Coach Talks: Dieter Kindlmann and Elise Mertens are hungry for more
(August 12, 2018) CINCINNATI — What happens off the tennis court is just as important as the actions on it.
To be successful, a tennis player has to work hard, but they also have to play hard, having fun and getting enough rest, said Dieter Kindlmann, who currently coaches World No. 15 Elise Mertens of Belgium.
“My coaching mentality is not about only my work on the court, to work with her two hours on the court. It’s like a 24-hour job. It’s the nutrition. It’s the fitness part. There are so many areas where you can improve,” said Kindlmann, who describes himself as a one-man show.
Mertens’ confidence has blossomed, growing from the seed planted during her win against Johanna Konta in the Silicon Valley Classic quarterfinals earlier this month in San Jose, California, Kindlmann said.
His advice to the 22-year-old: “When something is not going well on the court, stay in your mind, keep going, you will get your chance.”
“I’m a big fan for making small progress, step by step, but going always in the right direction,” he added.
When The Going Gets Tough
Six or seven years ago, Kindlmann said during the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, the women’s tennis tour was not as competitive, and the top-ranked players typically had easier paths to at least the quarterfinals. But that now is less guaranteed.
“When you’re not healthy and not 100-percent ready, every top player also can lose in the first round. This makes the tennis sport so much interesting,” he said. “You have to really work hard and do the right stuff.”
Rather than a top tier of 20 to 30 players, he said there’s between 60 and 100 players competing at the highest level today.
But that level takes a toll.
If the Ohio tournament wasn’t a premier event, Kindlmann said he otherwise would advise Mertens to take the week off.
“She’s played two weeks nonstop, flying from San Jose to Montréal, playing every day. It’s not healthy like this,” he said.
“But this is also my job, and this is what I’ve learned: injury prevention and recovery is so much important. In the future, she will play also less tournaments, because you need practice, you need recovery.”
“You have to sleep long. You have to recover. The body needs some time for rest,” he said.
“This is very tough to educate young tennis players. They are hungry to play.”
Time To Grow Up
Kindlmann said his time with Maria Sharapova was crucial to developing his coaching skills.
“I always say my best education was the three years that I had with Sharapova as a hitting partner,” he recalled, citing the learning opportunity alongside Thomas Högstedt and Sven Groeneveld, as well as Jimmy Connors.
“From every coach, I took some positive things out, took some negative things out — oh, I would do this different — so I created my own way.”
Coaching is a learning process, Kindlmann said.
He explained every player is different. Some want to talk right after they complete their match, but others don’t; and while some want to only hear about the positives, others want to discuss what they need to improve.
What makes Kindlmann happy in his job?
“For me, it’s a good day when I can see when I explain something to my player and she really understands what I want and she gets the benefit and is working hard and she’s happy moving out from the court,” he said.
“I like to be on the court. I like to work hard. And I also like when players try something, and maybe it’s not working in the beginning, but they try.
“I know exactly what I want, but it’s sometimes very difficult because not every player is open for change.”
He added that ensuring the happiness of the tennis players — many young, away from home and alone — is crucial to their success.
“You have to be ready for every part,” he said. “You’re there in bad moments. You’re there in good moments. You cannot only push, push, push. You have to find a way to make them happy, to show them also the world, the cities, some private life and educate them.
“A coach has also the responsibility not only on the tennis court, but also to teach them how life a little bit works — especially with this young age, they are not used to this kind of stuff.”
Putting In The Hard Yards
Asked to define the characteristics of a successful tennis player, Kindlmann considered skill, physical strength, mental fortitude and heart.
“The heart is impossible to practice. You have it, or you don’t have it. That’s what I figured out when I was with Sharapova, with (Anastasia) Pavlyuchenkova, with (Madison) Keys, with Elise Mertens,” the German former professional tennis player said.
“You can practice a lot in every area, but you have this last piece of hunger which will make you into a legend, or you don’t have it.
“Skills, for me, is like 30 to 40 percent. Mentally is, for sure, like, I would say, also 30 percent. And a big gap is work — consistent work.
“It’s not about working. So many people can work one week, two weeks. But you can only reach the top 10 and make a big success when you work very consistent for a long time, and not so many players want to do it and are not ready for working consistently on the highest level.
“Everybody is saying they want to be in the top 10. But not so many want to do the effort.”
As a hitting partner, Kindlmann took on the characteristics of opponents during practice, for example, hitting balls with heavy topspin, like Sara Errani.
But one person was impossible to imitate: Serena Williams.
“I never could be a good Serena because I never had the serve from her,” Kindlmann laughed.