By Matthew Futterman
It was, by the usually secretive standards of coach-player relationships in tennis, an unorthodox move. Simona Halep of Romania had just lost in the second round of the French Open, suffering a panic attack after leading by a set and up a service break on Chinese teenager Zheng Qinwen. Shortly after the match ended, Halep’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, the Frenchman best known for his tutelage of Serena Williams, took to Instagram to accept full responsibility for the defeat as well as Halep’s other subpar performances in recent tournaments.
“She is fully dedicated, motivated, gives it everything on every ball,” said Mouratoglou, who began working with Halep only earlier this year. “She is a champion — her track record speaks for itself. I expect much better from myself, and I want to extend my apologies to her fans who have always been so supportive.” The post caught nearly everyone in tennis by surprise, even Halep, the two-time Grand Slam champion, who did not agree with it at all.
“I was, yeah, surprised, shocked that he did that post and he took everything on him, but it was not on him,” she said before the start of Wimbledon. “It was me, that I was not able to do better and to actually calm down myself when I panicked.” The other day, Mouratoglou stood firm. The post was not an attempt to take the weight of the loss off Halep’s shoulders, he said during a courtside chat at the All England Club.
“Do you think the panic attack comes from the sky?” he said. “There were signs that this could happen, and I should have anticipated them. Too many coaches say this is not my responsibility, that I do this and that for the player, and once the match starts there is nothing I can do.” He used an obscenity to describe that kind of rationalization. “It is our job to see things, to understand what can happen and to plan for it and adjust,” he said.
That is one part of a tennis coach’s job — but only one. Coaches in tennis lead one of the odder existences in sports. Some players go for long periods without even using a coach. Those who do can see their coaches sitting courtside mere feet away as they play, but coaches can’t speak other than providing encouragement during the matches at the most important tournaments.
They are often expected to travel everywhere the player goes, spending months on the road and sometimes serving as a babysitter, therapist and tactical expert. It is a close relationship with a troubling history of sometimes becoming too intimate. Pam Shriver, the 21-time Grand Slam doubles champion, recently revealed that she had a sexual relationship with her longtime coach, Don Candy, that began when she was 17 and lasted for several years, a relationship she now views as an assault given the power imbalance.
Sometimes, a new coach completely changes the way a player plays. Since he began working with Iga Swiatek in December, Tomasz Wiktorowski has transformed her into an aggressive, attacking player who serves hard and hunts for opportunities to crush her forehand rather than hanging back and showing off one of the most creative arsenals in the game.
Power not used is power wasted, the saying goes, but other times, players change coaches and little changes. Andy Murray hits the forehand with a bit more authority when Ivan Lendl is on his team, but that is about the only noticeable difference.
Some relationships are long term. Rafael Nadal for years was guided by his uncle Toni and has been with Carlos Moya the past five years. Felix Auger Aliassime has been with Frederic Fontang since 2017, although recently Toni Nadal has been helping him. Emma Raducanu has been through four coaches in the past year and now doesn’t have one.
For many coaches, the work is often temporary. Some do double time as television commentators. There is a coaching carousel in tennis that makes running baseball dugouts and college football sidelines look stable.
Consider Halep’s quarterfinal match against Amanda Anisimova of the United States set for Wednesday. For more than six years, Darren Cahill, a longtime coach and ESPN commentator, who has worked with Murray, Andre Agassi and Ana Ivanovic, among others, coached Halep.
They split in September. Cahill, who is Australian, said the rigors of travel and the COVID-19 quarantines that Australia required each time he returned home had become too much. But after Australia lifted the requirements, Anisimova asked Cahill to join her team before the Australian Open in January and he obliged.
Anisimova’s main coach had been her father, who died of a heart attack at 52 in 2019. She has struggled to find a stable coach since. But the relationship with Cahill did not quite click, and Cahill split with Anisimova in March, saying he had overestimated his ability to manage the commitment to her and his family. Cahill has since signed on with Jannik Sinner, an emerging 20-year-old Italian star, who in February fired his longtime coach Riccardo Piatti, a relationship that, until the split, most figured would last for years. Sinner lost Tuesday to Novak Djokovic.
So many players seem to go through so many coaches. And yet Paul Annacone, who has coached Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Sloane Stephens and recently began working with Taylor Fritz, who plays Nadal on Wednesday in the quarterfinals, said the most important thing a coach can provide a player was “stability” and what he described as a “macro comprehension of the environment and best practices to get that player to buy into an agreed-upon philosophy.”
That can be a challenge. Harold Solomon, who once coached Naomi Osaka, said their relationship didn’t work because he expected his players to be the ones setting the standard for commitment. Annacone said the coach-player relationships often founder when communication breaks down. Really “knowing the other person is essential,” he said. Or maybe, sometimes, it isn’t.
Mouratoglou and Williams were nearly inseparable for years. He was the constant presence on the practice courts with her and in her box. He even admitted to coaching her during the 2018 U.S. Open final against Osaka, a violation that led to her being penalized a point and then a game during the match, which she lost in straight sets.
Halep landed at Mouratoglou’s academy in the south of France earlier this year, after injuries and a loss of confidence had her thinking her career might be over. She barely knew Mouratoglou and was looking for a place to train. She said seeing children on the courts working hard at 8 a.m. every day was inspiring. Mouratoglou approached her one day and said he believed she could still be at the top of the sport. She figured since he had worked for so long with the best player ever, he probably knew a few things. Williams had not played a match in months, and it was not clear whether she would ever play again. Mouratoglou, seemingly a free agent, signed on.
“He tries to understand me because I think this is the main thing that I want from a coach, to understand me, because I am pretty emotional most of the time,” Halep said. Slowly, she has begun to win more. “I feel we need time to know each other better, to be able to put in practice everything he tells me.” Of course, then Williams announced she was coming back, although she doesn’t know for how long. She played Wimbledon and though she lost in the first round said she might play more this summer. She is using her sister’s coach, at least for now.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.