The town of Bree, in north-east Belgium, close to the Dutch and German borders, is an hour’s drive from Brussels and has a population of around 15,000. Kim Clijsters, probably Bree’s most famous resident, now has an 18-court tennis academy with state-of-the-art equipment and a team of tennis and wider health professionals with credentials worth travelling for.
Since April 2014 the academy has been offering a range of services to players of all levels. For aspiring pros there is the opportunity to join the college programme, aimed at players who are still studying at university, college or those wanting to do home studies. Players receive 10-15 hours of tennis coaching per week (including at least two hours of private lessons), in addition to five or six hours of fitness training (of which at least one hour will be one-on-one). The programme also includes HawkEye testing, medical screening and an injury prevention programme, as well as a KCA trainer at four international tournaments a year.
There is also a Pro Tour/Practice Programme for players with professional ambitions. The pro Tour programme is a holistic programme where a player can tap into many services like a Snapshot test –analysis of a specific stroke with the use of Hawkeye cameras, a fitness performance test, a Dexa Body scan as well as osteopathic screening, mental mindflow screening and massage.
In addition to the full time programmes the academy offers test days and an introductory week. There are also tennis holidays in partnership with Centerparcs Erperheide and intensive training weeks.
When Clijsters opened the Academy last year it was her vision to bring together all the needs of tennis players under one roof. What better way to deliver this than with some of the team who had helped her to Grand Slam success?
Carl Maes, who was Clijsters’ coach for ten years, is a former Belgian Fed Cup captain and was Head of Tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association in the UK. Sam Verslegers, her former fitness coach and osteopath, runs the team of therapists.
“If you want to be a professional tennis player or you have goals to be a better tennis player you can get everything done here,” says Clijsters. “When I was playing at the top of my career it was easy for me because I was able to afford an osteopath, testing etc and they would travel with me.
“But I was only able to have that really at the last 10 years of my career. We realise now that is more and more important for younger kids to have their body ready to start to play tennis and not just to work on those details when you have your first injury.”
Maes leads a team of eight full-time coaches and two full-time fitness trainers. Each full-time player at the academy is assigned a responsible coach as well as a second in command. As well as having an overview, Maes acts rather like a backstop, stepping in to coach if, for instance, a player’s two coaches are travelling, as occasionally happens.
Having decided to offer such a personal approach with coaches travelling to tournaments with players at least four times a year, scheduling is one thing that keeps the academy’s coaches and administrators on their toes.
“We are not the biggest academy but we try to be the best.” Maes said. “Our holistic approach means we try to give a personal approach to our programmes so that when people come they really feel like they are not just a number.”
Maes says that the individual sessions that are offered as part of the full-time player packages ensure the data that is collected using HawkEye technology can be fully analysed and its findings implemented, whether it be information gleaned from a functional screening by an osteopath or biomechanical advice.
“The art of the coach is to filter out from all that data what is useful to put into practise be it tennis or fitness,” Maes said.
The academy’s packages are unique because this level of service is included in the cost. In addition to the full-time coaches there are another 10–15 coaches who oversee the after-school practices and programmes.
There are currently between 25 and 30 aspiring pros training at the academy and around 300 players aged 3 to 70 plus playing one or more times a week.
Players travel to the academy from all over the world. Erika Dodridge, 13, travels regularly from the UK, and recently players from China and USA have attended test days and intensive training weeks. There are usually up to 10 players using the facility in this way and Maes says their schedules are often slotted into the full-time player schedules.