Coach Talks: The quest to be the best doesn’t end for Wim Fissette and Angelique Kerber
By James Henry
(August 17, 2018) CINCINNATI — The top of one mountain is the bottom of another.
You have to keep climbing.
That victory was a dream come true, a goal every professional tennis player holds dear, fostered from the time they pick up their first racket.
But after taking a two-and-a-half-week break, Kerber and her coach, Wim Fissette, were back at work, making the difficult switch from grass courts to hard courts and preparing for tournaments in Montréal, Cincinnati and New York City, all while trying to improve her general technique.
“It’s been good, of course. It was a very special moment to have won Wimbledon. For Angie, of course, it was her dream since she was little child. So, it was a fantastic moment,” said Fissette at the Western & Southern Open.
However, he also is celebrating a clay court season that included quarterfinals at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia and the French Open — success the coach plans to use as a stepping stone to even better results next year, potentially culminating with a Career Grand Slam.
Since the beginning of the open era, which started in 1968, when the major tournaments allowed professionals to compete with amateurs, six women have achieved this spectacular feat: Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
“Her clay court season this year was, as well, a huge achievement for her, because she really started the clay court season without a plan and especially without any confidence at all. She worked her way in it. She had this injury in Stuttgart, and she lost a week of practice. But coming from that far and reaching the quarters in Rome and then the quarters in Paris while beating some really good players, I mean, I think that’s going to be a great start for next-year clay court season, because she will have a plan and she will have the belief,” Fissette said.
“She’s never gonna be the clay court specialist. Wimbledon will always be better for her. But, well, at least now she knows that she can beat top players on clay and she knows how.”
CHANGE IS GONNA COME
Previously, Fissette, 38, of Belgium, worked with Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka, Simona Halep, Johanna Konta and others. He started coaching Kerber at the end of 2017.
Did he doubt their partnership would be fruitful? No, he answered matter-of-factly.
“As soon as I got a phone call maybe to work with Angie, I was convinced, because I’ve seen her play so many times, I’ve played so many times against her as a coach and I always believed in her potential and she could even do better than she did in the past,” he said. “And I still believe.”
“I think it’s a very interesting time for her right now, because you see a lot of young players coming up, you see (Daria) Kasatkina, you see (Jeļena) Ostepenko — they’re going very fast on the way to the top, and it’s for players like Angie to stay ahead of them and to keep working, because as soon as you let that a little bit go, you go down,” he added.
“So, if you want to stay at the top, you have to bring in a lot of work, you have to get better.”
While the change has not happened as quickly as he expected, Fissette said women’s tennis is evolving. He anticipates more power, like men’s tennis, with big serves and more spin.
“I still feel with the younger generation there is different tennis coming,” he said, again citing the variation of Kasatkina and the hard hitting of Ostepenko, both 21 years old.
Does former World No. 1 Kerber, now ranked No. 4, get enough credit for her accomplishments?
“Angie is rock solid. It’s maybe not the player that you say, ‘OK, that’s three times Grand Slam champion,’ but everyone hates to play her,” Fissette said of the 30-year-old German.
“It’s a very tough player to play, because normally she doesn’t make many unforced. But then if you don’t put a lot of pressure, she’s the one who’s putting the pressure, because she can do all of that. She can play great defense. She can play great offense. Her serve, I feel now, it has improved, but even in the past, it was never easy — especially with the lefty slice, it was a tough serve.”
“I feel Angie is a player that deserves to have three Grand Slams,” he said, praising her as a good example for other tennis players, particularly youth in Germany. “She always brings her best effort. She always fights until the last ball.”
Ahead of their clay court season, Fissette worked to change Kerber’s tactics. He made a video with clips of her past matches on clay, highlighting specific points and showing how he wanted her to play in those moments.
They then instituted that game plan in training, doing it day after long day. They typically have one practice session a day, but that was expanded to three, or even four, hours, Fissette said.
“Step by step, she gained confidence,” he said.
In particular, they have worked on making Kerber’s serve a weapon, a way to win points, rather than simply start them.
For clay, the lesson was to be patient.
“She was trying to hit winners on the second ball. I was like, ‘I don’t understand this.’ So, we started from, ‘OK, Angie, the goal is to be free of unforced errors. You are not going to make any unforced. That’s the quality you have. You have the mentality for that, and you have the legs for that. So, that’s what we’re going to start with,’” Fissette said.
“And finding solutions for difficult balls, like higher balls to her, which were never easy. And she found solutions for those situations. She really had the plan, what to do on every ball.”
THE NEXT SLAM
Looking ahead to the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 27, the coach sees several potential champions.
“As always, there are going to be a lot of players that have a chance to win. I still feel that the best and most consistent player of the year is Simona Halep. She’s playing a fantastic season, and she’s playing really, really good tennis every single match,” Fissette said.
“(Defending champion) Sloane (Stephens) is just very dangerous wherever she feels comfortable, and she has great memories of last year. So, I feel those two maybe have the biggest chance to win.
“On the other hand, every tournament Serena plays, she has a chance to win. Never forget Serena. And I’m sure she wants to do really well in New York. I feel she is gonna prepare very well for that. So, I think those three have the biggest chances.
“I still believe some of the American girls can do very well, like Madison Keys. I don’t know how she is physically, but whenever she’s fit, she’s got a great chance of going very far in a tournament, especially in New York, where she also feels very comfortable.”
Fissette has coached several players that have been won big against Williams, but he said there isn’t a specific strategy to defeat the tennis legend.
“I can’t give Angie the same game plan as I gave Johanna Konta or Victoria Azarenka. So, it’s a complete different game plan. But I think I’m aware of the strengths and the weaknesses of Serena,” he said.
“The most important is that they go on court with the belief and with a plan how to beat Serena. I think, especially, the belief is a very important part, because too many players have too much respect in a negative way for Serena. All my players go on the court with a lot of respect for Serena, but they still believe they can beat her. I feel that’s the most important.”