre of it all helps. Gives me more peace.

You have a new Fed Cup captain. Do you think he will be more inclined to make you a part of the team than Tomasz Wiktorowski?

To be honest, I hope so. The Olympic Games in Rio are not far and I’d love to play there. But there are rules, you have to participate in Fed Cup in order to qualify to the Olympics. Even if I’m eligible because of my WTA ranking position, I won’t meet the requirements and I won’t qualify. Playing at the Olympics is my dream. It’s amazing, it’s only held once in four years. It would be incredible to be a part of not only the show, but also history. I know I have to earn my place in the team. Before the Fed Cup matches, Ula Radwańska had better results than me. I have always tried to play as well as I can. I couldn’t have had more say on the selection process than that.

What are your plans for the upcoming weeks?

I’ll be in Asia til the end of the year. I did quite well last year, in Ningbo for example. I’ll be playing WTA tournaments now, we will see how I will perform in first five events. If I get enough points to qualify for the main Australian Open draw, I will probably play only those five or six. If my results are not good enough to realize this goal, then I’ll enter some minor WTA and ITF tournaments.

Do you like the Asian atmosphere more than European or the one in the USA?

I like Asia, it seems to me that my game matches well against players here. I like places that are a bit on the outside, there’s less pressure. I’m not used to being surrounded by many people. It’s probably a key factor, it’s difficult for me to hold my concentration in places like courts at the US Open. But when it comes to climate, Asia is more difficult. I like competition, it gives me more energy. I like bigger challenges. Sometimes we laugh with my coach that the more difficult the conditions, the better it is for me!

Does the Asian climate and culture appeal to you? Do you like the lifestyle there?

People in Asia are very nice and helpful. Even if they don’t speak English, which happens a lot in China, they smile a lot and you get it when they say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”  They are very nice, they don’t get angry when you want something from them. They do it in a really nice way and I can’t even get irritated. I’ve been preparing for the season here and I’ll probably do the same before the next one. I spend a lot of time here. I got to like Chinese food but you have to know where to go. When you are with people who live here and who know where to go and what to order, then it’s a nice change for us, Europeans. Asian dishes are incomparable to what we can get in Europe or in the USA. It’s also not very expensive here, even in best hotels. And the standard is very good.

Do you try to find some time to get to know these places during your preparation?

We are really trying! I’ve been hoping to see Tokyo but it’s raining all the time. One of my coaches really likes sightseeing so if I’m not too tired after practice, we try to go somewhere. We managed to see a lot in Hong Kong. We’ll be in Beijing soon, so I hope to go a bit farther and see the Great Wall because I didn’t do it last year and I regret it a lot. I also like karaoke here despite the fact that I can’t sing at all.

Do you try to sing in Chinese?

No, they’re English songs! You can really have a great time here but you have to be willing to learn about the culture and the people.

~

Translation: https://twitter.com/jesna3

An Italian view of Pennetta’s US Open win

Original article: http://www.corriere.it/sport/15_settembre_13/pennetta-l-addio-con-titolo-dell-us-open-mia-vita-perfetta-6d756444-59e8-11e5-b420-c9ba68e5c126.shtml#

In Italian from Corriere della Sera by Gaia Piccardi, 13 September 2015

Flavia is quitting tennis (and had been thinking of it for some time) so that she can devote herself to what she’s always had to put on hold: having a family, making a home and enjoying the other small things in life.

“By winning the US Open, my life is perfect.” It has comes as no surprise or great shock. The 33-year-old winner, ranked number 26 in the world (but who will rise to number 8 from Monday), has grasped every opportunity that life had promised her 20 years ago, when she left her home in Brindisi at the age of 14, culminating in her becoming the queen of New York on a rainy Saturday, when things went a little bit crazy.

Pennetta, who else? There is basically a sense of justice about her success here in Flushing Meadows, which has shaken the tennis world to the core. This is the veteran who is about to bring to an end the cycle of tournaments, travelling and globetrotting routines, and who has now been presented with the loveliest present imaginable, handed to her by the best opponent she could have had, Roberta Vinci.

REAPING THE REWARDS

A scenario, which had seemed until yesterday totally radical, almost perverse (in the US, which was expecting a Grand Slam victory for Serena Williams just like Americans expect pancakes for breakfast, the prospect of a Pennetta-Vinci final didn’t offer any great appeal…), now, the day after, has created a deep sense of reward. A beautiful, happy and rich life for the work and sacrifices that have been made, but one which is anything but normal, just like the life of any top-level professional athlete. Flavia had been thinking for more than two seasons about wanting something else. Such as a house where she could arrange flowers that don’t die because of her being away for long periods of time. A less haphazard routine involving baggage, metal detectors, hours spent on flights, checking in and checking out. A fridge filled with fresh food rather than long-life products which don’t perish. A husband. A family. Children. She has the blueprint to follow in front of her very eyes with her mother Conchita and father Oronzo in Brindisi, who are one of the best-known couples in the city.

