Inside Tennis Editor Bill Simons recently caught up with Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ charming and candid French coach and boyfriend, talking with him about her game, her family, her personality, and their intriguing partnership.
INSIDE TENNIS: How has working on the clay helped Serena?
PATRICK MOURATOGLOU: It’s helped because her game is more consistent. She’s able to hit more shots if she needs to. It’s helped her to be able to play longer rallies. This doesn’t mean that’s the way she should play, but she can if she has to. She’s always been an incredible champion, [and] now she’s more consistent.
IT: People often focus on how powerful Serena is, but do you think that intellectually she likes the challenge of a new surface?
PM: Sure. She loves it and she needs new challenges. If she doesn’t have challenges, she gets bored. She needs new things to work on and to improve, and winning Roland Garros certainly was one of those challenges. Of course, on clay, you have to build your point. On other surfaces, you can just hit a winner
IT: We think of Serena as such a strong personality. As a student, is she also a good listener?
PM: Very good. She wants to become better every day.
IT: What are the things that you’ve focused on?
PM: There’ve been different stages. There was the moment we decided to work together, which was special. She’d just lost [a shocking first-round upset in 2012] at Roland Garros.
IT: That was an incredible match—the collapse of a proud champion. Were you at the match?
PM: No, I had no reason to be there. But I was working for Eurosport, and I spoke about it.
IT: There’s something about Court Centrale, there’s so much drama on that court.
PM: That’s true. At that moment, which was special for the reasons you explained, there was special work to do. When you coach someone, you build something. She was already who she was, but it was a building process, you go stage by stage.
IT: Where did you start?
PM: With very basic things, with her stability, for example. That was what shocked me most in that match [at Roland Garros] against Virginie Razzano.
IT: Do you mean mentally or physically?
PM: Physically, but they’re the same thing. Physically, she was off balance.
IT: There are so many coaches out there—how did you connect with Serena? How did you meet her?
PM: I was coaching [Grigor] Dimitrov, and they were friends. During Miami, we spoke a few times. There are a lot of coaches, but you don’t have the same feeling with everyone.
PM: You’re Parisian, and Paris is such a magical place, an inspiring place. How do you think that Serena has come to fall in love with your city?
PM: It was before [she met me], at least two years ago. Europe is very different from America.. The mentality is different, and the places are different. I love America for other reasons, there are a lot of beautiful things in America, but the history that we have in Europe is very charming for Americans, and something you don’t have. You have things that we don’t have. Paris and Rome are attractive cities for Americans.
IT: Many of the American men have problems in Paris. There’s a history of Americans loving Paris, but many go there and don’t embrace it or perform well.
PM: Performing is another thing. Clay is not a surface for everyone. For Roddick, it was really a problem. Less so for Isner.
IT: What about the role of Venus and her whole family. Are they important for Serena right now?
PM: Sure. She realizes how much her parents did for her. She knows she would never be where she is now without all of the things they did for so many years. She appreciates her parents and it’s nice to see, because many parents aren’t involved in the tennis of their children. The history they have in tennis is so strong.
IT: You’re very honest, so answer me on this—when it comes to the very best women’s tennis player in history, that person is?
PM: Honestly, it’s difficult, because all the eras are different. Of course, I would think about [Martina] Navratilova, but it was a different era that wasn’t as competitive as now. But she changed tennis completely by bringing something professional—by bringing fitness training to the court, she helped change tennis.
To say who’s the greatest, it’s subjective unless you choose the number of Grand Slams. And if it’s the number of Grand Slams, her [Serena’s] career is not over.
IT: You might be bored with this question, but Serena’s at 16 Slams, she’s 32 years old, and she still seems eager—how many more Slams do you think she can win?
PM:It’s difficult to answer for many reasons. She has to stay healthy and to keep the motivation she has now, and she has to keep on improving. If she doesn’t, it will be very difficult.
IT: What can she improve?
PM: Many things. I don’t want to say. She can, and she has to. There are young players coming up and they push her, which is good, but she also has to push herself.
IT: Everyone talks about her serve, but what do you think is her greatest strength, stroke-wise?
PM: Obviously, the serve, because she has the best serve in the game by far. But mentally, there is no one like her.
IT: How would you express that mental toughness, that ability to fight, the refusal to lose and her ability to come back?
PM: It’s a combination of two things. Number one, the education she [received], meaning she was really prepared to be a champion. Both she and her sister were prepared from an early age. It’s not just by chance that from the same family two different players became No. 1.
IT: Was it the greatest sports prediction ever when Richard Williams said that both of his daughters would become No. 1 players?
PM: I wouldn’t say that it’s the greatest prediction, I would say that he’s the greatest coach of all time.
From what I know, no one else in the history of sports raised two different children to become No. 1.
But going back to what you first asked, it’s a combination of two things—her education, and also her personality. Serena’s personality is special.
IT: It seems to me that Venus is a bit of a caretaker. In Serena’s biography that was crystal clear.
PM: Yes, definitely, but I think that Serena is there for Venus as well. When they were young, Venus was the older sister, and she did everything to help Serena, but today they care for each other. It’s nice to see.
IT: Do you think that the terrible situation with [having a pulmonary] embolism had an impact on Serena’s game and her life?
PM: For sure. You cannot be the same after going through something like that. I’m 100 percent sure. Even if something is incredible—the life she was living, the money she was earning, the tennis she was playing—when you do it every day, to a certain degree you don’t realize what you have. [Now] she does realize it.
IT: Does she relish the public side, for instance, appearing on the Letterman show?
PM: Yes. And she’s very professional.
IT: Why do you think Richard isn’t appreciated more? In the US he’s often is dismissed as a buffoon or not a real coach, [as] someone who doesn’t know the Xs and Os.
PM: That surprises me. Whatever his personality is, people should be more interested in such a successful person. I’m French, and four years ago, when I didn’t know Serena and Venus, I interviewed him. I said to the French media, “How can you not be interested?” You have to know what he did, or at least try to know. You have to be curious. It’s wrong not to be respectful of what he achieved. Maybe he doesn’t have the knowledge in every aspect—maybe—but he did something so incredible that he has a lot of interesting things to give, and it’s a pity if people don’t understand that.
IT: Was it fun to interview him? He always has something new to say.
PM: Yes. Of course, he’s not like everybody, but it’s because he’s not like everybody that he was able to achieve what he did.
IT: Thanks to Venus and Serena in large measure, look what we have in our tennis culture, with Sloane [Stephens], Madison [Keys], Jamie [Hampton], Vicky [Duval], and Taylor Townsend and on and on.
PM: Serena and Venus opened the door.
IT: What’s most fun about working with Serena?
PM: I don’t know, except that she’s fun, and on the court she is a professional. Off the court, she is really funny and easygoing and happy. She’s exceptional.