Having captured Wimbledon, Olympic gold at London 2012 and the US Open, Serena Williams told her new coach Patrick Mouratoglou she had one goal for the upcoming 2013 season: Win her first French Open in over a decade.
It’s that kind of mentality that Mouratoglou, coach to Williams, Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas and rising American star Coco Gauff, says separates the most elite athletes from the rest of the pack.
It’s a champion’s mentality – or, as the Frenchman puts it – a champion’s mindset.
“Champions have a different mindset. Champions think like champions,” Mouratoglou tells Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview.
“Champions never look behind them. They always, whatever they achieve, they forget it the second after and they look at the future: ‘What's next? What's my next goal?’”
There are lots of goals within the Mouratoglou camp, notably for Serena, who has been outspoken in her quest to win a 24th Grand Slam in singles, which would equal the all-time record. Williams already holds the Open Era record for majors won (23).
With 2021 the next time we’ll see Serena on a tennis court, that 24th major remains a priority, Mouratoglou confirmed.
”Serena's goals have not changed since she came back to tennis after giving birth: She still feels that she can win Grand Slams,” he said. “If she can have some Olympic gold medals, she would be extremely happy, too, because that's also a great achievement for any athlete in any sport. (But) the last three years were disappointing because even though she reached four Grand Slam finals, she was not able to win one.”
Williams gave birth to daughter Alexis Olympia in September of 2017. After an initial comeback in March of 2018, Williams reached the final of both Wimbledon and the US Open in 2018 as well as in 2019. She lost each of those four finals in straight sets.
At the 2020 US Open, Williams made the semi-finals, losing to fellow mum Victoria Azarenka.
“I (can) feel that her motivation is absolutely intact, maybe bigger” for 2021, Mouratoglou said. “It was difficult for her to find new balance as a mother and as a professional athlete. And I feel like she's finding it."
"I feel like she's understanding what it's going to take for her to win one or several other Grand Slams. And I feel like she's prepared to pay the price for that. So I'm extremely excited for 2021. I can't wait for it.”
Coaching philosophy: ‘Each player is different’
Serena, along with Tsitsipas and Gauff, spends time training at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, located near the port city of Nice, France. Tsitsipas has gone from No.91 in the world to start 2018 to the top 5 in 2020. Gauff, still only 16, was ranked No.686 just two years ago. She’s now a top 50 player, with wins over the likes of Naomi Osaka, Venus Williams and other top stars.
“My coaching philosophy is about doing something different with each player because each player is different,” said Mouratoglou, who turned 50 this year. “If I go back to the ‘90s when I started my tennis academy, nobody was doing that.”
Mouratoglou, who has also worked with the likes of top players like Marcos Baghdatis, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Grigor Dimitrov, Jeremy Chardy and more, believes individualized training – even for a sport like tennis that requires a lot of repetition – is the key to greatness, to making champions.
“In order not to waste the talent, you have to fulfill the needs of each of the players,” he said. “And those needs are completely different."
"What makes our job as coaches interesting is the fact that every time with each player, it's completely different. ... I have to take all that into consideration.”
Mouratoglou likes to start with what he calls a “blank page” when working with a player: Why do they play? What is their philosophy? How do they “feel” the court? With Serena, she came to him after the first (and still only) first-round loss at a major in her career at the French Open in 2012, searching for answers. Tsitsipas and Gauff, meanwhile, he has helped shape from a young age, in tandem with their respective parents, who serve as head coaches.
“I have to imagine them as future players. How will they play in the future?” Mouratoglou said. “That's what makes my job absolutely incredible: I have to think and imagine. ... (My) creativity, I think, is one of the biggest qualities that this job requires.”
Serena’s quest for more glory
Williams, a four-time Olympic gold medallist, has won 10 of her 23 singles majors – as well as her aforementioned London singles gold (as well as doubles with Venus) – after linking up with Mouratoglou in 2012 at the age of 30.
With her 40th birthday set for September of 2021, the tennis superstar isn’t backing down. She has already committed to playing at the Australian Open in January, the next major on the tennis calendar.
Mouratoglou said Serena’s commitment to the challenge of coming back at age 36 in 2018 after giving birth continues still today.
“Her comeback was extremely difficult for two reasons: Her body completely changed because she became a mother and she had to bring back the body of a professional top athlete, which is something huge,” he said. “Second, mentally, because becoming a mother for a woman is one of the biggest, probably mental changes in a woman's life. And she knew she had to find a new balance.”
For Mouratoglou, it’s about Serena’s “level” in the past three seasons: She’s consistently found herself deep at tournaments with the top players in the world, including the US Open just a few weeks ago.
