The British No 1 is once again on the hunt for a new coach after Dmitry Tursonov walked away but the approach to appointments is unlikely to change
October 12, 2022 5:47 pm(Updated 6:17 p.m.)
It might be a glib summation of her first 16 months at the elite level of tennis, but when Professor Neil Maiden, professor of digital creativity at the Bayes Business School in London, says “Emma Raducanu goes through coaches like a knife through butter”, he is echoing the frustrations of many a tennis fan.
Professor Maiden adds: “To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s redoubtable Lady Bracknell, ‘To lose one coach, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose six looks like carelessness’.”
Certainly, the names are starting to mount up: Dmitry Tursonov became the latest coach to walk away from the team this week, lining up another as-yet-unannounced job that he feels will be a better fit.
Since the beginning of 2021, Matt James, Nigel Sears, Andrew Richardson, Jeremy Bates, Torben Beltz and Iain Bates have all been her coach in some capacity. Mark Petchey, Louis Cayer and Ricardo Piatti have worked with her too.
The approach is an unusual one, to say the least, in an era where stability has equaled success: Rafael Nadal worked with the same coach, his uncle Toni, for 12 years before he decided the traveling wasn’t for him; Novak Djokovic credits long-time mentor Marian Vajda with masterminding his best years; Andy Murray won all his majors with Ivan Lendl in his players’ box; Roger Federer has had Severin Luthi by his side for the last 15 years; Serena Williams very rarely had anyone other than her father Richard Williams or Patrick Mouratoglou coaching her.
Everywhere you look in an era that has produced at least four all-time greats, there are long-term partnerships.
Which is not to say that there is only one way to win. The Center for Creativity (CebAI) at Bayes has developed an app called Sport Sparks that allows coaches to apply creative problem-solving strategies to their practice. It has been used by the strength and conditioning team at the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), as well as football clubs like Manchester City and West Ham.
“At the elite level, where there is little difference in technical ability, athletes win or lose on their decision-making skills,” says Sam Stallard-Stelle, CebAI’s managing director.
“Having a creative problem-solving approach, not just for the shots but also for the coaching strategy that supports her game, could make all the difference in Raducanu’s career.
“It is most certainly a creative step change from tradition that has caused shockwaves in the industry. Some see it as brutal, but it can be a very credible and innovative approach to adopt.”
Even the greatest innovators were often disregarded as mavericks and lunatics, before being born out in the fullness of time as geniuses. Raducanu’s problem is that much of the success appears to have come before the innovation: she split with Sears after a run to the Wimbledon fourth round and Richardson after winning the US Open.
A chastening 12 months followed her success in New York, and I cannot count the number of times I have read “go back to the coach who won your grand slam” on social media. But it should be noted that the unusual approach to coaches in the Raducanu camp pre-dates her Flushing Meadows triumph. Her father Ian is said to have wanted to hire, or at least contract, a different coach for each shot or even different surfaces, a level of specialization virtually unheard of in the tennis world.
When Raducanu was struggling with forehand in 2020, former British No 1 Petchey was called in to fix it without ever being hired as permanent coach. Sears, who is Murray’s father-in-law and had worked with Ana Ivanovic and Anett Kontaveit, was in place for the grass-court season before Richardson got the US hard-court swing appointment.
A ferociously intelligent student, it is said Raducanu absorbs knowledge quickly, which might encourage the ever-changing approach to coaching staff.
What it forgets though is the importance of a coach as more than just a technician: in an individual touring sport like tennis, a coach is someone you have dinner with every night, spend more time with than any other member of your family or friendship group , and the main shoulder to cry on when things go wrong.
Personality fit is as important as technical approach to tennis, if not more so. Golfer Rory McIlroy, in a similarly taxing individual sport, learned this when he took on Harry Diamond as his caddy. Diamond was the best man at his wedding and was crucial in helping him through difficult times on and off the course.
There have been some constants in the Raducanu box: IMG agent Chris Helliar has remained in post since New York and more often than not it has been the LTA’s Will Herbert, the man Raducanu calls her mechanic, traveling as her physio.
But the coaching chair has been a hot seat and will continue to be so. Formerly of Murray’s camp, strength and conditioning specialist Jez Green will run her pre-season fitness sessions in an effort to beat a series of injuries, but who will replace Tursonov remains to be seen.
Whoever it is should know it is only likely to be a short-term appointment, and not many will give up another job to take on a role with such jeopardy.
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