This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of Australian Tennis Magazine. Subscribe now!
It was taking a critical lesson from a favoured coach that made many of Australia’s former players so successful on the professional tours – and now they’re sharing that priceless knowledge with the next generation.
We asked them the one lesson they always pass on to other players.
Turn weaknesses into strengths
My longest coach was Ian Barclay (above). We were together from when I was 12 years old, all the way through to the peak of my career until my late 20s. If you know my game, it may come as a surprise to learn that I couldn’t smash at all when I was a kid. He was much more patient than I was when I missed smash after smash for months. Ian and I worked for hours out at Heatherdale tennis club in Melbourne until my smashing improved.
In the end it became one of – if not my best – shots. A golden tip he gave me and that I pass on to my students is the urgency required to get back quickly and keep the ball in front of you. This is crucial, especially in Australian conditions with sun in your eyes and wind blowing the ball around. Even now when I play the legends events around the world when a lob goes up in the air I can still hear Ian’s voice saying “get back, move your feet!”
Pat Cash, 1987 Wimbledon champion
Be the best YOU can be
There are many lessons you learn along the way to becoming a tennis player. Some of them are life lessons and others are technical. The one lesson I probably got the most out of was from my brother, Geoff, who said that as a person and a player, the measure of success is not rankings or Grand Slam titles but whether you have got the most out of yourself to be the best possible player you can be – whether that’s No. 150, 50 or world No.1.
Pat Rafter, 1997 & ’98 US Open champion, world No.1 in 1998; now Australian Davis Cup captain
Less REALLY IS more
I learned one of my greatest lessons, in tennis and life, from none other than Margaret Court. As a 16-year-old, brand new to the WTA Tour, I remember my extended stay with Margaret at her home in Perth. We would spend our days training and completing gruelling fitness regimes. It was also here that I heard a piece of advice that has stayed with me ever since: “Dianne, don’t leave all your best tennis on the practice court.”
Like most well-intentioned juniors making the transition to the professional game, I had the mistaken idea that ‘the more I trained, the better’. I simply didn’t trust myself or have the confidence to relax my training schedule before a big event, burning myself out before I had even set foot on the match court.
To this day, I advise all my tournament-playing pupils of this very important lesson – that sometimes less really is more. I am grateful for my days with Margaret, not to mention this very timely motto at such a pivotal time in my career.
Dianne Balestrat, world No.4 in 1979 and Australian Open 1977 finalist
The feel-good factor
I was very fortunate as a junior to have Ray Ruffels coach my age group from time to time. The most important life lesson that Ruff taught me was to make the most of my time on tour. Play hard but also enjoy yourself with your mates on tour. Fortunately we had plenty of other Aussies playing around that time and we had ample opportunity to get out and about and either explore a city or play a round of golf together. The camaraderie was extremely strong within the Aussie playing contingent and to this day we all remain incredibly close and are like a family. I always encourage the guys to get out and enjoy a restaurant or do something fun as this is a very special existence that doesn’t last forever. You will find that if the players are happy off the court they will play well on the court.
Josh Eagle, world No.11 doubles player in 2001; now Australian Davis Cup coach
More than winning
There is one thing that I came to realise as I got older that no one told me as a junior is that the most important thing about junior tennis is not necessarily the winning of matches – even though this is important – but rather the importance of having a game that has “weapons”. A game that has the capability of developing into winning matches as a pro.
The other thing that I tell juniors is not to focus so much on their ranking! If you play well your ranking will take care of itself. This applies at the pro level too.
Liz Smylie, world No.20 in 1987 and winner of four Grand Slam doubles titles
No secret recipe
I was very fortunate through my junior years to have tennis playing and coaching greats John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Bob Carmichael and Ray Ruffels oversee my development.
There was one lesson for life that I learned from all – and that was that there is no secret recipe for success, just pure hard work. This was portrayed to me daily and to this day, I’m still appreciative. As a player, the secret to tactically being smarter, getting fitter or technically making your stroke better is simply taking hold of that valuable information you learn from your coach and then taking ownership to improve through continuous hard work. I always say, “It’s what you are doing when no one else is watching that will make the difference”.
I remember the many times I had lost matches and within a short time be back out on the court with Ray Ruffels and a bucket of balls, trying to get better. One of Ray’s greatest quotes was that “you only need a court and a bucket of balls.” Too many of our players focus on what they think they are missing out on, instead of what they could be doing via hard work to improve something on the back court.
