By: David Kane & Victoria Chiesa
Tennis is notorious for its heinously short off-season; with the almost non-stop influx of #breaking news, the players might be the only ones guaranteed a proper vacation. On the heels of Simona Halep’s split with Wim Fissette, who coached the Romanian to a debut Grand Slam final and a career-high ranking of No. 2, it was announced that Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard would part with longtime coach Nick Saviano. Saviano made the decision public on Monday afternoon, and had been seen as a tremendous force behind Bouchard’s sudden rise to the top of women’s tennis. Victoria Chiesa joins David Kane to discuss the most recent coaching upheavals, and what importance a player’s team has, especially when they plan to follow up a breakthrough season.
David Kane: I’ll be honest: I was still wrapping my head around the idea of Halep’s dismissal of Fissette when I heard about Bouchard and Saviano. When one thinks about a coaching change, it’s typically a situation where the relationship isn’t working (Sloane Stephens and Paul Annacone), or where one party no longer wants to travel (Maria Sharapova and Thomas Hogstedt), or where the pair never made sense from the beginning (Maria Sharapova and Jimmy Connors). Here are two players who had incredible but, most importantly consistent, seasons. Both reached Grand Slam finals and played convincing tennis against the best in the game. What about that kind of data would lead a player to anything other than “more of the same” when looking ahead to next season?
For Halep, this is the second straight season that she will punctuate with a coaching change. Announcing that she’d split with Adrian Marcu within a few weeks of winning the Tournament of Champions in Sofia – her sixth title of 2013 – she looked to be making an upgrade to one of the more “brand name” coaches in Fissette, who once presided over four-time major champion Kim Clijsters. Some of Halep’s reasoning in ousting a coach seems vague this time around, surprising given how clearly she ended the season. What do you make first of Halep and this perceived coaching carousel after impressive results?
Victoria Chiesa: Halep’s decision to hire Fissette for the 2014 season should’ve been the final step in her climb towards the top of the WTA. She announced herself with her play on the court in 2013, and an elite coach was supposed to lead her to bigger things. While Fissette did that, helping Halep to the finals of a Grand Slam and the WTA Finals, and a career-high ranking, Halep decided to go in another direction once again. While her previous coaching change seemed logical, this one baffles. I was suspicious of Halep’s decision a year ago, but it worked out well for her. This time, however, she appears to be going a different route. There have been reports that she’s hired Victor Ionita, the former coach of Sorana Cirstea, and that Hogstedt will work as a consultant in Australia. It seems as though she’s a perfectionist with high expectations for herself, and that might be what drives these changes; it’s good to see that she recognizes that there are areas where she can improve. However, I’m eager to see how she’ll react to two different voices essentially telling her what to do.
DK: Indeed; where last year felt like a natural progression, this feels like a bout of strange decision-making. Halep was quoted in Romanian press that she was certain her next coach had to be Romanian, as if to assure her public that she wouldn’t continue selling out by working with international coaches. We’ve heard things from players like Ivanovic in the past, who said that she preferred working with Serbian coaches from a linguistic and cultural standpoint. But Halep’s words gave the impression that she felt she had something to prove. Technically speaking, Fissette seemed like an ideal match for the World No. 3; having worked with Clijsters, he was someone with experience in molding a more defensive-minded player into an offensive counter-puncher. Taking on Hogstedt is another wrinkle. Halep doesn’t seem to be a player that enjoys clutter, and I somehow don’t see her reacting well to multiple voices. Throw manager and former Grand Slam champion Virginia Ruzici into the mix and that’s just a lot of opinions getting bandied about. At a time when the goal is clear – win a Grand Slam title – this might be a big case of over-thinking on the part of Team Halep.
Where one Rising Star might be used to this sort of change, it’s all brand new for Bouchard. The Canadian has worked with Nick Saviano since the age of 12. This is a coaching relationship that took her to a junior Grand Slam title, and encouraged the tactical adjustments that led to an explosive 2014 season. This is also a coaching relationship that played a big part in her falling out with former friend, Laura Robson. As Bouchard continued to improve, Saviano was seen as a svengali figure. Broadcasters became enamored with his aggressive style and sometimes split-screened his reactions with those of his protegée. The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons accidentally talked about how he would loudly coach Bouchard from the stands at Wimbledon, and though the two had a few intense moments in Paris, Montreal, and Singapore, they seemed like a force of Dinara Safina/Zeljko Krajan proportions. Between Halep and Bouchard, which coaching switch was more surprising, and how big was Saviano’s role in Bouchard’s ascent?