“When you reach four Grand Slam finals and she the semis at the last U.S. Open, you don't feel like you're so far away from winning one,” he explained. “But it's a big disappointment because for Serena, being in the final will never be a goal.”
The goal, of course, it to win titles. But does that make getting to 24 majors the ultimate goal?
“I told her, ‘You want to set up your own record?’ Maybe it’s going to be 24, maybe 25, maybe 28. Who knows.”
Tsitsipas and Gauff: Future – no, current – game-changers
While Mouratoglou wears the badge of “Serena’s coach” with pride, he also works in tandem with the families of Tsitsipas and Gauff as their respective coach. Both young players have spent a large amount of time training at his academy in France, and he often accompanies them to the biggest stops on the tennis tour.
Tsitsipas, 22, has become a star in his home country of Greece with five career titles already to his name, including the ATP Finals last November. While his booming game, with a strapping single-handed backhand and brute physicality, have taken him far, Mouratoglou sees other X-factors as the reason why he could be so great.
“Stefanos is extremely special, and I believe that he has everything to become a champion,” Mouratoglou said. “I really believe that he has everything to achieve (a Grand Slam). ... I think he's driven. And I think he's a bit obsessed with tennis, which is something that is extremely important. I think champions are obsessive with their sports, like a music genius might be (about their craft).”
Mouratoglou recalls a story very similar to that of Serena in 2012 when he characterizes the kind of drive Tsitsipas has. It was after the then-20-year-old had stunned Roger Federer at the Australian Open in 2019, a breakout win for the young gun. Two rounds later, he lost to Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals.
“I think that 99.9 percent of players would be extremely happy to reach their first Slam semi, beating Federer and losing to Nadal,” Mouratoglou said. “(Stefanos) was destroyed. He was like, ‘I can't believe what happened.’ He was he was extremely unsatisfied about his results, which I believe is a great thing.”
“He wants to be at the top of the game. That's the thing that drives him every day. And he will not be satisfied with the good results. He wants great results.”
Gauff, too, wants similar great results, and has had many expectations lumped onto her shoulders as a teenager. At Wimbledon in 2019, she was the youngest player ever to qualify (win three matches in a pre-tournament) for the event, then beat idol Venus in the first round en route to a run to the second week.
She became a global sporting name nearly overnight. Since then, Gauff has reached a career-high No.47 in the WTA rankings (Nov. 2020) and is the youngest female player in the top 100.
“Her potential is absolutely huge. She has so many qualities (and) she's still 16,” said Mouratoglou of Gauff. “We shouldn't forget that. Second thing, she still needs to develop her game; she has a big room for improvement. I think we should give her a time to continue to develop. It’s still a long way to go. She'll get there at some point, but things take time.”
Mouratoglou said the age eligibility rule in women’s tennis, put in place to prevent burnout of young prodigies, has held Gauff back, though she already has nine wins on the Grand Slam stage.
COVID challenges for tennis – and what it can learn
The COVID-19 global pandemic has certainly provided all sports with a myriad of challenges. Tennis was on hold for much of 2020, from March through to late July, and only a handful of tournaments at the highest level have resumed, players adhering to strict social distancing and “bubble” rules.
Mouratoglou sees the challenges as multi-layered: Not just the question of if a player can practise, but with whom, how often, where, can they do off-court training, do they have access to a gym? It’s about making the “best out of what is possible” for each athlete, he said.
But Mouratoglou feels as though tennis has done well in the past decade to further its standards, as athletes have taken their physical and mental fitness to the next level, building teams around them and often travelling with a trainer, a physiotherapist – or both.
It’s a page that’s been taken out of other sports’ playbook – for the better. Now it’s a team atmosphere in a sport where players used to only travel with a single coach.
“(Tennis) has become much more professional and it has become much, much more physical,” he said.
“And of course, tennis has taken a lot from other sports in terms of how to improve the physical abilities of the players. Recovery, injury prevention... all those things have become so important.”
It’s why Mouratoglou believes players like Serena are still competing at the top of the sport into their late 30s. And why – perhaps – we could see Tsitsipas and Gauff on the court for many years to come.
The importance lies in a #StrongerTogether mentality: Even for a sport like tennis, it’s about the team a player surrounds him or herself with.
“For people who haven't played individual sport, I don't think it's possible to realize how much it's valuable to have these people around you that think day in, day out, about how to help you, how to make you better, how to use all your potential and bring it to the top of what it can become,” Mouratoglou said. “This is just magic to have this around you. So the team brings this magic. The fact that this is your (crew) that you can count on; they’re here for you, they believe in you.”
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