Simon Youl, Grand Slam junior doubles champion. National Academy Head Coach, Tasmania
My brother and coach on the pro tour, Brent Larkham, had a golden rule about what to do tactically under pressure. His advice was simple, but as long as I could execute it, it rarely failed, he said: “Always target your opponent’s weakness in the critical moments in matches. Work out either prior to or during the match which shot your opponent lacks confidence in or has poor technique on, and always pressure that weakness when you need to win a big point”.
Todd Larkham, a top 130 in singles & doubles; now Head Coach AIS & Academy at Tennis Australia
I never had any lessons or any coach throughout my playing days. As a young player from Yarrawonga I bought myself a video camera and projector, which I’d saved up for and had my mother video me in the backyard hitting against the brick wall. I played it back, comparing my technique to action video of players like Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe that I took from the stands at Kooyong during the Australian Open. So the lesson I learned myself when I was young was the importance in your development of responsibility, accountability and honest self-analysis. Being a professional coach now I can clearly see the importance of coaching in young players’ development but also as a coach, the value of teaching young players to be self sufficient with a certain level of independence.
John McCurdy, world No.86 in 1983 and now head coach, Tennis World (Melbourne Park)
I was very fortunate in my career, receiving the same consistent message which I now try to pass
on to other players – and that’s that there are no magic formulas or secrets. Success takes a lot of hard work and if you put in that work, it always pays off somewhere down the track. This same message came from my junior coach (Tum Rakete) college coach (Michael Hegarty) and one of my tour coaches (Shannon Nettle).
Peter Luczak, world No.64 and now part-time coach of Lleyton Hewitt.
When nobody else is watching
My brother once told me that “character is what you do when no one is watching”. Although he wasn’t speaking about tennis, like many of life’s lessons they also hold you in good stead on the tennis court. We have so many opportunities on a daily basis to improve the way we conduct ourselves, treat others, treat ourselves, choose what to value, and apply ourselves to daily tasks. Never waste an opportunity to develop these areas of your life because when it comes to dealing with adversity – whether it’s on the tennis court or in life itself – strength of character is your greatest ally.
Shannon Nettle, former ATP player, Australian Fed Cup coach (currently working with Casey Dellacqua)
Timing is everything
My coach Rich Berman gave me so many valuable lessons throughout my career, but there was one that was more important than all the others. It happened after my third-round match at the Sydney Paralympics. I’d just finished playing the legendary Randy Snow. I don’t know how, but I somehow managed to win in spite of serving an incredible number of double faults. I come through the tunnel after doing press and there was Rich waiting for me with a bucket of balls. I was exhausted but he insisted that I find a court and work on my serve for 15 minutes. I’d been hitting the second serve too flat so Rich had me hit topspin serves over his head whilst he stood in front me, so I could get the feeling of brushing up the ball.
It worked. He didn’t want me leaving the courts that day sleeping on the fact that my serve was deserting me during the biggest tournament of my life. I went on to win the gold medal, barely serving another double fault – all because Rich knew what to do and when to do it. Mentoring players now, the one critical piece of advice that I pass on is that all it can take is one lesson. Sometimes you just have to step out of your own way and good things will happen.
David Hall, year-end world No.1 wheelchair player for six years between 1995 & 2005
One, two, hit!
It’s not always the most technical aspects of the game that stick with you! For me it was three simple words: “one, two, hit!”
Whenever the situation required me to calm my nerves and focus on the process of hitting a good serve, the words of my father (Derek, a former Davis Cup player for Ireland) would come into my head. “One, two, hit” was the cue I used right through my professional career. It related to keeping the rhythm on my service action. After the initial pre-hit ball bounces, the “one, two, hit” count started and this was my cue to keep the ball toss at the right height and not rush the action. Simple words that stuck for a lifetime!
Wayne Arthurs, world No.44 in July 2001; now National Academy Coach, Tennis Australia
Michael Fox helped me enormously in my late teens. We talked a lot about problem solving and how we needed to cut excuses, so we could focus on what matters – and that is to continually increase your probability of success.
Justifications are a way in which we protect our egos. If we leave something in our tank and fall short of the goal, we protect ourselves, in a weird sort of way, by believing we didn’t really try. It stems from a fear of failure; if we give it all we’ve got and come second, we’re frightened that we won’t face the “sting” of accepting that (on the day, or in general), we’re just not good enough. This talks to the next point …
Foxy used to talk a lot about being comfortable in our own skin – being “happy”. He’d say, ‘we’ve got nothing to prove to anybody and nobody has anything to prove to us!’ This philosophy helps you enjoy the process of competing and having a go. The emotions that come from being challenged. is what makes life fun. Unfortunately, we tend to get caught up in winning and losing rather than becoming better at being challenged!
Scott Draper, world No.42 in 1999; now manager Development Tennis and Head Coach AIS & Academies, Tennis Australia