In October 2017 I had the pleasure of working with Judy Murray for the WTA at the end of year WTA championships in Singapore. I thought what better opportunity will I have than to write my first KS Tennis Journal Blog.
The outward trip was a 22.5 hour affair and I’ll spare you the details of the many films I watched on the flights. What was waiting for us at the other end was worth the long journey. Porsche are one of the biggest supporters of women’s tennis and supply the official tournament cars. I could very well get used to being driven around in a Porsche Macan. Check out the registration plate, super cool.
From here it was a 20 minute drive to the tournament hotel. We were told it was an impressive hotel but were not quite prepared for just how grand it was. The Marina Bay Sands is one of the most famous hotels in the world and it wasn’t until I returned home I remembered I’d watched a BBC programme all about it. For someone who lives in a Scottish fishing village of approximately 700 people it was somewhat surreal to find myself staying in a 57, 3 towered hotel with 2,500 rooms. You literally could get lost in it and I certainly did several times.
After checking in it was a quick dinner and straight to bed. We had a long schedule the day after and when you look like I do you need all the beauty sleep you can get. That was short lived when I woke at 2.30am and was wide awake until 5.30am. Oh the joys!
Our first full day of work would see us working with the WTA communities charity on the tournament practice courts. This is the first year of the programme and in our 1st session we showcased our ability to cater for big numbers in a small space. Get this…. we had 101 people on 1 tennis court. No, that’s not a typo, 101 people on 1 court. Within that group we had a mix of 6-10 year olds, teenagers, special olympic players, wheelchair and 48 WTA Future Star Players. Add some of their coaches, WTA staff, a WTA doubles player and the 1 and only Lindsay Davenport, we had around 120 people on one court. To quote Lindsay “this is awesome, I’ve never seen anything like it before”.
I was really taken with the WTA Future Stars programme. The 48 players competed in an U14 and U16 event over several days with the finals being on the show court. What really struck me was the feeling of togetherness between these girls. They were from 21 different countries but if you didn’t know that you would have thought they were all from the same country. There was an amazing feeling of team and friendship between them all. The programme is aimed at using tennis to better lives. It wasn’t about who was the best tennis players, it was about how they could use tennis as a vehicle to learn from in their formative years. In the past I’ve experienced a lot of people suggesting girls tennis is bitchy and that girls keep themselves to themselves. I have never understood this opinion and having witnessed first hand this programme I am more convinced that bringing girls together is absolutely the way forward.
From here it was straight into the players lounge. As they say, a picture says a 1,000 words. Check out the video below.
After lunch we were whisked off to run a Miss Hits workshop with the 26 coaches of the WTA Future Stars. Miss Hits is Judy’s programme for starter girls aged between 5-8. For me, this is a win-win programme as it also builds a bigger female workforce to deliver the programme. We trained them on Lil Miss Hits which is 6 week programme based around the Miss Hits characters. This programme is ideal to build the skills required for a complex coordination sport like tennis. The huge bonus being it is done while making new friends in a safe and fun environment. If you are interested in finding out more on Miss Hits visit www.misshits.com
I found this training session thoroughly refreshing. There is always a doubt in my mind on how the work you do will translate in different countries and cultures. As I mentioned before there were 21 different countries represented on the day and everyone really embraced not just the programme but the way that Judy and I work. Sometimes we think it makes perfect sense and to have coaches from the other side of the world have lightbulbs popping off above their heads was satisfying to say the least. It reinforces our thoughts. At the end of the day, everyone can develop their skills in a fun challenging way and learn without realising. It is not a cultural thing, it is a human thing.
After this session it was straight back to our small city (hotel) to prepare for dinner with the tournament director and her team. Thankfully this was organised to be at the rooftop restaurant of the hotel. This was a great evening for two reasons. The superficial one being the views and the cool restaurant with the real lasting moment of spending time with a fantastic group of people.
