Great Britain’s Emma Raducanu stunned the world when she won the 2021 U.S. Open. At 18, she became the first singles qualifier since the Open Era began in 1968 to win a major championship. But less than two weeks later, Raducanu fired her coach. The teenager, who had played in only four tour-level events, said she wanted someone more experienced.
“I need someone who’s had that professional tour experience, and has been through it, and seen players in my situation for many years, going through the same because it’s going to take a lot,” Raducanu told The Guardian. She’s now working with longtime WTA coach Torben Beltz, who helped Raducanu win her first-round match at the Australian Open on Tuesday.
Experience, however, has never been a prerequisite for professional tennis success. For years, players have ascended to the top 10 and won Grand Slam titles without experienced coaches or former champions by their side. Some of the best and highest-ranked players on the women’s and men’s tours have coaches who have never played a point at Melbourne Park, where the Australian Open, the season’s first Grand Slam tournament, is currently being played.
The average career-high singles ranking of the coaches working with the top 20 women is 896, and the coaches for the top 20 men have an average ranking of 254. Some have never even played professionally. Nearly 30 percent of the 49 coaches currently working with top 20 women and men didn’t play enough professional tennis to accrue a WTA or ATP ranking.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not great coaches. Among that group is Toni Nadal, who taught his nephew Rafael Nadal from when he was a boy and was his full-time coach for his first 16 Grand Slam titles.
Ashleigh Barty, the No. 1-ranked women’s singles player and a two-time Grand Slam champion, is coached by Craig Tyzzer, who also has no past ATP Ranking but received the WTA Coach of the Year award in 2019. Barty chose Tyzzer and has remained with him partly because they get along well.
“We’re just able to work through it together. When he sort of suggests anything, we go back and forth and actually have a discussion about what we want. There’s no one that’s really bossing each other around,” Barty said in 2017, their second year together.
Some players gravitate to former players as coaches because that’s what they’re familiar with, said Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and the president of Barnard College at Columbia University. But Beilock’s research has shown that great players don’t necessarily make great coaches.
According to Beilock, while talented players perform at a high level, they can’t always explain how they smash their serve or knife their backhand crosscourt.
“It’s hard to break down exactly what you did when you do it really automatically, when you don’t think about it,” she told FiveThirtyEight.
Top-level players can also struggle to empathize with the player they’re coaching and relate to those who can’t play at their level, Beilock said.
“They just don’t see it from that perspective.”
Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska was elated to add 18-time major singles champion Martina Navratilova to her coaching team in 2014. But in the five months they worked together, Radwanska slipped three places in the rankings, from No. 6 to No. 9, and reached only one semifinal.
“It was a great experience to work with one of the all-time greats. However, we both agreed that as Martina could not commit 100% to the project, then it was not going to work as a long-term partnership,” Radwanska posted on Twitter.
That’s not to say that great players can’t become great coaches. Spain’s Conchita Martinez reached No. 2 in the WTA rankings and won the 1994 Wimbledon. She now coaches countrywoman Garbiñe Muguruza, whom she helped win the 2017 Wimbledon and ascend to No. 1.
On the men’s side, former No. 1 Carlos Moya helps coach Rafael Nadal, and former No. 2 Goran Ivanisevic supports Novak Djokovic. However, it’s worth pointing out that both Nadal and Djokovic have more than one coach, and both won the bulk of their trophies with different main coaches — Toni Nadal and Marian Vajda, respectively. And neither Toni Nadal nor Vajda had grand success as players or as coaches before those partnerships.
At the end of 2020, Felix Auger-Aliassime had a similar thought as Raducanu and wanted to add a more experienced coach to his team. The young Canadian had steadily climbed the rankings but was 0-6 in tour-level finals, so he decided to hire Toni Nadal.
“I told myself that it would be good to go to somebody who has been at the highest level of our sport. Someone who has been to where I want to go one day,” Auger-Aliassime told the ATP Tour.
It’s worked out. Auger-Aliassime reached his first Grand Slam semifinal at last year’s U.S. Open. And the 21-year-old is the ninth seed at the Australian Open, his highest seeding yet at a Grand Slam tournament.
But if Beilock were a player on tour, she might hire Raducanu’s former coach Andrew Richardson, who led the young star to the U.S. Open title but never had such success as a player, reaching a career-high of No. 133. But before he was fired, he was credited for having a “calming influence” on Raducanu.
Being a great coach isn’t automatic. Like anything else, it’s something that needs to be learned, Beilock said. Her advice to all players: Just hire someone who’s already been a great coach.