Coach Talks: Tom Hill gives Maria Sakkari Thumbs-up
By James Henry
(August 12, 2019) CINCINNATI — After Maria Sakkari’s return landed deep in the corner of the tennis court, the compliments from Coach Tom Hill overflowed.
“Amazing,” he said.
“Lovely,” Hill gushed as the 24-year-old Greek, currently ranked No. 33 in the world, practiced volleying.
“Nice,” he praised her serves. “Very good.”
The smile almost never left Hill’s face.
“Great shot,” he exclaimed as Sakkari hit forehands in rapid-fire succession.
Repeatedly during their practice session at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, the coach offered encouragement with a thumbs-up.
Later that day, Sakkari defeated Italy’s Camila Giorgi 6-3, 6-0 in their first-round match.
“I’ve actually seen a few of Maria’s press conferences and she always says, like, I’m so positive, so I like that. I always try to be calm, to be positive. Whenever she kind of tells me there’s a problem with this, there’s a problem with that, I always try to see the positive side of it,” Hill said.
“She has such a great game, so much talent, works so hard. I try to always remind her, if you keep doing these things or play this way, then good things are going to happen. She’s really bought into it. I think that’s why she’s having a pretty good year.”
PEACE OF MIND
Ahead of the current slate of tournaments in North America, they trained at a private facility north of Athens in Sakkari’s home country.
“Firstly, I love Greece. I have to say that first because if Maria sees this and I don’t say that, ooh,” Hill laughed.
“Training in Greece, a lot of fun. I love it. We work hard. We have this beautiful club. It’s called Tatoi. I stay on the site. We can train there — everything, gym, tennis. So, I really enjoy that,” he said. “Training there is great. I’m always excited to go there.”
Hill said Sakkari, who won her first title at the Rabat Grand Prix in Morocco in May, is poised for more success.
“We had a great week in San Jose, making the semifinal. Maria is feeling very confident. Unlucky last week against Alison Riske having those three match points. But I tried to explain to Maria, against Elina Svitolina the week before, you had those three match points,” he said. “I feel like she’s in a good place.”
Rebounding from a loss after the victory was in your hands, of course, is difficult.
“It’s tough,” Hill said. “Firstly, I told her I was very proud of the way she competed. Her mentality, her toughness during the match, I thought, was really, really good. Obviously, it’s very difficult, she’s very emotional at that moment, very upset, but I try to remind her, like, you played against Riske, who’s beaten many top players in the past couple months. I thought the level of the match was extremely high.
“The following morning at breakfast we talked a little bit more about some of the key moments of the match, a few tactical things that she did wrong. I feel like that was a better time for her to take in, but I honestly believe having Svitolina three match points the week before and then saying these things just happen, one week it was for you, one week it was against you, I think that helped me a little bit.”
Hill said they already have accomplished the goals they set before the season. So, they have made a new wish list for the rest of the year.
“It’s impossible to say that we’re never thinking about rankings,” he conceded.
But their first goal was to win a WTA tournament for the first time.
“To actually get over that hurdle was really big for us,” Hill said.
Another goal was to be seeded at two Slams this year.
“Right now, we’re at 33, so going into the U.S. Open, we need a good week here,” Hill said.
“The last one was not really a result goal. It was more just a style of play that we wanted, a mentality on the court of bringing that physicality, that toughness. I call it Spartan. If you ever hear on-court coaching, I say, ‘Spartan.’
“That’s something that I feel this year has really helped her a lot, just competing every single point.”
Their new goals include winning another tournament, as well as reaching the semifinals at one of the next five events, in Toronto, Cincinnati, New York, Wuhan or Beijing.
“I feel like those are realistic goals. I don’t like to give goals of finish the year top 10. It is a goal down the road, but right now I want her to have goals where she thinks, let’s hit these and then we set more goals.”
The key is taking it one step at a time, Hill said.
“She’s had many coaches in the past before me tell her how great her potential is. For a player, that’s tough, because everyone is telling you how good you could be,” he said.
“I realized if I give her goals that she can attain them maybe within six months, it gives her a goal she can hit and then you hit it and you go again and you go again. If I was to tell her let’s make a final of a Slam this year, but you’ve never made a second week of a Slam, it seems so far away.”
The week before their title run in Morocco, Hill had to have a tough talk with Sakkari after she lost to Veronika Kudermetova in the first round in Istanbul.
“We had a good, firm chat,” he recalled. “I told her I want 13 matches in a row — just compete. You could lose 13 matches in a row. I just want you just to compete every single point.”
And that is exactly what she did.
“She wins the tournament,” Hill beamed.
“It caught me off guard,” he admitted. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
In that final against Johanna Konta, there were more lessons to be learned.