Melissa Pine is the tournament director and vice president of WTA Asia-Pacific region. What struck me most about Melissa was simply how fantastically normal she was. These days, I use normal amongst the biggest of compliments I give out. I love meeting people who achieve exceptional things but remain perfectly normal. It was so very clear to me that she had created a strong team around her. They had all gelled brilliantly and each played an important role for the team and played it exceptionally well. There was no feeling of hierarchy at all and again that is among the best compliment I can pay a team. This was all down to the leadership of Melissa and I know if she were to read this she would be thoroughly embarrassed and almost oblivious to the fact she has lead the team to this point.
This was the first of many experiences over our trip where it was very clear how tight knit a team the WTA really are. Everyone is onboard with their mission of developing and promoting women’s tennis and all were singing from the same hymn sheet.
This was the end of a very long day 1 and I am glad to say I slept extremely well after only 4 hours sleep in the previous 48 hours. However I was not prepared for my alarm clock being a huge thunder storm at 7.20 the next morning.
Day 2 started with a Miss-Hits mums & daughters session. Whenever possible we will have a parent and child session in our day. Parents are the hidden workforce. If a child is starting out in tennis the parents will be the first port of call for playing. If they can be armed with lots of fun ideas on how to play with their child then there will be more chance of the child not only enjoying their tennis but also developing the key coordination skills that underpin all sports. These sessions are always fun for so many reasons and it is particularly satisfying to see the smiles on the kids faces when they see their parents acting like kids. It gets me every single time.
After this session it was back to the players lounge for some lunch. It was interesting that even at the WTA finals there was nutritional advice up on the wall in the restaurant. I’ve put the pictures below for you to look at.
Next door in the main stadium they had the U14 Futures Stars final being played out. Not only did this provide the two girls an unbelievable opportunity to play on a huge stadium court it also provided the organisers the opportunity to have one final ‘practice’ with lighting, audio, advertising boards etc. There really is so much that goes into organising these events and it is a real eye opener to see it in action.
What was interesting about watching a little bit of the final was the contrast in the 2 players, Priskova Nugroho of Indonesia and Pimrada Jattavapornvanit of Thailand was the contrast in styles. Priskova playing much more of a defensive counter attacking style with lots of variation and Pimrada preferring to play tight to the baseline and hit hard and flat. In this match the counter puncher came out on top. It strikes me that there are a lot of self fulfilling prophecies in girls tennis compared to the boys. I preferred watching Pimrada as she did not fit with the false stereotype that girls only stand close to the baseline and hit hard and flat. The game does not care how you play, all it cares about is whether the ball goes over the net and in the court. In my opinion we should allow players to develop a game style that not only fits their physicality but their mentality/personality. I’ve put a couple of clips in for you below:
That night we managed to get to see some of the tennis with Ostapenko playing against Muguruza. Earlier in the year I remember getting in trouble by a few people who interpreted something I said as a slight on Ostapenko’s game. She had just won the French Open and I expressed concern this would fuel more coaches into thinking that they have to teach girls to stand tight on baseline and pound away at the ball. As a coach of players and coaches I genuinely do have concerns about perception versus reality influencing the development of today’s children. I don’t mind saying that I still feel the same way about Jelena’s game and as I sat in this amazing arena and watched her play live I still couldn’t help but think of the limitations of her game. Don’t get me wrong, she is amazing at what she does and deserves all the success she gets. I am talking purely from a player development point of view. If you are reading this as a coach, please help your players develop a huge range of skills at a young age so they can then choose what they want to do with them as they get to the stage where their game style will develop. See clip below to get a feel for how this match was played.
It was then back to the hotel for a very late dinner and then bed. The end to another surreal day in Singapore.
Days 3 & 4 were a lot lighter in workload thank goodness. The morning of day 3 Judy was doing a talk at the tour finals coaches conference. This is just one of many extra events that the tour finals host during the week. It really is a celebration of everything that tennis offers. Judy, spoke for around an hour on her journey. It doesn’t matter how often I hear her journey I always enjoy listening to it again. I have heard all the stories many times before and they continue to inspire every time. I am also watching the way in which Judy presents. Witnessing her journey as a public speaker is equally as inspiring. I can remember when she hated doing talks to large crowds. Now she is seasoned pro and I still see improvements every time I watch her present or speak.
