The 'dynamic duo' of Serena and Patrick Mouratoglou
NEW YORK -- To tennis outsiders, Serena Williams' trip to the practice court after a subpar second-round victory at the US Open last weekend may have seemed an overreaction or maybe even a sign of panic.
In fact, for Williams, it was neither. Calmly and methodically, she seemed to decompress as she worked on her serve and consulted quietly with a coach she calls her "wonder twin." Just another tutoring session to solve the mini-timing issue that had plagued her.
The routine exchange was an example of one of the more impressive additions to Williams' repertoire in recent years -- a growing fluency in tennis strategy.
And it is no coincidence that it, and her increasing command of the French language, has improved since she started working with coach Patrick Mouratoglou, the Frenchman who has guided Williams' developing tennis education and made prematch preparation, analysis of opponents and match tactics part of her routine.
"I don't know if she believed in [this approach] before or not, but she was not doing it," Mouratoglou told espnW this week.
Williams teamed up with Mouratoglou in 2012 after her first-round loss against Virginie Razzano at the French Open, the world No. 1's earliest career exit in a Grand Slam tournament. At the time, Williams already had 12 major titles, but even with her already instilled killer serve and killer instinct, consistency was an issue.
"Clearly, working with Patrick has helped me a lot and helped me to have different goals, change different elements in my game, ameliorate them, and also just overall be a better competitor on every single surface and in every single match that I play," Williams said in her pre-US Open news conference.
To be fair, the foundation of the latest upward trend in Serena's career was set before Mouratoglou, with a commitment to physical training under Mackie Shilstone in 2008. It was at that point, after Williams came back from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, that she also switched racket strings, from old-school natural gut to a hybrid poly setup, thanks to repeated suggestions from then hitting partner Sascha Bajin.
But it was her switch to Mouratoglou (part-time at first) after the French Open loss that marked her first established coach outside her parents in her pro career. And despite the reports of a potential romantic relationship between the coach and player (Williams and Mouratoglou have never publicly discussed it), their professional support system appears undeniably strong, with their results speaking for themselves.
"When you would talk to Serena, it was always just, 'I have to play my game,'" said Brad Gilbert, a former player, coach and current ESPN analyst. "They didn't focus on what was happening on the other side. It was more maximizing what she could do with her game.
"Now, she's just a lot more well-rounded in what she's doing and what's on the other side of the net and what she can take advantage of. And I think that Patrick has really gotten her into that and she's a lot more into tennis because he's very into tennis."
Post-Patrick, Williams has won 91 percent of her Grand Slam matches (52-5) against top-10 players compared to 65 percent (111-59) before she started working with him. Pre-Patrick, she won 12 of 47 Grand Slams she played in (26 percent) compared to 8 of 13 (62 percent) post-Patrick.
In her quarterfinal victory against sister Venus on Tuesday night, Serena's discipline was evident. Not content to simply bash every ball back, but relying on her defense and tactically trying to end rallies, there was an insight, even against a player she has known all her life, that was not always there four years ago.
"[Before our partnership], she obviously knew the players, not all of them, but she played against many of them so she knew them," Mouratoglou said. "But it's more like putting everything on the table, about their strategy, about their strengths, their weaknesses, their patterns. Where they serve, their first serve, their second. On the big points, what they do.
"The more information you have, the more you are ready to play against them. And then, using your strengths against your opponents' weaknesses is also something interesting. She really likes it, I think."
Williams called her father, Richard, her first coach, "probably the best coach ever because, I mean, if we talk about numbers, he's got a lot and he's only had two players," she said of her and Venus' combined 28 major singles titles, as well as 13 in doubles together, four in mixed doubles, two Olympic singles gold medals and three golds together in doubles.
"So, you know," she said with a smile, "imagine if he had three [daughters]."
Rick Macci, the sisters' first coach outside the family, looks at Serena's career from a different lens and does not see a much different player now than she ever was.
"The big difference [in the latter stage of her career] is there's no [Justine] Henin, no [Martina] Hingis, no [Jennifer] Capriati, no [Lindsay] Davenport, no [Kim] Clijsters, no [Monica] Seles," Macci said from his home in South Florida.
"Take nothing away from Serena, because in my eyes she's the greatest player ever, but she would be playing these people in the round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals and finals, and now they're gone and have been for a while."
However, after she lost the quarterfinal to Serena on Tuesday night, Venus' comments directly contradicted Macci's opinion.
"I think [Serena] is the best ever because of the level of competition that she's faced," Venus said. "There have been some unbelievable players in the past, but I have played the best from different eras, as well. I have seen the level of competitiveness go up, and I have seen players who are ranked 100 who didn't believe they could win a match against you to this point, fight you tooth and nail and try to take you down.
"That didn't happen when I started. So just to be able to win at this level, I think that's what makes her the best."
Macci, who coached the Williams sisters from 1991 to '95, starting when Serena was just 10 and Venus 11, settled a potential $14 million lawsuit with Richard Williams out of court for an undisclosed sum in 1997 based on financial promises Macci said were made based on future accomplishments by the players.
But Macci remembers a little girl who had to be first in the drink line, whose competitive fire was a natural instinct.
"All the kids were competitive, but this was almost like a rage," he said. "We played tag in a sandpit with 30 kids and Serena would tag them with a closed fist."
Mouratoglou and others say her biggest advantage, more than physical power, is her mental strength. And for that, he credits her father.
"I think he instilled in her the mentality of a champion," Mouratoglou said. "In both [Serena and Venus], actually. They think like champions. They never look back to what they did. They're always dissatisfied and they want to achieve more. They're super-professional. All those things you don't see very often, only in champions. And also the self-confidence that they have, he built it. He built champions."
When it comes to knowing how to bring the best out of Serena on the practice court, after losses and on the bad days, however, Mouratoglou seems to have just the right approach with a player who admittedly can be as temperamental as she is talented.
"I think you have to be fair," Mouratoglou said. "When it's great, you have to say it. When it's bad, you have to say it in a way that is motivating to do better. You have to be able to say everything that is necessary to say but in a way that doesn't affect her confidence and in a way that it gives motivation to work on what was not right."
Whatever they have done, it has worked. On different surfaces, through illness and surely bad days over the course of the past four Grand Slams, Serena has not just endured but prevailed.
But for Mouratoglou, it is all about preparing for what's next.
"We have a lot more things to achieve," he said. "She was already incredible before. But I think, my role is to find a way to do even better, otherwise there's no point in being there. So I'm happy I've made a difference."