THOUGHTS ABOUT RETIREMENT

At the end of 2014, when Pennetta was ready to take the big leap into real adult life, her coach Salvador Navarro had managed to convince her to wait for another season. He told her to enjoy the pleasure for the last time. Just as well he did. On Saturday, in New York she received the prize she deserved. A 7-6 6-2 victory over Roberta Vinci, the first and last grand slam evolving around a friendship going back almost 20 years, sealed by the close embrace at the net and by the exchanges between the players on the court, who had a bit of reputation in their young days, while awaiting the grand award ceremony. “I still enjoy training. It’s the competing side of things that I find hard. I’m going to finish the season and then stop. It’s fantastic for me to be able to make this announcement after winning the US Open.”

Can you imagine any better moment to announce this to the world after confiding in only her close entourage about this? This came as a shock to others, but not to Flavia and those who know her. The relationship with Fabio Fognini, who returned to New York to surprise her by appearing in her box to support her, is ready for the next big step. Flavia has a strong head, heart and legs, along with the courage to succeed after tennis, even in tackling the more difficult challenge facing her – a life without tennis. But with the chance to live life even more to the full.

~

Translation: GJM

Who is Brazilian WTA tennis player Beatriz Haddad Maia, or simply Bia Haddad? Read on.

Beatriz Haddad Maia, or simply Bia Haddad, a tennis player who was compared to Russian Maria Sharapova in the beginning of her career because of her beauty, turned 19  obsessed with exercise: not just physical, but also mathematical.

“Taking care of my body is my nerd side. I wake up before the other girls, at 6 a.m, put a towel on the floor of my bedroom and start to stretch, to release, I do all the exercises for abdomen, hip, knee, ankle, shoulder, wrist. There are people who think I´m crazy. But I love it,” says Bia.

The other nerd side she is applying is in her academic career. The Brazilian tennis player has been attending on-line university since the beginning of the year studying business administration.

“If I didn’t play, I would be studying civil engineering or medicine.  I love mathematics, physics. But with our careers it’s impossible,” she says.

“I need to exercise my mind off court. If it stays only on tennis, when you lose, you want to kill yourself,” she finishes.

With all the energy spent on the court or studying between matches, Bia goes to sleep around 9h30 p.m. “I get very sleepy, I shut off.”

On July 16 in Toronto  she found another reason to stay awake: The 2015 Pan American Games, a competition she will play for the first time in her career. “I dream about playing the Olympics and the Pan Am Games. I grow up a lot playing for Brazil. I’ll meet a lot of new people, open my mind, learn and have fun”.

At 13 years old, Bia already captured attention on the Brazilian circuit playing against older girls. But it’s been in the last months that her career got back on track and she started grabbing attention outside of Brazil.

It’s not just the recently acquired driver license  at a driving school that gets Bia excited.

This year, she won her first WTA title on doubles playing with Paula Gonçalves (who alongside Gabriela Cé are the Brazilian women’s tennis team at the Pan Am Games), in Bogotá, Colombia. Bia also made quarter-finals of the Rio Open and reached her career high singles WTA ranking of 148.

A revolution after some suffering which she sums up this way: “Two years ago, I was unlucky, I fell on court and hurt my right shoulder. After that, I had three herniated discs, my right leg was paralysed, I had back surgery, I was feeling so bad, I didn’t know if I was going back to play. In those six months, I became somebody else,” she recalls.

“We learn through love or pain,”says Bia.

The pain never returned after October 12 2012, the day she had the back surgery.

The love comes from family. Her mother, Laís Haddad is a tennis teacher, her father, Ayrton Maia Filho, was a basketball player.

From the Maia family, she inherited the height. Today, at 1,85m, only Sharapova in the top 10 of  the WTA is taller than her .

“Being tall is beneficial. A lot of tennis players wanted to be tall and left-handed like myself,” she says.

“But Sharapova is not a player who I copy. Petra Kvitova, Serena Williams and Simona Halep are the players I look at to improve. From Sharapova, only the mental side. But I prefer just being myself, Bia”.

