Chennai Open Challengers special: The unsung heroes behind international stars

Tennis coaches don’t have it easy, leaving their families at home and travelling with players for months. Swaroop Swaminathan explores their lives.

Published: 16th February 2018 02:51 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th February 2018 12:37 PM   |  A+A-

Jordan Thompson at ATP Chennai Open Challengers. (EPS | D Sampathkumar)

Express News Service

After David Ferrer’s last match at the season-ending ATP Finals in London in 2014, his entourage, including brother Javier, had left for home after living life out of a suitcase for the previous 10 months. Even by Javier’s standards, he had had a punishing schedule, travelling the length and breadth of the world with players he was coaching. One week in the Southern Hemisphere, the next in the Northern Hemisphere.

Javier was exhausted so the first thing he did was sleep. But it didn’t last long. At 4.00 am, he got up and started planning. He had noticed a shortage of new balls so he finished ordering a batch before it hit him. “Hang on, what am I doing here? It’s 4.00 am, the season is over and I am in my home,” he tells Express.
Welcome to the unforgiving life of a travelling coach, monks who shortchange their families to give players a better chance at winning.

Trainers exist in most sport but the ones in tennis are unique in that they keep moving from one place to another every few days for eight-nine months every year. It’s fascinating to hear the thoughts of Gilbert Schaller, who is at the Chennai Challenger following four of his wards. “It’s a tough life, sometimes,” he said.

“There have been occasions when I have woken up in a hotel room wondering which city I am in.”
Desmond Tyson, a coach with Tennis Australia and here with Jordan Thompson, and Javier, have also experienced that exact same feeling. But, ultimately, all three of them do what they do for the love of the game. “I am roughly on the road for 26-30 weeks in a year,” Schaller says.

“Sometimes, I don’t get to see my family for months but that’s the way it is. I am doing this because of my love and passion for the game.”

While that word passion is often wheeled out in this context, Javier’s measured response is less cliched. “You forget the struggles in an instant if and when you see your guy crack the top-100. The pain of not seeing the family is validated.”

The Spaniard, who is in Chennai coaching the likes of Pedro Martinez, who is in the semifinal, and Sumit Nagal, has been in the business for 13 years. He explains the story of Inigo Cervantes, the 28-year-old Spanish player, to drive home his point. “When I first started coaching him he was No 300. After a few seasons, he was top 70 (he is now No 325).”  

A travelling coach is much more than what that designation says. For instance, Schaller says he has to switch between good cop and bad cop depending on the ‘mentality of my players’. Improving forehands is just a minuscule part of the job description. “Opponent scouting is an important aspect too,” Tyson says.

You can see he meant it. After working on Thompson’s forehand, he quietly slipped back inside centre court to watch Yuki Bhambri play his third and final set against Yasutaka Uchiyama.
The top two seeds are on course to face each other in Saturday’s final.


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