VC: While I heard whispers of tension between Bouchard and Saviano – beginning with a report that the two had a very public dispute a day before the Roland Garros semifinals – I was still shocked to learn the two had parted ways. I had a chance to watch the two interact in a practice session prior to the start of the US Open, but couldn’t tell if the strange vibe I got was merely par for the course. Saviano seemed unsettled, and didn’t stay in one place on the court for more than a few minutes as Bouchard hit with Daniela Hantuchova. She didn’t seem all that receptive to what he was saying to her, either. As SI Tennis’s Courtney Nguyen pointed out, it’s interesting that the announcement of the split came via a press release from Saviano’s academy, and not from Bouchard herself.
I’m not sure where Bouchard goes from here, coaching wise. Saviano was the man who molded her into the player she is today – wonky strokes and all – and I’m not sure what’s going to happen when someone else takes over. Off the court, Saviano seemed to know how to handle Bouchard’s strong personality. While we don’t really know what went on behind the scenes, it has been said that familiarity breeds contempt. The pair worked together for eight years and I feel as though something probably triggered the split. Do you think that there’s more to this than the average player/coach disagreement?
DK: When I heard about the spat at the French, I thought a split was imminent. It was Bouchard’s second straight Grand Slam semifinal and she was due to play Maria Sharapova, the odds-on favorite to win the title. The outburst seemed to indicate that Saviano wasn’t equipped to handle a player who was rising so high, so fast. Yet Bouchard came to play against the eventual champion, getting to within one game of the French Open final.
I thought a split was possible after Montreal. It was her first tournament after finishing runner-up at Wimbledon, and she was clearly struggling to cope with the pressure of playing at home. She snapped at Saviano, audibly wishing that she could leave the court.
By Singapore, I was used to what seemed to simply be their schtick. Bouchard failed to win a set, and muttered how she shouldn’t have even bothered playing the WTA Finals, having had her training schedule stunted by a left leg injury. There were certainly dysfunctional elements, yet Bouchard ended Singapore sounding positive about next season despite some dire results. For all of Bouchard’s bravado, I’ve noticed how she’s tended to lack belief against the top players in the world. Besides a badly misfiring Sharapova and an extremely injured Halep, the Canadian has come off lacking a clear game plan when the biggest names are at their very best. At Wimbledon, she seemed obstinate in her desire to go toe-to-toe at the baseline against an on-song Petra Kvitova, and the results were disastrous. We might never know if this is what Saviano advised her to do, but a more experienced coach might have gotten something else out of Bouchard in what was a critical moment in her young career. It is exceedingly rare that a player retain their childhood coach…
VC: The Justine Henin approach doesn’t work for everyone.
DK: So it will be interesting to see who Bouchard will go with, and what they will look to improve. It might be a big ask to work with stroke production, but that might not be necessary anyway. When Bouchard is feeling confident, those shots sear through the court with almost improbable accuracy. When doubt creeps in, it all becomes an unadulterated mess. In an ideal world, who would you match Bouchard with, and what do you think she needs to do heading into next season?
VC: First, I think Bouchard needs a coach that’s going to help her look at the big picture a bit more. Many times during their coaching timeouts, Saviano would tell her just to focus on her own game, to play her brand of tennis. As you pointed out, that didn’t always work, and Bouchard was stubborn to a fault in many of her losses in 2014. Her style of play requires impeccable timing, and she does need to develop a backup plan when that timing isn’t there. In addition, she needs someone who can help her navigate the heightened expectations that she’ll be facing next year. She’ll start the year as a Top 10 player, and with that status comes a whole different set of pressures. She’s no longer the challenger, and won’t be the underdog in the majority of the matches she plays. She needs a coach that can help her manage a few early losses when they happen.
DK: In a way, Bouchard finds herself in a situation not wholly dissimilar to the one in which Halep found herself one season ago. With a very successful year under her belt, it will be important for the Canadian to assemble a team that can take her through the off-season and get her raring to go come Australia. With a ton of points to defend from the get-go, the coach will need to ready her for a very new part of her career. I would hope she takes Halep’s approach and links up with someone who has been through it with an elite player already. Bouchard and Saviano were somewhat equally green when it came to the upper echelons of the WTA ranks, and that may have caused a lot of their apparent tension. It may not feel comforting to have to start from scratch, but complacency won’t get her through a season where she’s unlikely to have the aura of invincibility of a more established Top 5-8 player. A new season tends to bring change, but whether things stay the same for Bouchard or Halep will depend on how they apply whatever advice they get – from whomever they get it – to the tennis court, where it counts.