From the Coach’s Seat – With Sarah Stone
Winning a WTA title is something every player dreams about, and for Aleksandra Krunic, that achievement was realized last week. She won back to back matches coming back from a set and a break down to secure the Hertogenbosch title, catapulting into the top-40 for the first time in her career.
So how did she get to this point? What did the last six months look like for the charismatic Serbian? And particularly, what happened over the last six weeks?
The year kicked off on a high note when she made the quarterfinals in Brisbane, knocking off grand slam champion Garbine Muguruza in the second round. From there, she suffered a few first-round exits, including back-to-back losses at Indian Wells and Miami where I first joined her coaching team.
To start, I spent a lot of time getting to know Alex, asking my very good friend and her then-coach, Elise Tamela, a lot of questions. I was eager to hear about what they were working on, striving for, where she had been able to make an impact, and her improvement areas.
Getting to know a new player is always compelling, but somewhat of a challenge. However, when you have the help of someone who knows them well and has spent many hours with them, the process is expedited.
How do you get to know a player? You listen. It’s not about the coach coming in with a “This is how I coach and you will listen mentality.” That kind of mentality seldom works. I wanted to understand what worked for Alex.
Tennis coaching is not a one size fits all – not everyone must hit twice a day for two hours then finish off with a one-hour fitness session. For some, it looks more like a hard two-hour session once a day with fitness sessions incorporated throughout the week, as well as light relaxing warm-ups. I have never really understood why players want to hit for 45 minutes before a match. After all, it’s a warmup, not a practice session.
We talked about how she liked to train, what her ideal practice looked like, and how she likes to receive information from a coach. For example, I had to be flexible because I do not like to write things down, it’s just not my personal style. But for Alex, writing things down helps with her overall career management, so I’m improving my putting it on paper skills!
When you work with a new player, you have to look for windows of opportunity to share your knowledge. It’s not about trying to show a player how much you know in the first few weeks. Players truly want to know that you are invested and that they can trust you. Trust is the single most important part of the player/coach relationship, it takes a long time to build and can be lost in an instant. As cliche as it might sound – a player doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, particularly with female players.
My first tournament alone with Alex was in Rabat, and of course, I was nervous. I wanted her to do well because I was excited about the opportunity to help her on her journey.
It was a great week, Alex made the second WTA tour semifinal and played high-level tennis. It was a nice way to start the relationship. One of the things I bring to the table as a coach is my eternal optimism. My goal is to bring positive energy to every single session and make sure that we focus on what she is doing well. Most players spend enough time judging themselves, they do not need a coach to add to that.
My great friend Emma Doyle helped me significantly with my on-court language. I always considered myself a positive coach, but when she challenged me to be more aware of my language, I became a much better coach. I learned to ask players for two things they thought they were doing well and one thing they would like to work on after every single practice and match. It’s all about the player’s mentality. If we want them to be gritty and have a mindset of growth, surely we need to speak the same language.
Next stop was Madrid, where we arrived at 3 a.m. before a 12 p.m. match. The conditions were tough and Azarenka played solid tennis. We took the lessons from the loss and focused again on what was working well for Alex.
In Rome, she caught a break after losing in the last round of the qualifiers. Alex snuck into the main draw as a lucky loser, winning a titanic battle against a massively patriotic Italian crowd, outlasting Roberta Vinci in her final professional match.
Things were looking bright heading into Roland Garros. Preparation went according to plan, and Alex was ready to do some damage. In tennis, we know that regardless of how well you prepare or how well you have been playing leading up to any match, it’s always on the day. Peng made Alex feel uncomfortable. Tactically, she was able to use her strengths to rattle Alex. No matter what, every player wants to do well in grand slams, and first-round losses are hard to take. Even though she has made the fourth round of a grand slam twice before, she still wants to achieve that round or better at every slam she contests.
We decided it would be a good decision for her to play a club match the day before heading to Bol, where she was the defending champion. She went alone, and I headed to the airport to catch a flight to Split. Two hours before departure she called me and said, “I lost in a super tiebreaker and I’m completely dead”.
I said, “Ok then, we are not going to Bol.” Alex was hesitant because she was the defending champion, which can be a huge stressor for players. I told her not to worry about it, feeling terrible wouldn’t allow her to play well anyways. I said, “Alex, top-10 players are defending points every week, so you better get used to it. Look at Ostapenko, she was defending champion at Roland Garros and lost in the first round”.
Alex agreed. She spent a couple of days relaxing in Croatia before we headed to England, enjoying time with friends and preparing for the next event in Holland.
On the morning of Alex’s first match, I had to fly to America for my citizenship test. I watched her match on live scores, passed the test, and flew back to Holland within 48 hours! WTA player Alexa Glatch took over the on-court coaching while I was gone and did an outstanding job!
As the story plays out, Alex went on to win her next three matches and clinch her first WTA title. For anyone that watched the semifinal and final, you may have picked up that Alex was a little negative at times throughout her matches. The on-court coaching calls worked, but they were not easy. It’s tough when a player is feeling down and judging herself harshly! Every time I went out there, the same message was reiterated – believe in yourself, keep it positive, and keep moving up to short balls.
Against Vandeweghe, the focus for Alex was to keep her out on the court as long as possible. You never know what’s going to happen in a match, and if you stay out there long enough, you just might get an opportunity to win.
In the final, Flipkens played fantastic grass court tennis. Alex was nervous, so it made for an unfortunate combination. In her victory speech, she said, “My coach had to flush a lot of shit down the toilet,” which sure was true that week. I asked former WTA tour player Janette Husarova during Roland Garros about the best way to deal with a player who is venting negatives towards the box. She said, “Tennis coaching is like a toilet, you just have to flush.”
With everyone talking about flushing this week, here is the one thing I want to leave you with. Working with a player is a journey. There will always be highs and lows and tough bumps along the road. When players are under a lot of pressure, they sometimes let it all out on the person they trust the most with their career. It is not personal. The metaphor of flushing is no different than telling someone to let it go. I’m not a person who takes things to heart, especially in heated situations, but this theory puts a smile on everyone’s face and brings light to challenging situations.
I feel truly blessed to have been given the opportunity to make an impact on Alex’s career. And so the journey continues as I pen this article on my flight to England. Let’s see what the next slam presents. Regardless of the result, Wimbledon is always a very special tournament. Until next time from the coaches seat, spend more time listening to your players, be sure to encourage them to play a game style that suits their personality, make changes slowly, and trust the process!