Award-winner Sven reveals all

Written by: on 26th February 2011
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Sven Groeneveld (ADIDAS)
Award-winner Sven reveals all  |

Sven Groeneveld, one of the world’s finest coaches, is’s first award winner and he will be presented with his Top Coach Trophy at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells in March. 10sballs will honour Sven with a presentation party where he will receive an engraved silver tennis balls can in front of his friends, the players and possibly even a photographer or two to mark the occasion. We are currently negotiating with the big boss to lay on some tea and buns to make the day extra special.

In the final part of our exclusive interview with Sven, he reveals how he finally came to understand his own ego and how he found his professional home with the adidas player development programme. Sven takes us from the moment he thought he might like to live the quiet life until today when is busier than he has ever been.

“I have worked with so many players that there is one I have forgotten to mention: Mario Ancic. I worked with him for six months and he actually went from 160 to 60 in the world in that period. He won three Challengers, got to the fourth round in Australian Open [in 2003]. But there was a lot of expectations also from the father, especially.

At that stage I’d already moved back to Holland. I was living in London for quite a long time, for about six years, during the time I was travelling, and I moved back to Holland in 2000. But they wanted me to travel about 45 weeks a year, and I had a relationship, and I said, there’s just no way. I’d given that as an explanation: I cannot do it. will you still accept that. And at that stage, before I started, they said they accepted but when it came down to it, they didn’t accept it. I said ‘I have to reschedule things’ and they didn’t want to. Well, I think Mario may have wanted to – I think he was really disappointed that I stopped.

But I think this was not to do with ego, but more to with the principle of the matter. But still, I’m a pretty stubborn man but I think you have to be as a coach, also.

You do have a life, too. You do seem to lose that a little bit when you have a career in professional tennis – it’s not easy out here. But at that stage, I told the family, I told Mario, I said: ‘Sorry. If you need somebody for 45 weeks, I’m not the man. I can’t do it.’. And at that stage, I had no intention to do anything but just to settle down a little bit, be at home, try and maybe even work for the federation. So I stopped after Monte Carlo.

Then, during the French, Octagon called me. Micky Lawler, at that time, was contacting me about Mary [Pierce]. I said, I will not work with Mary again. I was asked a couple times already to work with her again. I said, We’ve had three incidents. The last incident we had was not very good and I’m not too happy about how that went. But if she wants to give me a call, she can. I’m not going to go talk to you.

And so she called me and said, Will you please consider. I’m almost ranked in the 100s. I need some help. I don’t know what to do and you’re the only one.

Here goes. OK. But you have to come to Holland. You have to be based out of Holland. I will not be based anywhere but Holland. Only so many weeks on the road. OK – yes, yes, yes, yes. Everything was yes. We start to work.

We started working and basically, within a year she was back to where she actually belonged. But in that whole period, it was a crazy world, a roller coaster, a very tough period for her. Luckily I was at home so I was OK, but she was going really through a tough time.

I had a lot of help from a physical trainer and motivational person named Henk Kraaijenhof, a very, very good trainer and helped a lot in the work that we did. He was formerly working with Linford Christie and with more the athletic side and not in tennis at all; with the football teams he worked. And he really made a difference. He really helped me, helped me also to work with players and taught me a lot. It was a great experience and really got her back on track. Really got her back on track.

And also, after that period, she was back to No.4 in the world and she really made a good impact. But after the French, she started getting a little bit more the signs of… the “Mary” signs again, meaning that she was not always listening and always being humble enough for me and so I said, This is it. Done. Finished.

And then came the request to work with Nathalie Dechy. Again, I said to Nathalie, OK, what are you looking for? I’m living in Holland. You’re more than welcome to come to Holland. I know you have a relationship, I know you’re on the road a lot, if you’re willing to come to Holland, I will work. But why do you want to work with me?

She said, well, I really think you’re the only one who can get me to a level that I’ve never reached before. And she said, I’ve been close – No.20. No.19 is my highest ranking – but I’m always around the 30s and I just feel that I still have something left in my career. Will you help me?

So I picked it up and we worked for a year and within the year, she got to No.11 in the world, got to the semis in the Australian Open and got to the Championships – she was an alternate – but she really, really excelled and, actually, after that, won all her grand slam titles in doubles.

But at the end of 2006, I received a request from adidas to start a programme, or to start working within their structure as a “flying doctor”, a tennis doctor.