“Konta was playing unbelievably good tennis. To be a set and 4-2 down, when I came on I was just like, Maria, she’s playing great. If Konta hits eight winners the rest of the match, say too good. But make her beat you,” Hill said.
“And I think that’s something that I’ve managed to help her with since then. She’s starting to realize, hmm, if an opponent hits a good shot, I just survive the shot. I tell her, make them hit another ball. You can actually get some success from that.”
Just 24-years-old, Hill is one of the youngest coaches on tour. He was born in Birmingham, England.
“Honestly, I never planned on getting into coaching at all,” he said. “Max Eisenbud sent me a text if I wanted to do some hitting at IMG. This was right when I graduated from Pepperdine. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I was like, sure, I’ll do it.
“I did some hits with Maria Sharapova and Madison Keys. I was like, this is fun, but I didn’t really know what was going to come from it.
“That’s where I met Danielle Collins. She had just finished with her coach and she was like, she needs somebody, can you actually coach me? I told her, Danielle, I’ve never coached before, are you sure? She’s like, no, I like the way we practice, I like things, let’s give it a shot.
“And then, obviously, the year with Danielle, from 220 we started to 39 in, like, eight months, I was like, am I actually helping you or what’s going on?”
Hill said getting to live vicariously through the players he coaches is rewarding and fun.
“I really enjoy it,” he said. “Obviously, my goal as a player was to get to this level. But I feel like I can live my career through my player. So, when Danielle was playing and now when Maria is playing, I feel like it’s also me out there. I love it. It’s awesome.”
Being young helps also Hill manage today’s barrage of Instagram and Twitter commentary.
“I never really appreciated how many bad messages and good messages players get until I’m in this position now, because I also get a lot of fan messages. I’m sure many coaches do. But I think the fact that because I’m very engaged on social media, I can relate more being young and telling Maria, because she sees it, I’ll be honest. She tells me like, ah, these people are saying this. I’m like, ignore it, ignore it. I get them, too. I’ll show her the messages, and then she’s kind of like, we’re in it together as opposed to everyone is just abusing her.
“I was like, look, the reality is these people probably put a bet on a match, lost their money, it’s their fault. Don’t take it so personally.
“But then, on the other hand, we have so many nice messages from people, like keep your head up, keep going. So, there’s the bad, but there’s also the good.”
Hill started as an assistant, essentially Sakkari’s hitting partner, with Coach Thomas Johansson. The retired Swedish professional tennis player won the Australian Open in 2002.
“I call him my mentor. I speak to him every single day. Whenever I have anything, if I say I want to work on this with Maria, what would you recommend how I approach it, he tells me exactly what to do. I brainstorm tactics,” Hill said. “It’s been amazing to learn from him.”
Wearing a T-shirt with Rafael Nadal’s bull logo, Hill admitted that he still gets star-struck.
“I see Rafa in the players’ lounge and I’m like, wow, Rafa,” he laughed.
“I’ve always loved to travel,” he said. “It’s tiring at times. I think one of the things that is most challenging is not seeing my family a lot. I think I do 42 weeks more or less with Maria. So, not seeing friends, family, that’s tough.”
Hill said he considers himself Sakkari’s friend, as well as coach. Likewise, he credited his friendship with Collins as the source for their success.
“We got along really well. I think we had very good chemistry together,” he said. “Danielle is a fantastic player. She had so many weapons. I realized Danielle was beating herself and I was like, if I can just make her realize when to pull the trigger, when to use her backhand down the line, when to use these shots, be a little bit more patient, it worked for her.
“And we had a lot of fun off the court. That is one thing I believe, if you gel off the court, you have a happy player off the court, on the court they are in a better place.”
Putting himself in his player’s position by remembering his own collegiate and junior experiences has empowered Hill as a coach.
“My best shot has always been my forehand, but I was a nutcase on the court,” he joked.
“I think that’s helped, because now when I see frustration in Maria or in the past Danielle, I can relate to how I was. Even when I think of my game, I’m like if I had done this differently, would it have been a different outcome? Probably not. I hit with David Goffin yesterday and I was like, geez, how good do these guys hit the ball? I could keep up, but I was like, this is tough.
“But I can relate with kind of the mental side, where I’m like if I had been a bit more positive, if I hadn’t taken it so seriously, if I had just been a bit more positive with myself.
“It helps with on-court coaching massively. I feel when I come on court, Maria is normally very frustrated. It’s rare that she calls me on when she’s 4-1 up or 5-2 up. She’s normally struggling, there’s something that’s not going right.
“And I think, the first thing would be calm her down, because I can’t tell her something if her brain is functioning a hundred miles an hour. So, I calm her down and then tell her something tactically that I think will help her, because I think, if I was in her position, how would I best take in the information, and it would be that way.”