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“Wimbledon is the icing on the cake for a lot of players but that’s not the reality on a week to week basis,” says Keothavong, who competed in the Ladies’ singles at SW19 for 13 consecutive seasons. “The tennis season is long and pro players are on the road for 30 weeks a year; it’s non-stop and players can be playing a lot of smaller tournaments in remote places. There’s the challenge of trying to remain positive when things are not going well.”
It is a path well-trodden by Keothavong during her 13-year professional career. “I guess I can relate to players and they use me as a sounding board because I’ve been there and done it,” she says en route to Eastbourne for a training camp for British players aged 15 to 17 as they prepare for their Maureen Connolly Challenge Trophy meeting with the United States. These aspiring juniors welcome her counsel but Keothavong readily admits she is still getting to grips with coaching: “I’ve been retired for five years. I have worked in broadcasting ever since and didn’t go into coaching immediately, so it’s all relatively new to me.” We also discuss some of the challenges that face juniors as well as younger players who have beaten the odds to take the next step in tennis.
What does your work with young players entail?
AK: I work alongside the player and their coach; I help them to set goals; establish what they want to achieve and how they’re going to do it. I help give them information and help lead them in the right direction, providing extra support in areas where they feel they need it.
What sort of challenges are they looking to address?
AK: First, they have to come up with realistic goals. Every player represents a different case, depending on where they’re ranked and how old they are, how long they’ve been playing professionally, and what targets they need to hit. I’m not involved on a day to day basis but when I see them in a training or competition environment I’m looking out for whether they’re improving, consistently working on those goals, and the other things they want to focus on to help make them a better tennis player.
How can you find them to find their focus?
AK: There isn’t one, perfect way and you have to deal with each individual depending on their personality; and that comes down to communication. I’m not a mind reader, I don’t know what they’re thinking. So a lot of it is communicating and sharing how they feel. They don’t necessarily have to agree with my view, but they can be open about it and be honest with themselves and me about how they they’re performing and how they’re doing things, whether they’re focusing on the right things, that’s their biggest challenge.
How refreshing it is for players to hear another coaching voice when they work with you?
AK: It’s up to the players to decide how much or how little they want to use me; with the younger players it’s an opportunity for them to offload and pick my brains and ask for advice because they’re not inside the world’s top 100 yet, and I guess there’s still a lot of girls that I used to compete against that are still out there competing. I can help provide extra tactical support and the fact that I commentate on women’s tennis from a week to week basis, I’m aware of the different levels and playing styles of the international players.
Is there a greater incentive on communication in an individual sport like tennis?
AK: The nature of a life of a tennis player means that you end up spending more time with your coach than any of your family, so you have to have the trust in your coach. Communication is the biggest skill and you have to learn how to express yourself in the best way possible and to get the best out of your coach. A player needs to develop that trust and you only gain that trust by spending time with that player and being around them and providing the support when they need it.
How important are qualities such as perseverance and resilience?
AK: They’re huge. Those qualities for me are more important than the talent of the player because, frankly, in tennis, most players are dealing with losses every week and unless you’re winning tournaments you’re losing somewhere, whether it’s in the first round, quarter-finals or semi-finals; so you need to be pretty thick-skinned and develop a way to pick yourself up. Some losses will hurt more than others, that’s natural, but again it’s being able to see the bigger picture especially from a younger age. That’s not only the player, that’s also the people around them, including parents, who are often the driving force behind younger players. If you think of how many hundreds and thousands and millions of kids who are, I guess, working on a dream of winning Wimbledon one day, only a fraction of those kids will go on to compete at the highest level. The life of a tennis player can be very lonely as well, particularly at the start where you’re not playing the big tournaments and it’s a huge grind. Like I said earlier, you’re travelling quite often to remote places where you’ve got probably a handful of people watching you; you’ve got to be made of pretty tough stuff to suck it up and put yourself out there every week.
How much stress is enough stress?
AK: Stress is always going to be there and it’s just managing it in the right way and having a good support team around you can help you with all of that; to offload where you can. It also needs to be channelled in the right way; I guess it needs to be viewed as a challenge; as a motivation for the player.
Do you encourage players to have a routine?
AK: Yes, but that doesn’t always work for every player. In general, tennis players are some of the most superstitious athletes in the world. I think that most tennis players actually like routine and need routines because everything else is so unpredictable. And most athletes: part of them is a control freak, right? Why would you do it and put yourself through all of that? One of the things when I retired from playing tennis professionally, I missed things such as the routine. I’m a fan of routine and if you find a certain technique that works then I’m a supporter.
Should feedback be given before or after a match or training session?
AK: It’s a mixture and you have to work around each individual’s needs and every player is different. Depending on whether it’s a team competition or individual competition it’s really up to the player to tell me how they want it, whether it’s before or after. There’s certain players who like to have specific debriefs and tactical chats about matches anyway the night before. I don’t direct the coach of any individual player and you don’t want to take a player out of their usual training or competitive environment habits.
And you want them to feel empowered?
AK: Players need to take ownership and that’s probably emphasised more to younger players coming through; they need to understand it’s their career and the rest of us are all there to provide support in the right way, but they need to take ownership of it all and feel comfortable that certain things are being done in a way that’s going to help them.
Do the LTA guard against creating cooker cutter players?
AK: Playing style has to be established at a very young age because once you mature in tennis it’s very difficult to change your style of play. That’s something important for coaches working with young players to ensure that they have variety in their game, so it’s not all about power. It’s a skill-based sport but those skills have to be worked on from a very young age; it’s very difficult to tell a 24-year-old to chip and charge or serve and volley here when that’s something that’s been alien to them for so long. You don’t see many professional tennis players change their natural style of play during the course of their career, they generally become better at what they do or more consistent.
You’d find you were trying to refine rather than change your skills?
AK: I think every tennis player is always trying to develop different skills and nothing’s ever perfect so you’re always trying to find your groove. If you do make technical changes there will always be slight tweaks here and there; it won’t even be noticed by a lot of people. I look back at my own career and there were certain things that I needed to work on from a younger age; once I got to a certain age I was already set in my way and it was very difficult to change. In the heat of the moment, you revert back to what you know on the match court and what you trust. While you’re trying to improve things here and there, ultimately your playing style is defined from a young age. Some will disagree, though.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt so far?
AK: The biggest thing is that it’s important to have an open mind. I’m still learning and I don’t believe there is one right way to develop a tennis player, so it’s having an open mind to trying different things.