By Bill Simons
Serena Williams‘s move to hire Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou as her coach has been the most successful mid-career move by any player in history. With Patrick in her corner, Serena has won 8 of the last 13 Slams. So what’s the secret French sauce? To find out, Bill Simons spoke with Le Coach at Wimbledon.
We’ve seen Serena struggling in so many matches. She’s frustrated and stomping her feet. Then something turns. She flashes a fist pump and yells “C’mon!” and turns the tide.
She has something that I’ve seen just once in the women’s game—the ability to refuse to lose. She has what I’d call a life instinct. When she feels she’s going die, she finds an energy that I find incredible. When she’s in trouble, when she feels the taste of losing—which is closer to the taste of dying—then she finds this energy. She starts to play incredibly well and scores six games in a row. She brings her game to another level … She always bounces back. Always.
You said that a coach must accept that he could lose his job any time. Early on in your relationship in 2012, after Serena barely survived a Wimbledon match, her father Richard was furious. He asked you, “What’s going on? It’s your job to coach her. This is a business.”
He said that in front of the tennis world. It was in the fitness room and he said it very, very loud. I immediately thought he was testing me, and I responded to him so he could see who I was. I was answering that he needed to respect me, that wasn’t the way to speak to me, and if you keep on talking like this, I will not respect you. But I do respect him a lot. I explained that, and he was angry. And I said, “Don’t talk to me like this, otherwise you won’t get any answer.”
The day after, we had a good talk. He was testing me. He’d coached his daughters all his life. He did it unbelievably well. It’s something that never happened before … Richard wanted to know who I was before feeling comfortable in my taking care of his daughter. Maybe I would have done the same, maybe differently. But it’s normal that he tested me. Since that day we’ve had a really good relationship.
Richard has a ferocious side. Is that part of his drive?
He had a tough life. He was subject to a lot of racism. To succeed at the highest level in the white world was probably a drive for him. I totally respect that. What he did was unique, and even if I didn’t like him as a person, I would still totally respect that.
During a French photo shoot, the photographer told Richard, “Toss that tennis ball to Patrick.” Was that symbolic?
I didn’t know Serena or him, but I always defended Richard, because he was attacked relentlessly by the French press because of his attitude, something that for the French was shocking. Their judging him was unacceptable. You can’t judge what he achieved—it is untouchable. I was telling the French press, “What you wrote is wrong.” So the photographer said, “Richard, toss the ball to Patrick. It would be a symbol of you passing the baton to a young, talented coach.” So, that was funny. Do you know what happened after that?
I coached his daughter. It’s really funny.
A coach has to teach strokes, but also must have courage. Early in your relationship, Serena came out to practice and gave you the cold shoulder. She wouldn’t answer you. Then you told her you had just three rules.
Like Richard, Serena gave me the opportunity to show what kind of person I am—it was important to build a relationship. So I said, “There are two rules with me—actually three. First, when you come to the court you say, “Hello.” Second, when I talk to you, you answer me. And she asked me: “What’s the third?” I said, “I don’t know yet, but I will find it.”
Have you found it?
No, I didn’t need to. Serena later told me, “When you said that, I loved it. I respected [it] a lot and enjoyed it, because no one’s ever said that to me” So it was the right thing to do … She had to know who I was and had to respect me as I respected her.
Your coaching of Serena has been one of the great stories in tennis. What’s been the key?
Her focus—the fact that she wants it so much—that she’s so consistent. She’s fighting for every point, every match. She refuses to lose. Her game’s improved because of all the effort she’s put in. She constantly wants to improve. Even when she doesn’t play her best, her whole level is higher.
She said that a year ago, she wouldn’t have won that amazing Heather Watson match here at Wimbledon.
She’s in a good place now. She’s calm, happy, focused, feels strong, and wants it hard. It’s the perfect combination.
Early on, you told Serena she had to accept defeat. Why?
Because if you don’t accept the idea to die, you cannot live. It’s that simple. If you’re afraid of losing, you’re playing with fear, and fear is the worst advisor. It gives you all the worst advice possible. So if you accept the idea that [losing] might happen, then you play to win.
You said fear translates to physical play: your stance gets “slippery,” you don’t follow through, you’re not free.
The mind is the master. If you work on hitting through the ball every day, but then when you come to court you’re afraid to win, then you don’t want to miss, and instinctively your body goes back and you don’t do what you do everyday … If the mind thinks wrong, the body does wrong. If, as a coach, all you do is technical, the mind doesn’t do the right thing and it’s not going to work. And if you only work on the mind, the technical won’t work. It’s very important that Serena has the right mindset. If she does, no one can stop her.
When she’s in the zone no one can beat her?
Yes, nobody. No one has found the key [to beating her]. The key is hidden really, really well. I mean she can lose, but the key to beat her, no one ever found it … Maybe one [Petra Kvitova beat her in Madrid]. But it hasn’t happened again. So it’s not a real key.
Who hid the key?
I don’t know, but no one has found it.
Yet in five matches in Paris and against Watson, she struggled mightily.
She might be the best player of all time, she might be in a good state of mind, but she’s human. Every player will try to make her struggle, and when Serena has a bad day and her opponent plays the match of her life, anything can happen.
What’s the chemistry that causes a woman from an American inner city to click with a French coach of Greek origin?
What’s more important than where you come from is your quality, and how you do your job. Magnus Norman is doing an incredible job—he’s Swedish. Amelie Mauresmo, Darren Cahill and Ivan Lendl come from completely different horizons, but they’re just the best coaches.
Tennis transcends nationality?