Bia Haddad has some of the best tennis professionals of Brazil on her team. In Balneario Camboriu, located in the Santa Catarina State, where she lives, she is coached by Larri Passos, former mentor of Gustavo Kuerten, who also travels with her.

Bia’s technical coach is Marcus Vinicius Barbosa, known as Bocão, a pupil of Passos. She has Gustavo Magliocca as her physiologist (who also works with Olympic swimming gold medalist César Cielo ), her psychologist is Carla di Perro (also Thomaz Bellucci’s), as well as a physiotherapist, a personal trainer, an orthopedist and an osteopath.

Translated by Sara Tavares.

Carina Witthöft, who won yesterday, on her season so far

Original Source: Tennismagazin, http://www.tennismagazin.de/news/witthoeft-angriffslustig-ich-will-mehr-als-platz-56/

“I want more than No.56”

Miss Witthöft, at the beginning of the year you were gunning for a place among the Top 100. Now you’ve climbed to No.56. Does your success surprise you?

I didn’t really expect it. But I’ve been practicing really well in the last few and have progressively improved my game.  I’ve really made a leap forward in training, I’m willing to try new exercises and have been consistently working on my fitness, and it shows on the court.

That’s it?

It’s crucial that you can apply what you’ve learned in practice to matches and not fall back to old patterns. And confidence is key. I built my confidence by winning a few ITF titles and therefore joined the WTA tour with a positive attitude.

What’s your ranking goal for the end of this season?

In general I don’t set myself ranking goals. It’s my aim to win as many matches as possible at every tournament.  If that keeps happening, then my ranking will keep improving.

So it’s all good so far this season?

Yes and no. On one hand at the start of the year I would’ve been very happy with No.56 at this time, but on the other hand I could’ve done even better. It’s a positive milestone, but I want more!

You’re playing quite a few smaller tournaments beside the big WTA events. Why?

That’s correct. I skipped the tournament in Madrid for example. Madrid has a very strong field – even in qualifying, where I would’ve had to compete. At the ITF tournament in Cagnes-sur-Mer I had a bigger chance to play more matches and gain more points.

That worked out well. You won the tournament, the biggest title of your career.

I’m really happy and pleased with that title. It was a great week and I’m taking a lot from it. I’m satisified, especially with the final [she beat Tatjana Maria who she had lost to just weeks earlier]. It was particularly important that I came back when I was trailing in the first set and managed to win that set. But I’m already focussing on the next challenges.

Are matches more important to you than individual training?

I think both should go hand in hand. The right blend enables an [improved] performance.

Do you play these smaller tournaments to improve your confidence by having a better match record against supposedly weaker oppositon?

I don’t really pay much attention to my record. But you gain a lot of momentum when you do well in a tournament.

But you can’t earn the big bucks at these tournaments. Cagnes-sur-Mer had a total prize money of only $100,000.

True, but I’m not playing tennis for the money. Of course tennis shouldn’t be a loss-making enterprise, but playing matches is very important for me at the moment.

What were your highlights so far this season?

The Australian Open for sure [she made the third round, beating Top 20 player Suarez Navarro]. But there were other nice moments as well, making the quarters in Malaysia or winning my first round match in Stuttgart.

You made some waves with a, let’s say dialogue between you and your father. [https://www.facebook.com/Sandplatzgoetter/videos/10153268733551639/] You complained about the crowd noises. What happened there?

(laughs) Maybe my temper got the better of me there. I hope nobody resents me for that. Tennis is an emotional sport with lots of ups and downs, and that was a down. When you’re playing in front of a home crowd you put yourself under a lot of pressure, but I enjoyed the matches and I gave it my best.

~

Translated by Katja

Kerber on her time with Steffi Graf: “She got rid of my doubts.”

Original source:  Welt am Sonntag, page 28, by Lutz Woeckener

Nutella or apple sauce? When it comes to toppings Angelique Kerber isn’t quite sure yet. Like in past years she will decide on short notice. Before her first round match against Timea Babos from Hungary on Monday Kerber will vist a small crêpes stand at the base of the Eiffel Tower.

The 27 year old isn’t immune to the rituals that are so common in the world of tennis. But aside from a warm crêpe this visit to the French capital might differ from the usual for Kerber. After the changes in recent months a lot seems possible on the red clay of Roland Garros that she used to dislike so much. Some experts even picked her as a dark horse for the title. Nutella or apple sauce – that’s a question Kerber has to answer for the next step of her career.

