Chris Johnstone: “Girls are more emotional, that’s why it’s harder”

Chris Johnstone
by Giulio Gasparin

I met Johnstone after an unlucky match from his athlete, Jarka Gajdosova, at Roland Garros, but that fact did not prevent him from being a wonderful interviewee and very honest in his answers, and it was clear from his calm voice and serene attitude that his strength lied in his methodical approach to the analysis of facts, merged with great sensibility. Thus said, it is as evident, that he is strong on his positions and he made it clear on some of the topics we touched, like the experience of having been a player before a coach, the differences in coaching men and women, or the day he witnessed a linesman falling asleep during a match.

Talking about your coaching experience, today the match was a bit difficult.

Jarka has been playing a bad match, I mean, she played well for the first set, but she has been having a few health issue of a late. I am not looking for excuses for her, but she had that glandular fever in 2014 and she couldn’t play for 6-8 months and it took a while for her to get back and in the end, finally, sort of around before Wimbledon last year, she qualified and won one of the Nottingham tournaments, which I think was the 50k and then she started building a bit of confidence and in the second half of last year was good and then we did really tough training at the end of last year and she had really good January, February and March, but then in March she started having some health problems again and I think it got maybe to do with the hard training and travelling…and so she had to take some time off, I mean, I’ve had a break also, because she was in a state she couldn’t train very hard and, girls, you know, are a little bit of emotional, so when the health is not right, , they are not so happy and it reflects on their tennis. I am not looking for excuses for her, but she hasn’t played much tennis lately and she just didn’t believe even if she was playing someone she should beat and she got too tentative and hoped the other girl would lose rather than her winning. For me it was disappointing today, because I know how well she can play but today she didn’t.

You’ve been coaching on the ATP tour and then working a lot on WTA, since it seems like on the women’s tour the mental side is a lot harder to keep under control, like today, as you said. Like today, Jarka was twice a break up in the deciding set, but still her body language was telling another story: she was suffering the crowd and the opponent was really fierce with her reactions. How do you work on this part of the game, as a coach?

It has to be, I mean, sometimes you can’t just yell at them, so we will have a long talk about that, it is something that we talk about. It is a constant thing, girls are more emotional than the males, so the emotions even count: firstly there’s the head, which we all have to deal with and this is the most important part, but female emotions affect them more than men’s that’s why it is more difficult as a coach to coach a girl. Tennis is still tennis, but…it is something that we have to talk about and then in training it is hard to practice that, but it is just like tennis: it’s a constant thing, it’s day by day, little step by little step, you can’t just say it right: ‘you have to do this and then, right, do it.’ It’s just like anything, like a forehand, you have to practice, then you get better. But on the mental thing, the way they are behaving and it is sometimes, you just reinforce during practice, you remind them what you have talked about.

Like today, I mean, I will give her a talk, but we talked about it before the match and I told her that the French will be yelling and screaming and I can tell her too, but she looked as if she had no energy, but one or two things could have been because of health, but sometimes when she gets nervous she gets, what we call, ‘flat on her feet’ and you can see that they are not bouncing around even though they are winning, they look like they are really tired and they are not and that’s what nerves can do and sometimes you have to step yourself out of it. She was like that today, even 1-0 wasn’t very convincing serving game, 2-1 and I thought ‘oh come on’ and normally she steps out and hits big serves, but she wasn’t hitting first serves and she was not really hitting the ball. Today for me she was just pushing the ball and she was too scared to hit.

Yeah, you could hear the sound, apart from a few times, it is incredible the sound she makes when she cracks the ball, but today it was very flat…

You know, the confidence is the big thing too. She hasn’t played a lot of matches lately and she hasn’t been training very hard because of the health, so it if we train hard, she is not well and then if you don’t train hard, you are not hitting the ball well. We did so much training at the end of the year and that’s why, mentally and physically, she played so well, now it’s sort of gone on a dead bit. With Jarka, I can see it easily as I am with her all the time, and she was just flat even when she was winning in the second set. Sometimes it’s very hard to get out of that and make yourself to be positive and running around, I mean you can try, but again, all the emotions run and the other girl played one game when she hit a couple of lines to break Jarka in the second set and she looks at me like ‘oh she hits lines and lines’ but you should be just getting on with that.

Next you are gonna switch to grass, which she likes much better, so this could be a good input.