Sure. In every job there are great people coming from completely different origins.
Still, Serena adores Paris. When she gets there, she sparkles.
There is a great connection—it’s important. We’re both coming from different horizons, [we are] opposites, but it shows that even people who are completely opposite can have a great relationship, and it’s nice to see … Obviously there’s a great trust between us. We’re simply doing a good job. We’re working on the right things. We’re focused—that’s it.
When Richard saw Virginia Ruzici win $40,000 on TV, he vowed “I’ll raise two daughters, and they’ll become No. 1 and No. 2.” Then he wrote a 75-page teaching guide. When you began with Serena, you created a four-point plan. Does that touch you that you both had a vision and a plan?
I don’t believe in chance—I don’t believe in luck.
Not at all—no lucky draws, no lucky net cords?
No, no luck. You can have luck in one match. You can’t have luck in one career, or even in one year. But luck doesn’t exist. Richard brought both his daughters from scratch to No. 1, because they did something really right. I believe in plans. If you plan everything, there’s no other way to have success in life, otherwise it’s luck. That Richard wrote those 75 pages on what he wanted shows there is no luck. I’m doing the same. I took into consideration everything I knew about him and Serena. I started working with someone who was 30, had a 13-year career, and was No. 1. I read all the books. I read Serena’s book. I did as much as I could to understand her and the philosophy of the family. Then I could start to bring her the results she wanted.
Serena’s the most intense player in the game, but the No. 1 thing on your list was to take stress away from her.
Because at that moment she was struggling.
She’d lost her confidence?
Not all—but a lot. She’s probably the best player mentally in history. The win is inside. But sometimes this can work against you. [When] she wanted it so much and was not having the results, she started being really stiff. I knew if she could relax a little we would put things in perspective. We worked technically on that. She had to relax her mind.
She told you, “I’m a bad loser, after a loss I stay in bed for three days.” But you told her, “That won’t happen again.”
True, but she said, “You’ll see—when I lose that will happen.” “No, I won’t see that, because that’s not going to happen, meaning you’re not going to lose.” And for eight months she didn’t lose any match except one.
Right away, when you started, she won Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open.
It was an unbelievable effort, but not surprising. I said when I started, “I want Serena to have the results according to her talent and the effort she puts in.” With the mental, the physical and the game she has … she needs to have that level of results. She didn’t always have those results, and I wanted her to win all the tournaments in a row.
For years people claimed Richard didn’t know much about tennis and wondered when Serena would get a great coach. She’s said, “When you are there in a room, I feel an energy, a presence; something opens up.” Talk about the player-coach relationship.
The coach has to have many tools, and the relationship with the player has to be strong and positive. After you talk with her, she has to feel stronger. You bring this plus, then you bring that plus. All those things together bring the player to another level.
Is there a joy in working with a world-class athlete who loves to laugh and has various interests?
Yes, [but] even if she wasn’t nice and didn’t laugh, I’m here for business, [by which] I mean the results. It’s a joy because we make the results, because she’s writing history. I’m blessed to be helping, and when you’re a coach that’s the most exciting thing.
You’ve said you weren’t kidding around, that you were here to “make a difference” and the only way to assess that was by the records. What kind is Serena going to make?
You never know what she’s going to make, but you know what you want to make, and when I started with her that’s what I said. They asked if [Serena winning Wimbledon in 2012] was an achievement, and I said, “No, it’s a start. I will be happy if Serena does much better than she used to. Otherwise I don’t know what I’m here for.” My goal was to make her win more, play longer, improve her game, and break records. The results have been good. I am very, very proud of her. What she’s been doing is really, really incredible. I knew she was unique, but she shows it every day … The Serena Slam is such an incredible achievement. To win four majors in a row is so difficult … She’s always a level above the others—everybody agrees on that. You have to be able to maintain consistency … every single match. Because all the girls play her so hard. Every time she has to dig deep. In Australia and at Roland Garros she was sick, and at Wimbledon she had [an] incredibly difficult draw … Even if you’re dominant, you have to overcome a lot … It says a lot about where she is mentally.
She’s spent much more time as No. 1. She’s has a lot of records, [but] there are a few more—
That’s what we’re going for. Will we do it? I don’t have the crystal ball.
God forbid one day you die, and you go to heaven and St. Peter says, “Patrick, I will let you in only if you tell me—back in 2015, when you were talking to that curious American reporter, did you think that Serena would break Graf’s and Court’s Slam records?”
Yes, of course, I think she will—otherwise I’d tell her I’m not the right coach. So I’m sure she will, but since she hasn’t done it, we shut up and work … I’d be surprised if she stops. She loves being No. 1, she loves winning Slams. As long as she feels she can, I think she will.
How will she deal with going for the Grand Slam in New York?
She will do exactly what she has done … Focusing on the next match, on a game plan, on how to prepare. [That way] you have a good chance to forget [about] all the [surrounding] things … Every time she starts a Slam I know she can win it.
What’s the magic of her serve? Many call it the best stroke in history.
It’s the quality of her motion and her technique. If you saw her throw a football you’d be very impressed. It’s like perfection. She has an incredible rhythm, plus she has strength. Those three factors are a killer.
What’s one quality of Serena’s that we don’t see?
You see her mood every time. She’s quite sincere. She’s not like some players that say the same thing all the time. She’s quite emotional at her press … basically, you see where she’s at.
In 2012, Serena came to your French academy and hit for five minutes, as you watched in silence. Finally she stopped, turned to you and asked, “Can you help me?” What did you think at that moment?
I was waiting for that moment. I was sure that moment would happen someday.