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'It’s helpful for the British game we’re here' - Meet the five Britons coaching on WTA singles tour

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 30/01/2021 Simon Briggs
a couple of people that are talking to each other: British No 1 Johanna Konta is coached by Dan Smethurst - Frank Molter © Frank Molter British No 1 Johanna Konta is coached by Dan Smethurst - Frank Molter

The British coaches in Melbourne passed their two-week quarantine in contrasting ways. Tom Hill worked on his press-ups and binge-watched the Queen’s Gambit. Andy Bettles ploughed through the Booker Prize-winning novel Shuggie Bain. As for Nigel Sears, the doyen of the group, “I spent a lot of time discussing UberEats options on WhatsApp.”

There are five Britons coaching on the WTA singles tour. Each man – for they are all men – represents a top-60 player. In ranking order, the list comprises Elina Svitolina (Bettles), Johanna Konta (Dan Smethurst), Maria Sakkari (Hill), Annett Kontaveit (Sears) and Heather Watson (Alex Ward).

In this fickle business – where a coach is not the boss, as in team sports, but can be fired by his player without warning – their band of brothers forms a useful support network.

Hill and Bettles sometimes hit together when their working day is done, while Sears – still training like an Iron Man at 63 – often partners up with one of the young’uns for a run, swim or cycle. Smethurst is a keen golfer, and spent much of the recent US Open hanging out by the golf simulator in the player hotel.

“Most of us came up at around the same time,” said Bettles, whose two-and-a-half-year run as Svitolina’s head coach comfortably exceeds the average coaching term of 18 months. “It’s quite a tight-knit group.

“I think it’s helpful for the British game that we’re all still on the tour. I wasn’t a world-beater as a player but when you work with someone as good as Elina, you get a feel for what it takes. There will probably be a time when I start a family and look for a more settled coaching job in the UK. But that’s for the future: I’m only 28, and still enjoying what I’m doing.”

At 16, Bettles was so highly thought of that a national newspaper devoted a page to the news that he had changed coaches. But the path from teen starlet to proper prizemoney – the kind you can live off – is fraught with pitfalls. By the time that he took a tennis scholarship to Boise State University in Idaho, he was already looking for other options.

A little nepotism came in handy here, for coaching jobs are never advertised, but touted around the grapevine like government PPE contracts. As it happened, Sears’s son Scott was also a Bronco – as the Boise players are known. And when Nigel needed a hitting partner for the former French Open champion Ana Ivanovic, it was Bettles he called.

“I was a sponge for the 18 months I spent with Nigel,” Bettles recalls now. “I studied the way he ran practices. Then, when Ana retired, Elina asked me to join her, and she had [experienced French coach] Thierry Ascione with her already, so again I was cherry-picking some of the things he did. Since 2018, I’ve been in charge.

“I prefer coaching. It’s not as stressful as playing on the Futures tour, when you’re worried that you won’t have the money to string your rackets.”

Hill – who is 25 – was a contemporary of Kyle Edmund’s at junior level but admits that “I wasn’t the strongest mentally on the court. I used to have a few meltdowns, start complaining about the most ridiculous things. I actually see that as a positive now, because I can help my players when they occasionally lose their minds.”

Hill also plumped for an American college-tennis scholarship – the only realistic option for a Briton without deep pockets or freakish talent. But his idyllic lifestyle at Pepperdine University in Malibu turned sour when the coach who signed him left, and he drifted down the ranks.

He was preparing to become a civilian – and had just been offered a job by advertising agency McCann – when the American player Danielle Collins called him in tears to say she had been let down by her coach.

Hill and Collins had met at the IMG Academy in Florida, where he had done a few shifts as a hitting partner for Maria Sharapova. In around nine months together, Collins’s ranking climbed from outside the world’s top 150 to No 41. And yet, after a first-round loss to Elise Mertens at Wimbledon in 2018, she still sacked him ruthlessly, claiming that he lacked experience.

“I put out a message on Instagram that night thanking her for the journey,” Hill explained. “I didn’t think I would get approached. But when I woke up, there were five players saying they were interested. I could have had another head-coach position but I chose Maria [Sakkari] because she was already working with Thomas Johansson and I wanted to learn from a grand-slam champion.

“I was writing down notes about everything in practice: the drills, the way he speaks to Maria, how he handles emotions, the scouting of opponents. He probably thought I was stalking him. We still speak every day even though he left at the end of that 2018 season. Then, after a short period when we were working with Mark Petchey, I took over. Andy Bettles told me ‘She is gonna stick with you, because the exact same thing happened to me with Elina.’”

The good news for both Bettles and Hill is that they have probably reached the stage where, if anything were to suddenly go wrong, they have enough visibility and stature to walk into a new job swiftly. They’ve established a seat on the WTA coaching carousel.

The same may not yet be true of Ward – who joined Watson in 2019 – or Smethurst, who became Konta’s assistant coach that same season but is flying solo in Melbourne in the absence of head coach Dimitri Zavialoff. Given time, though, they too will probably make the transition.

It is a cycle of life, in which older coaches reach a stage – Sears says he was 47 – where they can no longer keep up the pace on the practice court. They send for a younger hitting partner who, very often, becomes a doppelganger. Frustratingly for retired female players, this well-trodden path is unavailable to women.

It seems unlikely, however, that any of the British newcomers will serve as long as Sears himself, who hopes to make Estonia’s Kontaveit (now standing at No 23, one place behind Sakkari) into his seventh top-ten player.

“If you’re a young coach starting out, it’s a dangerous scenario,” said Sears. “If things go wrong with one player, you will probably get another. If it happens twice, that’s more precarious. Like a football manager, you’re judged on results. But these guys have put the time in, earning their stripes. And it’s nice to have them around.”

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