Coach Talks: Darren Cahill and Simona Halep find inspiration in Rafael Nadal
(August 14, 2018) CINCINNATI — Few forces are impacting the sport of tennis like video, which is shaping today’s training by providing shot-for-shot analysis and high-definition examples of the good and the bad.
For Darren Cahill, the coach of Simona Halep, the world’s top-ranked woman, there’s no better example than Rafael Nadal, the world’s top-ranked man.
“To be honest, we use Rafa a lot, some of the struggles that he’s had, the Aussie Open final when he injured himself against (Stan) Wawrinka. I use YouTube videos. I use matches that she’s played,” Cahill said.
“Video technology now is much better than it used to be. Hawk-Eye information is incredible. The access that we have as coaches to help improve our players is nonstop.
“So, we have all this information. I think the trick is finding that small bit of information that we can deliver to our player that’s going to have an immediate impact. Because if we go in there and give them two hours of information, I have lost it. I don’t expect my player to retain it. Finding what is relevant, finding what’s going to make an impact and then delivering that information in a way that inspires your player.”
Cahill said Nadal inspires Halep, the champion at this year’s French Open, in many ways. The “King of Clay” has won 17 Grand Slam singles titles, 11 in Paris, as well as three in New York City at the U.S. Open, two in London at the Wimbledon Championships and one in Melbourne at the Australian Open.
“Rafa has inspired her with what he’s been able to do it, with the way he trains, with his work ethic, the way he fights for every single match no matter what the score is. He can be down 6-0, 5-0, 40-0. You wouldn’t even be able to tell with him,” Cahill said.
“That, to me, is what she’s modeled the last year and a half on. I think you see a little bit — no one’s going to be like Rafa. But you see a little bit of the old Simona compared to the new Simona, and she’s more like that, because she’s always had a great work ethic. I have never had to push her on the practice court. She always gives 100 percent. She’s like a little Rafa on the practice court. We need to make her a little Rafa on the match court, as well.”
Heart On Her Sleeve
Cahill conceded Halep is emotional on the tennis court, but said he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“She’s pretty honest. I think with Simona you know what you’re going to get from her, and she doesn’t hide her feelings very well. I think that’s the great thing about her, and it’s also the struggle that she has, as well. That’s why we ride this roller coaster a little bit in her career. That’s why we love watching her play, as well, is you’re always going to get something that’s really interesting,” he said.
“Most of us try to hide it and keep it in. Simona likes to talk about it and let it fly.”
In turn, when he goes on the court during a match for on-court coaching, Cahill must first assess the situation, asking questions to determine if Halep needs a pep talk, or tactical advice and perhaps some tough love.
“So, you have to sort of go out there with a set thought as to how you’d like to change the game plan, but that can change pretty quickly,” he said.
“The most important thing, I think, for a coach also is to try to teach your player to problem-solve themselves. We are doing our job much better if we are giving them the tools to work through the problems on the court and problem-solve those times when things are struggling.
“If we are not doing that, if we’re relying on the player to call the coach out to come and fix it for the player, we’re not really helping them in the big picture. So, a lot of what I have been working with Simona for the last three years is, OK, I will help you, but try to help yourself first.”
Talk, Talk, Talk
Cahill said he would like to see even more on-court coaching.
“I think it’s good for television. It’s good for people sitting in the living room. It’s basically what we do on the practice court when your players are playing practice matches is that between points or it could be a couple of games, we just talk about things,” he said.
“I think with the WTA, if you’re going to do on-court coaching, I would actually like to see more of it, not just once a set, because I think there is, to be really effective — the problem with the once-a-set is normally the player will call you out when things are going badly. As we said before, emotions can play a part, as well. Sometimes the message is going in this ear and out the other one, because all the player wants to do is complain.
“But if you know the coach can come out more often, then it’s a more relaxed conversation. You’re not trying to get all this information out in 60 seconds. It’s tough to retain a lot of that information, but if she knows she can call me out every four games and we can talk about how those last four games went and have a more relaxed conversation about how things are going, then I think you’d get some more technical stuff.
“So, if you’re going to do it, I would like to see it more often. I do think there are big benefits for it, but as you say, in the Grand Slams, it’s really important the players problem-solve for themselves. I think the last couple of years I have done it less and less with Simona for that very reason, and she’s getting a lot better at it, as well.
