Originally published on: 26/11/13 00:00
At first it might seem strange that Patrick Mouratoglou cites Aravane Rezai as a prime example of how a player, coach and parent can work in harmony. Arsalan Rezai, the father of 26-year-old Aravane, sits near the top of most lists of notorious tennis dads, his reputation having been established by a series of controversial incidents over the years, including physical confrontations with some of those who have crossed his path.
Nevertheless, Mouratoglou, whose Paris academy has been Rezai’s base for much of her senior career, points out that her most successful period came when her father was an important part of her team, working alongside her coach. That was in 2010, when Rezai reached a career-high position of No 15 in the world rankings and enjoyed her finest hour, winning the title in Madrid after victories over Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic and Venus Williams.
After breaking away from her father, Rezai subsequently tumbled down the world rankings. There has been a reconciliation of sorts with her father this year, but the turmoil appears to have taken its toll on a player whose great promise now looks likely never to be fulfilled. “Aravane is an extreme case because we all know what happened afterwards,” Mouratoglou says. “But we found a way for her to enjoy success with her father very much involved.”
Mouratoglou has brought a succession of world-class players through his academy, including Paul-Henri Mathieu, Gilles Muller, Mario Ancic, Marcos Baghdatis, Yanina Wickmayer and Grigor Dimitrov. Through his work Mouratoglou knows as much as anybody about the importance of parents in the tennis lives of young players. Some coaches mistrust or resent the involvement of parents, but the Frenchman believes it can be crucial, “If results have been good while parents have been involved, it’s clear that they are bringing something positive,” especially when they have played a big part in their offspring’s tennis education.
“You have to look at a player’s past results,” Mouratoglou says. “If the results have been good while their parent or parents have been involved, it’s clear that they are bringing something positive, whatever it is. When I’ve worked with players whose parents are involved in their tennis I have always tried to understand what the parents are bringing to that player. For sure I don’t want to lose that.
“I think that’s where federations can make mistakes. When a federation gets involved in a player’s career they often want to leave out the parents. And in most of those cases the players are not as successful as they were before. It just shows that the parents have a big role. A coach is there to add something, not to take something away.”
Relationships between players, parents and coaches can be especially fraught in the women’s game, where many fathers coach their daughters and many more retain a major influence even after bringing in a coach from the outside. The difficulties can be particularly pronounced as players make their way through the junior ranks, but can also be seen at the very highest levels of the senior game. When Caroline Wozniacki, having been coached nearly all her life by her father, brought in the highly respected Ricardo Sanchez to work with her, he lasted only two months before Piotr Wozniacki resumed control.
Mouratoglou does not necessarily agree that tennis parents should focus on parenting rather than coaching. “You can’t imagine how many players have told me: ‘I would love my father to be just my father.’ But on the other hand it can often happen that if the father steps away from the tennis then the player does not perform any more. The player needs that pressure that a parent can apply, because he has been used to that since he was a child. I’m not saying that a child always needs that pressure to perform, but if the player has been used to working in a certain way with a parent and enjoyed success, it would be wrong to destroy it completely.
“When Aravane wanted to stop with her father I thought it was dangerous to do that in the middle of her career. She had been used to a way of working for 15 or even 20 years. It’s too much of a shock in the middle of a career to suddenly end it.”
Mouratoglou believes the most difficult decision a tennis parent/coach can face is when to bring in outside help. “You can understand why the parents might think: ‘How can someone who doesn’t know my daughter know better than me?’ Many parents think like that and in many cases the motivation to seek outside help has to come from the player rather than the parent. In those circumstances the parents just have to accept it. That’s also where a coach has to be really talented to find a way to build the relationship with the parents and make them feel important as well.
“With parents who are very involved, it’s important to find a coach who will accept sharing with the parents and is willing to give them a role. That is not always the case because many coaches feel threatened if a parent is very involved in the career of their son or daughter.
"That’s more true with daughters, but it also happens with sons. It can lead to a fight between the coach and the parent – and that never works. So it’s important to find someone who is open-minded, who understands the role of the parent, and who wants to find a way for the team to work together for the good of the player.”
Mouratoglou says the consequences of a relationship in which the parties are not all working together can be damaging, particularly in terms of the player-parent relationship. “If the parents feel threatened and the coach feels that the parents don’t trust him, nobody wins, least of all the player,” he said.
“Many coaches have a very strong ego and sometimes the first thing they think is that the parents don’t know anything about tennis, which is not right because in many cases the parents will have brought the player to a very high level. When a coach starts to think like that it’s very negative for the player.”
Patrick Mouratoglou has joined team tennishead! Don't miss his exclusive column as he shares his secrets surrounding off-season training in our next issue – out on December 12!