She plays well on grass, but it’s funny, this time last year she said ‘I hate grass’ and then she wins Nottingham. Now she has a bit of pressure as she has a few points to defend, so now it’s important to get on grass and we will get some practice and build a nice momentum leading to Wimbledon and have a good tournament there.

You’ve been playing a few decades ago, but how important it is for you for have this experience as a former player before being a coach?

Look, lots of coaches haven’t had the experience and they are very good, but I think it comes as a great help, I mean, there are many different things, but by having the experience of having been there and done that you know how’s like. It’s like with a degree at university you can get all the education, but until you have the practical experience in the real world, that’s worth nothing. You learn a lot more from practical and with tennis coaches, they can learn the technique and all, but even the mental side, to actually know what it feels like to have match points and have to hit the second serve and be nervous and play a point worth 10, 20 or 40,000 dollars or a title and to deal with that pressure week in, week out to deal with yourself and how it all works, you can’t buy that, you can’t be taught it.

There’s plenty of good coaches who haven’t been players, but I think having been an ex-player, it helps you understanding what’s going on a player’s mind and what it feels like, sometimes I think some coaches go very hard at their players, but if you don’t understand what they are going through, sometimes it helps you being more sympathetic and understand how to talk through the situation. Sometimes they have psychologists, but psychologists have never actually played tennis, so they are good for some stuff, but there’s a bit of a mix from actually having the experience. It makes a big difference, sometimes you come just from being a ex player and you can’t be a coach either as there’s lots to learn about being a coach too.

There are many tennis former players being coaches now, many of them you have played against during your career. How does it feel when you know your opponent’s coach from before?

Look, sometimes it’s a little bit funny, because on WTA we can go for on court coaching, so in my mind if I see there is an ex player as a coach, I know that tactical-wise even if they are sitting and watching it’s another thing you are gonna deal with, because they are gonna go out on court and know what to say. So whatever advice they are gonna give I value that, sometimes you see other coaches and think ‘oh they are gonna go out there but you don’t have much respect for them’, so they can say whatever, but probably not worth. Sometimes, you don’t know for sure, but look. So I think that ex-players have more respect for each other for having played on the tour.

So what do you think about the on court coaching, as it has been discussed a lot as you can’t do it on ITF, you can’t do it on slams…

I think it’s silly, I think they shouldn’t do it. It’s more the WTA, from what I gathered, the tv wanted it in America so they agreed to make it more interesting for the public watching. For me tennis has always be a one on one and it’s the player out there so it should be them and that’s part of the game, they are gotta hit the ball and think and analyse the situation. I mean, you can only get out once a set, you can help, but then there’s another coach down at the other end and I think it’s more useful for the tv and the sensational and have some drama.

In FedCup and Davis Cup, coaches are always on the chair though…

I think it’s different again, if you are on the chair all the time. I don’t agree with coaching, but on Fed Cup it has always been like that, so that’s ok. I like the idea of being there the all time on every change event, because you can always manage their head and fix the tactics as you go. Even on the once per set you can go out, but it is after they have fallen on old steps, so it takes a while before you can go out there and fix the things. But if you can do it on every change, it is a good thing as a coach as you can keep on top of your player, so they don’t get to angry and can work on things immediately, but that’s a completely different thing. But I have never done that.

Jarmila has got one of these careers where she has got a very high ranking, then all the physical problems and personal issues in her private life as well, so she has fallen in the rankings and now she is bouncing back. So what do you think it is more challenging, as a coach, to take someone who has been through problems and get him or her back to their former level or take someone from the scratches?

These are two completely different things, probably, but they are both difficult. Jarka has had an up and down career because there’s been other issues going on outside of the tennis, but again, someone young is a longer time and it’s, you know, you hope it is a gradual progression. But you need to have a good player and you need to be a good coach to do that, you need both things to do that. Sometimes you have good coaches but you don’t have the player, so they are not gonna make it. I always say I could be the best coach in the world, but if you do not have the goods then it won’t work and vice versa, though if you had Roger Federer as a pupil, many people could have coached him without being good and he still would have been world number one.

But back on the question, it is very different to have someone for the whole journey or someone, like Jarka, who has the talent, so you deal with different issues. For her it has been more about the mental approach, trying to give her the security even when they are injured.

