Coach Talks: Sandra Zaniewska leads Petra Martić by example
By James Henry
(August 16, 2019) CINCINNATI — Sandra Zaniewska seems like any other female tennis player.
And that’s the point.
That is why she was asked two years ago by Petra Martić, who broke through with her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the 2019 French Open, to be her coach.
Zaniewska, actually a year younger than Martić, reached a career-high No. 142 in 2012. She had never coached before, and she had no intentions of ever being a coach.
Martić was returning to competition after four years plagued by injuries, particularly a major disc protrusion in her lower back.
She convinced Zaniewska to keep traveling as part of the sport’s world caravan — emphasizing that she wanted a coach who could relate to all of her experiences, on and off the tennis court.
Their partnership is exceeding even their own expectations. Martić, 28, won her first WTA title in Istanbul in April.
“Of course, we have certain goals, you know, with performance and just growth goals,” said Zaniewska at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.
Her goal for Martić was to end last year ranked among the top 50. She finished No. 32 and currently is No. 21.
“So, I said let’s not try and get ahead of ourselves for the next year just because we ended up so much higher,” Zaniewska said.
“So, I said, let’s try and be, you know, steady, top 40, top 30 maybe, like in the best way,” she said. “Now, who knows? Maybe it’s gonna be even more.”
Their success could encourage other female players to seek out and partner with a female coach.
Zaniewska, of Poland, is one of only a few traveling female coaches. Even in women’s tennis, coaching is a man’s world.
And that isn’t likely to change, at least anytime soon, Zaniewska said.
“I think it’s a combination, maybe, between probably it being more of a male job still, or being seen as, and the fact that women, you know, I think, they don’t want to travel as much. I think that, you know, they want to start probably families and then kind of it’s like, OK, let’s stay at home with kids,” she said. “I can understand that, because I don’t see myself doing this forever.”
ON THE GROW
Martić wows fans with her ability to seemingly hit any shot in the playbook.
In particular, Zaniewska has worked with Martić to define her identity as a competitor. It’s required a lot of tough soul-searching and questions that don’t necessarily have easy answers.
“For her, it was always tricky to, you know, figure out, or maybe believe in, the fact that the way she plays can be successful, as well, because there are so many girls that just hit really fast and flat and, you know, points are short, while she likes to construct the points a little bit more,” Zaniewska said.
“The biggest thing was about just committing to the way she wants to play. You know, I said it doesn’t matter how you’re going to play, but you need to commit to something. So, if this is the way you want to play, then we’re going to take this and we’re going to try to make you the best player possible in this way.
“I said, I don’t know, maybe it’s not going to be top 20. I said, I have no idea, maybe it’s only going to be 50, but I said, you know, and maybe you will have a better chance playing a different way and be 10.
“I said, I don’t know, you don’t know, nobody really does. But I said if this is how you want to play, like, you need to figure out what’s important for you. Do you want to be you and just, you know, be authentic and play the way you want to play, what really gives you joy? Or, do you just want to go and, yeah, try to, you know, win at any cost and anyhow?
“I said you have to make the choice and then we have to commit to whatever is the outcome and stick to this.”
That maturity and growth in character has translated to confidence and, in turn, wins on the tennis court, Zaniewska said.
“I think this, just the sole commitment, for her, was the biggest difference, because, you know, then she goes out on the court and she’s able to, even if things are not going well, but she is playing her way, she is able to kind of rationalize with herself and say, hey, OK, you know, maybe it’s tough right now, but I’m doing what I really want to be doing and this is how I want to play and this is how I want to get better, so then, you know, it also gives her a kick to just keep on going and trying in this way,” she said.
Beyond tactics, the mental conditioning needed for competing has surprised Zaniewska as a coach.
“Being on the side, of course, it’s much easier to observe and to see, you know, those bad habits or patterns that players can get themselves into, and these are, you know, just for example, the simplest thing ever, playing a couple of great points, missing one ball and just, you know, agonizing over this one bad shot and not noticing all of the others,” she said.
“She doesn’t have to be overly positive. You know, it’s not about that. She just needs to be rational. So, if she plays 10 great shots, notice that, as well, and don’t just notice the one that you played bad, because, yeah, you know, if you just focus on this, then the next 10 can basically go and be even worse.”
Zaniewska said she has been reading and studying to learn how to be a more effective coach.
“It’s not even for her,” she said. “It’s for me, because I feel like, you know, the better I am, the more I know, the more I can give her, as well.”
She has focused specifically on how to strengthen Martić’s mental game.
“For me, the most important part is the awareness, you know. So, I want her to be able to be pretty much like an observer more of herself rather than feel like, you know, she’s in there and there are so many emotions, so many things happening and then you basically cannot see things for what they are, you know,” she said.
“The more she is able to step out of this and see the game as the game, because that’s what it is, you know. It’s not life. It’s just tennis. It’s just a game.
“And herself as the player, as someone that, you know, is able to do it really well, then she is able to see, yeah, to notice things better when it comes to, you know, her maybe being a little bit too emotional, but also when it comes to tactics and her techniques. She’s just able to, you know, have a better overview.”
Zaniewska watches videos, including interviews, of other athletes, even in other sports.
She noted Martić, from Croatia, looks up to Martina Navratilova.
“My personal favorite was Rafael Nadal,” she added. “He’s such an aggressive player.”
Zaniewska said a tennis player’s ability to hear, digest, accept and act on their coach’s advice is crucial.
“It’s important to have, you know, yeah, just a good relationship on those terms,” she said.
“Tennis, it comes down to so many things than just hitting a ball, you know. It comes down to fitness. It comes down to the physical part, to the mental part.
“And I don’t think that a coach, a tennis coach, has to be all that, but you have to be able to tackle those things a little bit, because, obviously, you are not there with the player the whole time always.”
There even are positives to take away from the negative of Martić losing to Markéta Vondroušová in Paris, Zaniewska said.
“She had her chances. She didn’t take all of them the way she could have. I think at the end of the day, you know, on matches like this, it just comes down to the fact that there were two players that really wanted to win and really played good tennis and really worked hard for this,” she said.
“Of course, there are always things that can be better, you know, on every single match, even if she plays perfectly and wins against better players than her.
“But, I think, on a day like this it’s just about, well, you know, you’ve done all you could, let’s work on those things that, you know, maybe were the things that could have given you an advantage in those key moments so that next time you are able to commit better to the certain things that you need to do and that’s it.
“For me, it’s not really that important. I just see it as another match. It’s really important for her to see it like this, as well, no matter whether it’s the first round or her first quarterfinal.”
Zaniewska also hopes to change others’ minds about on-court coaching.
“I like the fact that, you know, I can come and give her some tips that are really specific to the match to what’s going on because then she is able to turn things around quicker,” she noted.
However, Zaniewska would eliminate on-court coaching, or at least make it uniform at all events.
“It is an individual sport after all, and I think that it should stay this way. You know, I think that the best thing about tennis is seeing players go out there with the skills that they have with the mindset that they have on a certain day and just try and figure it out on their own,” she said.
“If I’m there and I’m able to go there and just give her all the answers, it’s like, OK, you know, why would I even think for myself then? And then a Grand Slam comes.
“Now I can’t go. I need to give her way more information before. On WTAs, I just say a couple of things and then I say let’s see what it’s going to be on the court because, obviously, I’m going to come there, as well.
“I’m sure it’s helps a player. Like, if was a player, I would definitely use it, too. But I think, yeah, at the end of the day, if I could choose, I would say let’s take it out altogether because it just makes the players, I think, grow more.”