Since taking Serena under his wings, the French coach has guided the American to a 104-5 record.
It has been a season to savour for Serena Williams, but also a season to savor Team Williams, the diverse group that provides the star’s emotional, logistical and technical backup: Her longtime hitting partner, Sascha Baijin, is German; her physical therapist, Esther Lee, was born in the Untied States and raised in Canada; her fitness coach, Mackie Shilstone, and personal chef, Lauren von der Pool, are Americans, and her coach and confidant, Patrick Mouratoglou, is French.
Mouratoglou has been the highest-profile addition. He is a veteran coach with an eponymous academy near Paris who analyzes the game for print and television outlets in Europe and has worked with numerous leading players, including Marcos Baghdatis, Grigor Dimitrov, Aravane Rezai and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Mouratoglou, 43, never achieved greatness as a player, but in working with Williams he has satisfied a long-standing ambition to coach a major champion.
Their relationship is presumed to be romantic as well as professional, and since he joined her team in 2012 after her shock first-round defeat at the French Open, she has won four Grand Slam singles titles and produced an astounding overall record of 104-5. He recently spoke with Christopher Clarey of The International New York Times.
So are you at peace now that you’ve coached a Grand Slam champion?
I didn’t have to have that to feel at peace.
A sense of personal satisfaction then?
No, I try not to be satisfied because when you are satisfied I feel you stop progressing. I’m ambitious. I was always ambitious, no matter what I did because my parents educated me like that. When I started this profession I said my goal was to be good enough at what I do so that the best players in the world would want to work with me to be able to win major tournaments. That does not mean I don’t like working with young players and with everyone in fact. I always took a lot of pleasure in it and when I’m at the academy I work with everyone and I love it, but as I’m ambitious I want what’s the best and what’s best when you’re a coach is like in soccer: It’s better to work with Real Madrid or Barça or Manchester United or Paris Saint-Germain than with a club in the third division in Uzbekistan.
So is Serena Barca or Real?
Ha! One or the other or both.
But it must be affirming to know that you could make a difference at this level.
Honestly, I never doubted. If you write that, people will take it the wrong way, but I never doubted my value and voilà. I don’t feel better now than when I was with Aravane Rezai and she won Madrid.
My work has always been to help players get results in terms of their possibilities and capacities. Not everyone can be Serena, that’s for sure. Not everyone can win 17 Grand Slams. But before I worked with Aravane, no one thought she’d win a Tier One tournament and beat Venus in the final of Madrid. No one. But as it turns out, she could, so that’s my profession and that’s what is motivating. You can always help anyone to be better.
You’ve rarely lasted a long time with players, and you explained a couple of years ago in Australia that it was partly because you eventually became frustrated by their lack of ambition.
I’m disappointed when I sense they are not ready to make more efforts to go further, because when they are satisfied with what they have, my sense is we’re not going to do better, so it’s not motivating. If they are 600 in the world and want to be better, that’s motivating. But if they’re top 100 and they are content and don’t really have the desire to make the effort to go higher, I don’t have the impression to be useful. For me, it has to work both ways.
You are very close to Serena. What if she loses ambition?
Serena will never drop her guard. She will stop perhaps, but she won’t drop her guard. She won’t be 50th in the world, that’s for sure. She wouldn’t accept it from herself. It’s not the style of the maison.
How much has it helped your academy to have the Serena connection?
It can’t hurt, that’s for sure. For sure it helps. She told me all the trophies we win when we work together we’ll put them in the academy. They are in the entry. We reorganized. We made a big room like a players’ lounge in the entry with the bar and put a trophy case there, which is already full.
What do the young players make of that?
I’d be motivated seeing that every day if I were 15.
Do you agree her in-match letdowns are less frequent now?
I think she has more to her game, more options in case she gets in trouble on a bad day. But she’s got to be fresh mentally. If she’s very tired mentally, then she’s vulnerable, and that’s what happened at Wimbledon when she lost to Sabine Lisicki after winning so many matches coming in. But I like how she’s approaching all her matches now, doing things she did not do before. She’s at 100 percent from the start and on every point. She’s focused all the time, and that always pays off over the long term. It’s something she didn’t do before at all. She was on a superior level but often got into tight matches.
Carlos Rodriguez, who coached Justine Henin and now coaches Li Na, thinks it’s a pity Serena doesn’t have more competition and says the level has dropped in women’s tennis.
I don’t' agree. I think there were moments the level was much lower than this, and not very long ago. Moments when Serena was out of the game. There were No 1s in the world who were really far, far below this level. And now here are two champions, with Serena and Victoria Azarenka. They are above the rest, it’s true, but Federer and Nadal were above the rest for five years, not because the others were bad but because they were simply able to produce that higher level.
It seems Azarenka is the only player who can match Serena’s hunger to win. Would you agree?
Exactly, and she showed it in the US Open final. She has an ability to continue fighting. When she was down a set and 4-1 and two breaks, there is hardly anyone who could have done what she did against Serena and come back to win the second set. But in the same manner, 99 percent of the players would have collapsed in the third set after being so close to win the match in the second. But Serena was able to reaccelerate. Both were exceptional. She really is a champion, Vika. You can see it. For the moment she doesn’t have the record, but it will come. I have a lot of admiration for her. I don’t want her to win, but she’s a champion.
How much is Serena looking at the Grand Slam record book?
I don’t know. I think if she did, it’s not good for her. I think it’s better not to think about it. She does not need that to be motivated. She’s living day to day and is focused on short-term objectives, which is much better than looking at the top of the mountain.
I feel what she did this year was really powerful. Last year she had an exceptional season but this year she went into all the matches with the label of favorite. Every match she had that weight on her back and the reaction she had to that was to train even better and to concentrate on every point in every match. She has accepted the role and the pressure and gone with it.
Now if you could only teach her how to volley -- really volley -- she might be unbeatable.
I know. I know. She still has a margin for improvement that is enormous. That’s the remarkable part.