When was the last time that you’ve seen an Indian coach active on the elite WTA / ATP Tours? And do you remember any Indian coach coaching elite non-Indian players on the tour?
Coach Sanjay Singh is leading Indian Tennis and especially the Indian Tennis coaches community into an uncharted territory.
Starting off as a Physio more than 3 decades ago, Mr Singh has kept the tenacity to keep reinventing himself and has grown into a fine coach. He took Luisa under his wings 3-4 years ago when she was ranked in the 300s and Luisa’s ranking has moved into the WTA Top-25 in Doubles now.
After the WTA Miami Open final, Mr Singh took out time to share some thoughts on his journey with Luisa and Hayley so far.
Thoughts on the finals. Our team was leading 5-2 in the second set
The girls were playing on the big stage (WTA 1000 Miami finals) for the first time. They were a little bit edgy, a tinge of nervousness and the legs were not moving smoothly.
We had a solid plan for the match but unfortunately we went down early to lose the first set. We came back strongly to lead 5-2 in the second set, following exactly the plan that we had set.
During the US Open last year, we had a plan and beat the same team. Here also, we decided to proceed with a plan and we were doing it in the 2nd set. However, there were a couple of points where (1) A volley by Hayley just went out and (2) An overhead shot, which Luisa should have taken to finish off the set, we missed it. That just changed things.
Tennis is a game of minute percentages. 1 or 2 points here and there, things change fast before you realise. They already had the upper hand having won the first set. So things moved fast.
Our team had played the same opponents in the recent past – had a win at the US Open and lost 3 matches against them.
At the US Open, as I’ve mentioned before, we had a plan on how to attack the girls – Luisa at the net to volley and finish off the points. We executed that well.
We have to give credit to the Japanese pair. They practice together every time. Even during the off-season, they practice together. They want to take one step forward every time and are practicing hard for the Tokyo Olympics.
We don’t have the same amount of time together as a team. Earlier, I was not even traveling much with the team due to personal reasons and then COVID came about to disrupt the plans.
When and how did your journey with Luisa Stefani begin?
I was in Tampa, Florida and traveling with Leander Paes. I had a common friend, a gentleman whom I used to train at Saddlebrook at that time.
Back in 2017, Luisa’s parents were looking for someone who can guide her. This common friend recommended them to connect with me. So they came and met me. Things didn’t work out at that time due to some visa issues for Luisa as she was on a student visa studying at Pepperdine.
Later on everything went well and we started working together in 2018 before the Australian Open.
On the journey with Luisa Stefani
Luisa was an ITF singles player then. I noticed that some of her skills will make her standout in doubles as well. Then suddenly she started doing really well in doubles. She ended up winning a couple of titles at that time.
In 2019, Luisa’s parents asked me to travel with her in April. I got married on 26th of April and on 27th of April – I flew from Orlando to Prague to travel as a coach with Luisa. Luisa played doubles in Prague with the Brazilian girl Beatriz Haddad Maia. We lost to Melichar and Peschke.
Then we went to Germany and then another tourney in Ilkley, where we won the title.
Then we went to Wimbledon hoping to get into the Doubles main draw, but could not get in. That’s where you had spotted me watching Ramkumar and Ankita Raina matches.
You had a lot on your plate with Leander and Saddlebrook already – what convinced you about Luisa to take that plunge?
As you said, I was already with Leander. It was slowly starting to get tough for us as some of the tournaments, we were not able to get in with our ranking. Leander also had to take some breaks in-between. Additionally, I was based in the US already then.
So around that time, when I met and spoke to Luisa. One of the days, I just silently went and watched her play in Saddlebrook. Looking at her game style, I was like WOW. Every girl these days, stays at the back and hits hard but this girl was having real talent – she can come in and finish. She just needed more cleanness in her system.
There was also this aspect where some of the ex-players in India never used to respect and never felt that I can train properly any other player apart from Leander. That’s the unfortunate part about India where if say a Prime Minister was selling Tea in his childhood, they still refer to him as a Chaiwalla (Tea seller) instead of what he has evolved into now.
They still keep referring to Sanjay Singh as that man who gives massages to Leander Paes – they don’t care to know what I do behind the scenes and the effort I’ve been putting in to enhance my knowledge.
