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Tennis Journo Discusses Coaches, Love And Heather Watsons Win, As Well As Rafa Nadal And What’s App

By Alix Ramsay

It is what every player wants to know: what makes the perfect coach and where can I find him or her?

Coaches come in all shapes and sizes and, these days, they are usually the people you grew up watching in their playing days. There are the quiet ones (Magnus Norman, Ivan Ljubicic), the superstar ones (Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Andre Agassi) and the ones who may not have made many headlines as players but they have guided their charges into the spotlight (your Darren Cahills, Brad Gilberts and the like).

Andy Murray was the first player to employ the “celebrity coach” when he hired Ivan Lendl at the end of 2011. Before you could say new balls please, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer followed suit by signing Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg respectively. Since then, Djokovic has worked with Agassi and is currently enjoying a spell with Goran Ivanisevic.

Each brings his or her own unique talents to the team, be it tactical, mental or physical, and then there are others, like Pepe Imaz (another of Djokovic’s former gurus) who just bring love and harmony. But most are steeped in tennis and its workings. Most, but not all.

In this vast list of guides and mentors, there are not many footballers. Until now, that is. As Heather Watson lifted the fourth trophy of her career at the weekend, beating Canada’s Leylah Fernandez in Acapulco, she attributed her success to the influence of Courtney Duffus. He is not technically anything to do with her coaching team – he is her boyfriend – but since they started dating, Watson (Hev to her friends) has not looked back on the tennis court.

‘Who is Courtney Duffus?’ we hear you gasp. He is a striker for Yeovil Town FC and for those of you unfamiliar with workings of the English Football League, let us explain.

Picture Liverpool sitting at the top the Premier League (we like to do that; we’ve spent most of the season doing that). They are 22 points clear of Manchester City in second place (22!) and their first Premier League title is in sight. Now look down, past Leicester City and Chelsea; look, further down, beyond Norwich and the relegation trapdoor and on towards the Championship, League One and League Two. Go down 94 places until you reach the National League, the fifth tier of the English football pyramid, and there, in fourth spot, is Yeovil Town. They beat Wrexham 3-0 on Saturday and Hev’s Courtney scored the opening goal.

The funny thing is that Hev doesn’t really like football. She always promised herself that she would never go out with a footballer but then, after her Wimbledon was over last year, she was out having dinner with a friend and she bumped into Courtney and his mate. He bought the two girls a drink, one thing led to another and, hey presto, Hev has a new boyfriend and a new outlook on life.

“Courtney is so level-headed that it sort of rubs off on me,” she told a select band of British reporters after the final in Mexico. “I am a calm person, but I have also got that fire and feistiness. He just puts me at ease with anything and everything, he just makes my life really easy.”

She needed to be level-headed, too, during the final. She had five match points in the second set tiebreak but could not convert a single one. Regrouping in the third set, she eventually won 6-4, 6-7, 6-1. From being ranked No.122 when she met Courtney, Hev is now back in the top 50 at No.49 (her career high was back in 2015 when she reached No.38). From needing a wild card to get into Wimbledon a little over eight months ago, she could be seeded at Roland Garros if she continues on her current upward path.

“It’s been a real turnaround,” she said. “Life is full of ups and downs, and so is sport. Looking back now at how far I have come, on the court and off the court, it’s so nice to be here now. I wouldn’t appreciate it as much without the tough times.

“It starts off the court, and you have to be happy. You have to have love for the sport otherwise I don’t think you can be successful. I am really enjoying my tennis, and as I am getting older, I have a different appreciation for it. My outlook on life and tennis is different now. When I was 17 or 18 on the tour, it was the be all and end all. Now there is more lightness in the way I approach tennis.”

Hev, then, has found the answer to the biggest question in tennis: she has found the one person who makes her tick on a tennis court. It might not work for everyone – and there is only one Courtney Duffus, after all – but it certainly works for her.

And, finally: who knew? The Big Three have a WhatsApp group. Novak, Roger and Rafa have their own little gossip corner thanks to the wonders of electronic communication.

This little news nugget was revealed by Novak as he was powering his way to the Dubai title (again) last week. According to the world No.1, the group does exist and when someone has something to say, everyone joins in. And then when nobody has much to say, it all goes terribly, terribly quiet.

It sounds like one of those desperate office parties at Christmas where you find yourself clutching a glass of cheap, tepid, white wine and what appears to be a brussels sprout impaled on a cocktail stick (according to the lady from HR, “we like to offer a vegetarian option so that everyone’s tastes are covered”). The only people you recognise are the dweebs from accounts, the ones who send your expenses back every week with no cash and no explanation.

You smile weakly. No one speaks. You try to make conversation – it is Christmas, after all – but as you begin, the dweeb in the beige suit, beige shirt and beige tie complemented by beige, suede lace-ups starts to speak. You stop. “No, no, no… you go ahead. What were you going to say?” you stammer. “I was going to say,” Beige Man says, “that I don’t like brussels sprouts.” And then silence falls again with a deafening thud.

You have to think that the Big Three have a more entertaining line in banter than that but it does beg the question: what is the group called? ‘The Flock’, possibly (as in ‘of GOATS’). Although that would mean that a member of the group would be one of the three flockers – and that could easily lose something in translation along the way. Best stick with ‘The Herd’.

And what was it called before Novak came powering up behind the other two and started collecting grand slam titles to a band playing? The ‘King and I’ perhaps? Hours of harmless fun could have been had between Rog and Raf as they worked out who was ‘king’ and who was merely ‘I’. What larks, Pip; what larks.


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