At the end of the talk we did a short presentation of some of the exercises used in the Miss-Hits programme. We used 4 very sweet young tennis players from Singapore. It was interesting as they were all relatively experienced tennis players yet some of the exercises they really struggled with. This backs up our theory that tennis players can very quickly become conditioned to repeating certain strokes and weights of shot. Unfortunately the demands of tennis are vast and adaptability is one of the key skills you must possess to excel at any level of the game. Coaches, be careful you do not turn your players into repetition robots. Develop their overall skills so they can handle what the game will throw at them.
From the conference Judy had more media commitments at the tournament media centre. This provided me with the great opportunity to see behind the scenes at a huge media event. I always laugh inside at the press conference room. When you see press conferences on TV you only see the one angle and because they always strategically place the sponsors board behind them it can look like they are in a room of branding. The reality is always way less glamourous. The best 8 players in the world are sitting in front of branded plaster board at a bog standard table in front of rows of chairs. See picture below of me being interviewed 😉
Day 4 saw us attend another media event. This was a real treat for me for many reasons. Firstly, I love to see behind the scenes in different parts of our industry. I love to see all the tiny details that make things come together. We are often guilty of taking the end product for granted and it is always a great reminder that the hard work has actually gone on before the public see the end result. This is exactly the same when it comes to a tennis player stepping on to the court for a big match. This match is the end result of years, sometimes decades of hard work.
This event was sponsored by Tiffany’s and saw Judy being interviewed with another famous sporting mum in May Schooling. May is the mother of the famous swimmer Joseph Schooling. Joseph famously came to light when he won Singapore’s first ever Olympic gold medal beating the legend Michael Phelps in the 100m butterfly. What a character she was. She is my favourite type of person in that she spoke with so much passion and enthusiasm AND spoke from the heart. She was so passionate about providing children with the opportunity to learn through sport and didn’t mind who she may have inadvertently offended in voicing her opinions. She is the sort of person who can get away with it. Not because her son is famous but she delivers with so much passion that you could never argue her points. She spoke complete sense and truth and it was truly amazing to watch her in full flow. Next up to speak was Lyndsey Davenport. She spoke so articulately about the challenges of being a mother of 4. The most refreshing part of her talk was on the subject of wanting her children to experience as many different sports as possible when young. She admitted she had only played tennis and she feels it held her back in developing more rounded athleticism. Yes, you read that correctly. A former world no.1 tennis player wishes they had played other sports when younger instead of specialising in just one. Food for thought!
After this event the WTA were kind enough to organise a tour guide for the afternoon. This was an amazing experience as I had no idea on how transformative Singapore has been in the last 52 years. When they won their independence 99% of the country was slum. In a short space of time they have literally transformed themselves into one of the most progressive countries in the world. What makes this even more amazing is when you know you could fit their entire country between St Andrews and Edinburgh. If you are not from Scotland go on to google maps and see how small a space that it. My favourite quote from our guide was “our government makes all its big decisions from 30,000 feet” When I questioned what he meant he said that from 30,000 feet you can see the entire country and it is from this metaphorical viewpoint they make all the big decisions. I don’t know a lot about politics but I know enough to know that most organisations especially governments make most of their key decisions from the inside and hope they seep into the trenches.
From here it was a quick freshen up and then off to the airport to get ready for another 22 hour journey home.
Singapore certainly left its mark on me. It wasn’t the status of the event that impressed me. It was the people I met. Everyone I met from the WTA was amazing and clearly all working together for the genuine benefit of women’s tennis. It was clear they had a flat surface versus a tiered structure in that there was no feeling of hierarchy. The CEO, Steve Simons and Melissa Pine, tournament director were the epitome of this. They valued everyone equally regardless of status or title.
The WTA is in great hands in my opinion and I very much hope I get another chance to meet and work with them.
If you get a chance to swing in by Singapore, take it, you will not regret it……….. and that….. wa say Singapore Swing!