There was this incident in Pune – Ramkumar Ramanathan is a very nice boy and I try to help him whenever I happen to be around in the same tourney as him. He was at the Pune Open, won the first round and then second round he was slated to play Cilic. He reached out and we were discussing match tactics against Cilic – one of the ex-players comes around to tell Ramkumar – ‘Why are you listening to him? I don’t think he has much knowledge on Tennis. Talk to him about body work and all but not about Tennis.’. When Ram was surprised, I told him that they’ve seen me like that only and so they keep talking like that. They don’t know what I have been doing beyond that. So I took it as a challenge.
For example, when Ramkumar reached the finals at Newport – he was so mentally down in Chicago. I told him to come to me and work with me for a week. I made him stay at my house and worked with him on everything – Ram went on to reach the finals of the ATP 250 Hall of Fame open in Newport. People don’t like to look into these things – they prefer to stay in their own preconceived zones in terms of their view. That is the biggest problem in India.
Anyway, Luisa and I started working together and now a couple of years down the line, Luisa has moved up from around the 300s to a World No. 26 ranked player!
How did the partnership with Hayley Carter come about?
Luisa played at the WTA New Haven event. She played with the American Quinn Gleason – they lost in the quarters. They were planning to play together in the Asian WTA swing after that. That’s when Luisa had asked me for my opinion as Hayley Carter had asked her to play with her – I just said you are going to play with Hayley.
Hayley had played against Luisa and Quinn in PA and we had lost in the semis. Some of the things I noticed that Hayley was doing were going to be very complementary to Luisa’s game. The partnership started in Korea and then they won in Uzbekistan and that’s how this partnership took off.
During that time in December, Hayley Carter took time off and came over for 2 weeks to Saddlebrook to train with us, to prepare for the Australian Open. We ended up reaching the 3rd round at the Aussie Open.
These off-season stincts are really important to sharpen the doubles skills – the more time you train together, the more lethal they can get.
On the balance between Doubles and Singles
In terms of doubles becoming the priority, it was sometime in 2019. However, the intent was always to continue the singles journey too. For example, if she had not reached the finals in Miami here, she would have been playing the singles qualifying in Charleston.
We had a plan to have Luisa play singles as well but then COVID came in and it disrupted the flow. The plan was for Luisa to play the big events in doubles, that’s where we need the points. Outside of those tourneys, Luisa can play singles at the $60k / $80k events and so on. This year, we are still going to aim to do that.
Balancing both singles and doubles – wouldn’t it be too tough?
Tennis is not an easy game. Lot of expenses are required. The way Luisa’s parents support her is incredible. They were taking care of everything for Luisa. They were extremely transparent with me as well in terms of this is what we have and this is what is possible. Knowing her game, I knew she could make it in doubles and make money.
Then once she has the money, we can also focus on singles. When you go to the smaller tourneys, you have to take care of things yourself whereas at the bigger WTA events, everything is taken care of by the tourney (Transport, Hospitality, etc,.). If you don’t have a sponsor or backing, then it’s very tough on the player.
As a coach, what’s your perspective on doubling down on doubles and aiming big (Grand Slams, top-10 ranking) vs putting your foot in both singles and doubles?
Every year, we keep a target for ourselves. With me, as a coach, I would like to do all we can to achieve that target. In 2020, our target was to play well and reach the top-30 rankings and then aim to qualify for the WTA Masters in Shenzhen. Unfortunately it didn’t happen.
This year, our goal is to target a Grand Slam and then also be there at the Masters event in Shenzhen. This team has a lot of potential.
When we are playing the big tourneys, the body also needs to rest. These girls are very young and like to push themselves at every opportunity and my job is to actually manage their workload.
Even the other day, we came home at 3 AM, Luisa would wake up at 8 AM and say that she would work out in the Gym for 30 mins and then we could leave at 9 AM. That 30 mins ended up becoming 90 mins. So she is a very hard working girl.
So I want to have them focus on the Grand Slams. That’s why this year, I am also going to travel with them. The coaching support over the phone would only work to a small extent.
I believe in setting smaller targets one by one and then build it up big, rather than scattering everywhere.
In this transformational journey – any particular match / tourney of Luisa and Hayley that stood out for you and made you satisfied as a coach?