Sometimes matching players and coaches is an art, because some good coaches don’t work with some players, because their ways don’t match with what the player wants or needs, because their qualities don’t match. So I think it’s a bit of an art to selecting players that you think you can work with, because the strength I have might work with someone and not with others. But there is also another side, because you spend so much time with a player, so you need to get on pretty well. I think players need to have respect for their coach and vice versa, because it wouldn’t work otherwise.

Talking about the tactical side, tennis is about match ups, because you play one against the other, you can be the best in the world, but if you meet someone who is just your nemesis it seems like it just won’t work. In these cases, if you meet someone whom you know their playing style just breaks your player down, do you try to work on strengths or on finding something different to get out of the trouble.

Well, you have got to think about two things: knowing your player’s strengths and weaknesses, and knowing your opponent’s ones. You’ve got to focus on their weaknesses and what your player can do to expose them. Sometimes you can realise the opponent’s weaknesses, but your player doesn’t have the strengths to expose them, so that’s one issue. Easier with the men, but with the women it is more difficult technical wise, because men have more variety, so sometimes I have some tactics I think my player could use, but then they don’t really have them. So it is important to know your player well. Also, likewise, you need to think about what the opposition is going to bring on against my player, so you have to also deal with that. Quite often I talk with my player about what I think this girl is gonna try and do, but you don’t have to be negative in that. For example sometimes someone has a bad forehand, which is still good when there is no pressure, but you need to tell them to go on that shot when they can put some pressure even if it looks good at the beginning of the match.

For example, some players, especially men on clay, they like to run around and dictate with their forehands inside-out, so you sort of sit with your player and say not to hit to the backhand corner, because that’s their way, so you tell them to hit to the forehand corner wide and then go to the backhand corner, not to stick to that corner as their forehand is better when they are running around. But that’s just a simplification. But you also need to beware not to be too complicated, because in tennis you need to keep it as simple as it can. Of course not as simple as “go out and don’t miss”, but in the sense of not giving too much to think about. Then again everyone is different, because some people can take more information than others.

What has been the funniest moment that happened to you on many years on tour.

I was at Wimbledon one year, I was playing singles and we were having a long match after a long day, it was late in the afternoon and my opponent hit a smash a long way wide inside the tramlines, in the alley, but there was no call and I sort of looked at the umpire standing on the line and she was sleeping on the chair, during the match. This was during a match at Wimbledon, which is why I didn’t get the call and it was funny now that I look back, but at the moment it was a serious match but we still had a bit of a laugh, because she was sleeping deep instead of calling the line, thankfully the chair umpire finally overruled it. I think we must have played a not very interesting match. There’s probably a few more, but you caught me off guard here.

As a coach, what was the most memorable moment?

Probably, when I was coaching a young girl from Australia, Olivia Rogowska, here at the French Open one year, she received a Wild Card and she was young, she was 17 years old and it’s because she was very young and it was such a big experience for her, after being a professional for so little, she was nervous, uptight and she, it was a couple years ago, beat Kirilenko in the first round. Just the excitement, it was a big thing for her and I had been with her only for a little while and, though it was nothing fantastic, at the moment it was quite something, because she was playing Kirilenko and she was ranked quite high in the world, while my girl was 17 and ranked 250 or something, at her second Grand Slam and to win that, it was just amazing, just for her, she was so excited.

You know I have coached Wayne Ferreira in the ATP, but it was a different level, he was a top player and he was, not expected, but felt normal for him to have some results, whereas with her, she was young and it felt great to see her improving and get the result here when it was so unexpected.

When you finish your relationship with a player, how does it feel afterwards?

Sometimes a change is good, because they are relationships, so it is good to have a change so it always one thing about being a coach, it is always about the player and never about you. So, it depends on what circumstances: sometimes it’s good to have a change because after a while they don’t listen quite as much, just like parents and children, who after a while don’t listen as much. So it depends on the relationship you have and the way it finishes. Sometimes it is good because the player needs it, so it’s in your best interest to stop because sometimes the player needs something new or you cannot give because of your strengths. There are some relationships in tennis that, like in life, just do not finish well. Also, sometimes coaches have a life and family and they cannot travel anymore, so they need time for themselves. Other times players and coach just do not get on, or simply need a change and someone else to step in and give new inputs on new areas, where the previous coach is not as strong. It’s just like relationships in life, you have some good ones and some bad ones.

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