I have a good friend who is a high-powered businessman but also a tennis lover. He always says to me: “If I’m doing business with someone and I want to find out more about him, I play tennis with him. I always find out very quickly on the tennis court what kind of person he is.”
That’s one of the things that I love about tennis. When you go to a tournament, whatever the level is, and whether it’s for 40- year-olds who play for pleasure or for young players who want to become professionals, you find out so much about people.
When I recruit young players to my academy I want to assess their tennis ability and their physical capacity, but I also want to find out about their characters. The tennis court is one of the best places to make that judgement. Some people might say they are real fighters, for example, but it’s not until you put them into a stressful situation – which you can do on the tennis court – that you understand whether they are what they say they are.
At this stage of the year we are finalising our next intake of students at the academy. It is possible for players to join at other times, but for the most part we follow the school year. We take young players from the age of 11 upwards, though there have been one or two cases where they have been younger. We have a school attached to the academy which the players attend. They can follow the French education programme or they can do American studies, leading to an American diploma. We assist them after that if they want to get scholarships at the best American universities.
We want our students to be as successful in school as they are on the tennis court. We aim to make our students good tennis players, but it is just as important to give them the chance to have the best possible life outside tennis. It’s a fact that some of the people who come to the academy will not go on to become professional tennis players, so it’s vital that they leave us equipped to do other things with their lives.
Even for those who go on to enjoy careers as professional players, I think it’s important to have interests outside tennis. When you’re on the tour you have a lot of free time. It will be to your advantage if you can occupy those hours with something that is going to benefit you as a person, rather than just playing video games. You also have to appreciate that your career is going to be over by the time you are 30 or 35. It’s important that you look at the big picture, not just your immediate life as a tennis player.
I always encourage my students to carry on with their studies, no matter what age they are. I know some top professional players who at 22 or 23 realised that it was still important to have an education and went back to their academic work. Thanks to modern communications, you can now do that at the same time as playing tennis around the world.
We have about 40 players on our elite programme. The numbers are limited by our present infrastructure, which is why we are moving from Paris to the south of France in the near future. We hope eventually to have up to 150 players. I think having a big group can generate a lot of energy and can be very motivating for everyone, though we will always make sure that everyone’s programme is personalised so that it meets their individual needs.
We set aside a number of weeks during the year when we invite potential students to attend the academy to enable us to assess them – and to give them a chance to assess us. More than 90 per cent of the players in our programme are people who have approached us, but there have been times when I have seen players at a tournament and invited them to come to us for a trial.
That was how Marcos Baghdatis and Grigor Dimitrov came to the academy. I saw them both in tournaments when they were 14 and invited them to visit the academy. I wanted to look at them, but I thought it was also important that they had a look at us. I wanted them to experience the academy and to be 100 per cent sure that it was the best place for them. Marcos came with his father and actually spent two weeks with us at the start. A few years later I was coaching Marcos when I asked Grigor if he wanted to come and spend some time with us as Marcos’ hitting partner.
We assess potential students from both an academic and a tennis point of view. We look at their tennis, their fitness, their physical potential and their academic ability. Just as importantly, we test their character and their level of motivation. There is usually a big gap between what people say about their goals or their motivation and what they are actually doing to achieve those goals. The best way to find out what they really want is to put them in a very difficult and very stressful situation. Watch how they react and you will find out a lot about them.
In assessing young players it’s not all about pure talent. Basic athletic ability and the right attitude count for so much. I would prefer to work with a young player who has good athleticism and strong motivation but not necessarily outstanding tennis ability, rather than with someone who is very talented with a racket in their hand but doesn’t have the right approach. Sometimes very talented players want to join tennis academies simply because they don’t like school. They won’t be happy with us because we put as much emphasis on academic work as we do on tennis.
We don’t judge people by what they have achieved already. We’re more interested in what they can achieve in the future. I believe that most people don’t know their potential and could do much better. It’s important to see a young person’s level of motivation, their work ethic and their self-belief. I do believe there is a minimum level of self-esteem that is necessary to achieve big things in life.
It’s often possible to assess all those things even when players are very young. I used to manage players as well as coach them and I remember signing Caroline Wozniacki when she was just 10 and Marion Bartoli when she was 16. They were both hard workers and great fighters. I sensed they would have what was needed to reach the top, even though many other people did not see that in them.
Marion’s level was not very high, but I signed her after watching her play in the French under-16 championships. I just thought she had a great attitude. I remember someone from one of the world’s biggest management companies saying to me a couple of years later: “If she succeeds in tennis, I will go and open a bar.” The funny thing is, when I stopped working with Bartoli, when she was 24, she signed with this person. And he still hasn’t opened his bar.
Even when Wozniacki was 10 I could see the qualities that eventually took her to the top. What I liked was her feeling for the game and the fact that she knew how to win. Sometimes you watch a match and you think one player is playing better but it’s the other player who wins. Some play great tennis but don’t find a way to win, others are less impressive but always come out on top. I remember Tommy Robredo when he was 17. He wasn’t at all impressive as a player but he was always winning. It was no surprise that he went on to become a top 10 player.
Most people weren’t convinced about Baghdatis when he was a junior, but I believed he had what it took. At 20 he reached the final of the Australian Open and in the same year he made the semi-finals at Wimbledon and reached No.8 in the world.