To be honest with you, I call Luisa as a ‘Cheetah’. She is extremely fast at the net. I have not seen any WTA player as fast and quick at the net as Luisa. She doesn’t get scared, she jumps at the volley.
At the 2nd round of the Miami Open – I know Hayley in general is a very steady player but this time, she was volleying, running in and looking at both of them – jumping in and attacking at the net – I had to remark that I saw 2 Cheetahs at the net!!
We are continuously working on both Luisa and Hayley’s games and for example, if we add a slight bit of more pace to Hayley’s serve, the team will become that much more lethal. She is so good overall. It’s a long process and we will continue to make those improvements to Luisa and Hayley’s games.
Together they complement each other and respect each other very well. They listen to me when I am speaking. They put questions to me often which is important as it’s not just a one-way discussion.
You’ve been on the tour for a long period of time (before with Leander). Can you talk about some of the wonderful aspects of working with them both as individuals and as a team?
Leander had an incredible work ethic. He was about giving it his 100% every time even if it’s 1 AM or 2 AM. It’s the same thing that I’ve noticed with these two girls. They came late last night and spoke about working out hard. I had to hold them back as recovery is also equally important, especially given that they have a match tomorrow.
They never say no to me work wise. Because they never say no to me, I always need to look at their face to understand what’s going in their mind – that is something that I’ve been able to pick up after being with Leander for such a long time.
Sometimes when they are talking and playing in a match – I can look at them and say – ‘Today I felt a different energy in the match from the both of you. Tell me what happened?’. If they respond with a no-no, it’s all fine – I can ask them with a ‘No – Today, I could feel a difference in energy. Tell me what happened?’. Then they are able to come out. It’s important to bring it out whatever is in the mind. Then only I can understand them as a coach and work with them better.
It’s a vice-versa. I also listen to them. The results are there for people to see. I used to tell Leander and now I tell the girls – let your racquets do the talking. I can see that the girls on the tour see them as a threat now. Be nice and be polite but ultimately this is your work and let the racquet do the talk.
Hayley and Luisa are no. 4 in the world now in the race to Shenzhen.
On your camaraderie with the team. Hayley even made an appreciation post on your Chicken Tikka! Can you talk about some of the lighter moments?
Both the girls love Indian food. When they come to Tampa, I am the Chef in the house for them. I did my Hotel Management course and so I know how to cook. They like Chicken Tikka but I also cook whatever food they like.
We have some special fun with Chicken Tikka as well but that’s for later. The girls love Indian food and in fact every 2nd or 3rd day, we tend to order Indian food.
I was telling Luisa that when she plays in India for the ITF singles, she could have Chicken Tikka as much as she wants. I am planning to get her there (to India) in November for 2-3 weeks (as there few ITFs in India usually at that time) to play those Indian ITF events. It will be logistically easier to be there as we would already be in WTA Asian events and then it will be easier to go to Australia from there. That was my plan for 2020 and hopefully we can make it work this year.
The Tokyo Olympics is coming up. Any special preparations.
Hayley is coming up in the US and she is now eligible because they are looking at some upcoming players and on that front, Hayley is right up there and might get a call.
For Luisa, we are aiming to get her into the top-10 rankings by the French Open. If she has a top-10 rank, it will be easier for Luisa to play the Women’s Doubles as well.
In Mixed doubles, preparation is going ok – However, I don’t want to put too much pressure. Just take it week-by-week. I never tell them to look at the rankings, draws and all. Just treat it as a new practice match and go out and play.
Brazilian Govt is working on a plan and Luisa is eligible for that. I want to ensure that Luisa can be 100% on that by being in the top-10 in the rankings. So the focus will be on the bigger tourneys to bring that ranking up. She doesn’t have any points now to defend for sometime.
Luisa is expected to play in mixed doubles at least as Bruno is already ranked in the top-10 in the world in men’s doubles. They played together at the Australian Open and will play together at the French Open as well. Bruno is a very good guy, is a ball maker and that’s what I wanted for Luisa.
When they lost at the Australian Open Mixed Doubles event against Ebden and Stosur – both of them were off that day. It hurt Luisa as she likes to give her 100% every time she is on the court. That’s the best part about her.
But she was struggling that day and looking around for solutions but she wasn’t getting them as even I wasn’t around that day.