I actually presented this, the same kind of philosophy and idea, to IMG when Mark McCormack was still alive and Mark said, No, there’s too much conflict of interest and it’s not going to work and it’s not for us. We have the academy and this would be maybe conflicting with the academy. I think it’s a good idea – but not for us.

So when Jim Latham came to me in 2006, I said, Hey, so you want me to work with your players, within your structure, who need extra help, who are without a coach – interim coaching – consulting, scouting, advising, everything that I thought that I would like to do.

So I told Nathalie, I’m sorry. I’ve got a great opportunity. It’s a life opportunity for me, it’s a career changing opportunity. It’s nothing to do with you because I feel like we are making big progress, but this is something that I need to do. If I don’t, this opportunity will never come again.

I decided to do that and five years later, sitting here now, I feel I’ve made a very, very big choice at that time. Also, I learned in that process a lot more about the ego.

The only question that Jim asked me when I showed my resume, he said, Sven – great results, incredible experience but you have so many players. Now you are going into our structure, I’m afraid you will not have longevity. I said, Jim, are you aware of the tennis world from the perspective of a coach? He goes, No, I don’t.  (At that stage I was still together with my girlfriend, my ex-wife) I said, I’m actually a very loyal person. It’s just that if I feel that I cannot make a difference to a player who has only one career, I always uphold also my dignity and feel that I also have to make some decisions. I said, I tell you one thing: you can count on me. And you can count on me for a long time.

And, obviously, five years now in the programme, you see how it’s developed and how it’s going. We’re going to extend it again at the end of the year, we’re going to continue for another three years.

I feel that I’ve found my place, working with the best players in the world, the coaches, helping the parents.

When I started, it was obviously brand new. The first trip that I made was a scouting trip, a scouting trip where Laura Robson was scouted and we signed her. That was at the end of 2005. In 2006, my first trip to Australia where I worked with Martina Hingis, Chakvetadze, I worked with Srichaphan. It started right away. There was an interest [from the players].

So, when we were going along, all of a sudden, Jim asked me ‘with which other players can you make an impact?’. I said ‘I think Maria Kirilenko, I can make an impact. And I really believe I can help Ana Ivanovic’. So he [Jim Latham] gave me carte blanche, he said ‘Sven, if that’s what you think then focus and let’s see what it brings’. So, in that period, he gave me a lot of freedom, he gave me a lot of chances not only to work with Ana and Maria but I spent a lot of other players with other players like Srichaphan. Not many people noticed that or knew about because I was by myself until Mats Merkel joined in 2007 here at the US Open – then it started to take a little bit more shape into what it’s now: the programme.

Darren Cahill joined in 2009 and since that time we’ve been getting a lot of recognition for the work that we do as a team and I think the brand has made an impact on the tennis industry. That’s what I wanted to do: to make an impact. So we are slowly but surely developing something.

To be a good coach you need to listen: listen to what you players have to say. Observe. See what other people are doing and maybe apply it to the players that you work with. I think you have to be very flexible, adaptable and you have to learn how your ego is functioning.

I’m willing to actually say ‘you know what? I can now say Mark McCormack must have given me one of the best pieces of advice ever because I did my search and I’m still learning about myself. And I think that’s what he meant: spend some time learning about who you are and what makes you tick instead of only working with the player.

A good coach needs to be there for the player when he is not having his best time. He needs to be more motivated, be more willing to work harder than the player – and that’s a professional coach on tour. There are different types of coaches, obviously, in different stages of players’ careers. And that’s where, again, if you are a professional coach, you have to be adapting to the player’s situation whether it’s their age, if they’re injured, their family circumstances, their culture. Here I work with players from Russia, Romania, Denmark, Spain, Holland – it’s just such a large variety.

And not to forget, I started last year with Esther Vergeer because she asked me if I could help her. She was going through some tough times, she didn’t know if she wanted to continue and she said ‘Sven, can you help me?’. She being part of the adidas family, I couldn’t say no because I have a great respect for all the dedication she has shown over all the years and I may not be an experienced wheelchair coach but I’m learning. That’s why I think that you always have to look; as a coach, you always want to improve, you always want to expand your horizons and look for other challenges. That’s why Esther, for me, is totally out of my ball park but it’s a challenge. It’s something that I would like to do. And that is also something that, for me, makes a good coach.”

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