For years the lefty was considered very reliable on tour – both in a good way and in a bad way. Kerber rarely suffered surprising losses, was the rock in the sea of almost tradional inconsistency that is German women’s tennis. But she also regularly missed out on the big wins against the very best. The Bremen-born Kerber stood among the 10 players for 32 straight months since the 21st of May 2012. But she also only won one tournament in this time. Just 2014 she lost all 4 finals she took part in. A tennis life between the 3rd round and the semifinals, more apple sauce than Nutella. “Maybe I should have changed something earlier,” she says today, looking back, but it took quite a few painful losses to see the need for new stimuli.

The year started in classic Kerber fashion. Quarterfinals in Brisbane, semifinals in Sydney. The shock came at the Australian Open: A loss in the first round, for the first time in four years. The downward spiral started spinning: Early loss in Antwerp, Round of 16 in Dubai, first round loss in Doha. Nothing worked. She felt lethargic, dropped out of the Top 10, doubted and quareled with herself. “Antwerp was the breaking point,” Kerber says. “I couldn’t find a way out and started asking myself: Why am I even doing this? I didn’t feel any joy or motivation. I had to change something.”

The 27 year old retreated to Puszczykowo to her Polish-born family and started thinking about the future. All the years on the tennis courts of this world, all the deprivations, missed family events, being single. Was all that still worth it?

5 days before she left for a 5-week trip to the United States she finally brought herself to make decisions. She split from her coach Benjamin Ebrahimzadeh and wrote two emails. The first one went to Darren Cahill, head coach at the Adidas Tennis Base in Nevade. The second one went to Steffi Graf, her big idol. “I felt like it would go wrong in the US, too, if I didn’t change anything” reasons Kerber. Cahill was asked to make courts available for her in his tennis camp before the tournament in Indian Wells. And she asked Graf to chaperon her training in Las Vegas. “She had often told me that I’m always welcome at hers. That she would help me.” Kerber tells.

The 45 year-old tennis icon came through on her promise. Graf, who lives 10 minutes away with her husband Andre Agassi and their two children, unpacked her racket and didn’t miss a single practice session. For three days she worked with Kerber, observed, analyzed, discussed. “Even if the results weren’t there initially I felt that it gave me so incredibly much,” says Kerber, who lost in the second round of Indian Wells and afterwards returned to Las Vegas to work for five more days with Graf.

When Kerber talks about “Die Steffi” her blue eyes sparkle and one can hear the girl from Kiel talking from inside her. “Steffi herself played with me,” she says with pride. And: “Steffi is still incredibly good, simply superhuman.  Backhand slice, nothing changed, and her footwork is just awesome.”

That Graf influenced Kerber’s game became visible after their time together. After Miami Kerber unexpectedly won on the green clay in Charleston, immediately after that on the red clay of Stuttgart. Both finals were close matches, decided late in the third set. In Stuttgart she beat top players like Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki. An extra helping of Nutella, not the apple sauce of days gone by.

The first two tournament wins on the WTA tour took ten years, the numbers four and five just took 14 days. So what exactly happened there during the eight days in the desert?

Kerber doesn’t like the question. “I learned a lot on the trip, and it simply is something very special when Steffi is standing next to you and telling you things.” Kerber describes, but dodges a precise answer. It seems almost mysterious, as if Kerber and Graf had made a pact in the desert. Nevertheless it becomes clear during our interview that during those days Graf had the biggest impact in Kerber’s head: Validation, Confidence. And the result is that Kerber on court is more patient, but in the crucial stages also more determined, more dominant. “She got rid of my doubts.”

Kerber is convinced that without Graf she wouldn’t have won these two tournaments. A role is certainly also played by her new coach, who actually is an old coach: Torben Beltz. “We’ve known each other for 15 years,” Kerber says and laughs. “When I found myself without a coach at the end of February I was a bit lost and called Torben.”

Off the court the two trust each other. They share private matters, meet for a juice or a wine at the hotel bar, play cards. “Preferrably Skip-Bo,” Kerber says. Or Backgammon. “They are rituals that help me.”

Just like the crêpes at the Eiffel Tower, whether with Nutella or with apple sauce. Unlike at the snack bar the tendency on court is unequivocal. “I have proven in the last few weeks what I can do on clay. Other players by now have a bit more respect for me. But I don’t put the pressure on myself. From the outside, I don’t care who calls me a favorite. I’m going [to Paris] with a good feeling and many good matches on clay and my best preparation for Paris yet.”

So it’s quite possible that she will be in the tournament long enough for a second crêpes, apple sauce for that start, Nutella for the second week.
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Translated by Katja