“She knows exactly what I’m going to tell her most of the time, because she understands the game incredibly well, but I think she likes to hear it from me just to reinforce the message. Sometimes good, because she can go out there and execute; sometimes bad, because she can use me to blame me if it’s not working.
“The mind of a tennis player is really complicated. We have all been through it because it’s a lonely sport. You’re stuck out there one player on one player and you’ve got nobody to talk to. You’ve got 10,000 people looking down at you. You can feel pretty lonely at times.
“You have these internal conversations going with yourself. So, to have somebody to come out and talk to every now and again is a good thing.”
Too Much Of A Good Thing
But there is a line — Cahill declined Halep’s request for on-court coaching during the recent Rogers Cup tournament in Montréal.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever shook her off. It’s the first time she’s ever called for me and I gave her the ‘not coming out,’” he said, shaking his finger. “I don’t expect I will do that often, because it was more just knowing that she had it. If she could just reach down deep and find it, she just had to do it herself.
“And sometimes those moments also, you know, piss her off a little bit, which gets her fired up, and instead of concentrating on me, she concentrates on her opponent a little bit, as well. I’m learning all the time with her. I’m finding out that coaching is — it’s like an ocean, always moving, and if you’re not moving with it, you’re not learning.”
And just as Halep has improved as a tennis player, Cahill said he has improved as a tennis coach.
“With her, I feel like there is so much to her personality and her game and the way she plays that I’m learning as a coach all the time,” he said.
“Hopefully, that helps me be a better coach, as well. I don’t think that I have changed my coaching all that much. I think I listen better than I used to do. I used to walk out and have a set opinion as to what she needed to do to win a tennis match without really listening to what she was saying, which is normal, because we have 60 seconds to walk out there, have to get it done, get the message across and, hopefully, they implement.
“Now, I feel like I listen to her words, see if she’s struggling, she what’s she’s struggling with and try to find a quick resolution for her, or something, at least, to go out there and concentrate on.
“It’s been good. But I don’t think my coaching has changed that much. Hopefully, I’m becoming a better listener.”
A Winning Attitude
Noting it is impossible to win every single week, Cahill said he focuses more on Halep’s attitude, controlling what she can and putting forth her best effort.
“Then, I’m proud of her, no matter what the result,” he said.
Halep, Cahill said, treats wins and losses the same way.
“She doesn’t get overly carried away with the wins and she has great respect for the losses and her opponents,” he said. “I think that’s one of the great things that I really admire about her.”
“I know she’s never going to be perfect on the court, and I don’t want her to be, to be quite honest, because she’s got this Romanian blood, which is fire in the belly, which is fun, exciting, emotional. You want that in your players, because it’s part of the reason why she’s so good,” he said.
“She’s not perfect, but she’s getting better all the time. But, more than anything, she understands herself a lot better now. She never used to do that. She would walk off the court and go, ‘What’s the problem?’ Then you’d sort of sit down and walk through the match.
“Now she’s understanding what the problems are, when she gets a little bit emotional, how many points in a row she’s losing because of that. She’s starting to see the structure and the momentum changes and the swings much better than she used to. That’s why now she’s able to turn matches around, whereas once upon a time, they used to slip away pretty quickly.”
Then And Now
Cahill began working with Halep about three and a half years ago at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California — first as a consultant with her team for nine months and then full-time these last three years.
“Becoming the No. 1 player last year, I think, gave her the confidence and belief to know that she’s capable of making it happen. And since then — some players, when they become No. 1, they are a little bit intimidated by the responsibility, the fact that you’re at the top of the tree and everybody is chasing you, the fact that every time you step onto the court you’re a target,” he said.
“And that’s not easy psychologically for a lot of players to handle. I think she’s handled it beautifully. I think she’s done an incredible job putting that aside and just making it about one opponent every single day. That’s been really important for her.”
Cahill said he always knew Halep would be a Grand Slam champion.
“But it does take that little 1 percent sometimes to get that, and maybe I have been able to help with that 1 percent, which has been great. It’s been a great ride for me,” he said at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.
“I said after the Paris win that, for me, apart from the birth of my children, it was the greatest day ever for me, being with her on the ride that we had so many ups, so many downs, so many emotional losses. The French Open final last year was just gut-wrenching for everybody. Even here last year, she had the chance to be No. 1 last year and she put in a bad one against Garbiñe (Muguruza). We had a few of those last year.
“And to spend time with her after those moments and see what it meant to her and how it affected her and then to finally win the Grand Slam, I have never been happier standing there watching a player do what she did. It was wonderful.”