Spaniard, Emilio Sanchez-Vicario is a former ATP professional tennis player. Over his playing career he won fifty men’s doubles tournaments, including three Grand Slam doubles titles, and attained a world ranking of number one in men’s doubles. On the ATP tour he reached a singles ranking of number seven in the world and competed for the Spanish Davis Cup from the mid-1980’s to the mid 1990’s. After retiring from professional play he captained the Spanish Davis Cup team for three years and in 2008, under his guidance, Spain won the Davis Cup championship. Sanchez-Vicario’s post playing coaching accolades include coaching his sister Arantxa, the winner of multiple Grand Slam’s and number one player on the WTA in 1995. In 1998, he and his long time doubles partner, Sergio Casal, opened the Sanchez-Casal Tennis Academy in Barcelona Spain, where such players as Andy Murray, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Grigor Dimitrov, and Daniela Hantuchova have trained. The Sanchez-Casals academy has recently opened a new branch in Naples, Florida bringing it’s unique training system based on the Spanish method of understanding tennis to the U.S.
Examiner: What age did you begin playing tennis? Did you play other sports growing up?
ES: My father was an engineer and worked in the city of Pamplona. We belonged to a multi-sport club there and I played soccer and swam competitively. When I was eight years old we moved to Barcelona and my parents tried to find a similar type club. They found a club that was going to have many sports but at the time only had ten tennis courts. The owner of the club left with the money from the members and the club was left with ten tennis courts.
Examiner :That’s one way to stay focused on your sport. How long did you continue in the other sports you were playing?
ES: I played soccer and swam competitively until I was twelve. Most of the competitions were on the weekends so there were scheduling problems.
Examiner: What did tennis training look like when you began to play seriously?
ES: Training was a way of life, and I had to learn how to love it. Tennis is a repetition sport and needs lots of dedication which was difficult at a very young age to understand. I played more frequently after quitting swimming competitively because I had more time. But the biggest change came when I was fourteen and stopped attending normal school to go and train at the Spanish Federation. The Federation maybe takes fifteen people and I was one of the good players for my age. But I struggled when I was fifteen because I was not growing. I couldn’t compete with the guys my age because they were much bigger and they were better. Then at age sixteen I grew and I started to do well.
Examiner: How many hours of practice a day were you training and number of tournaments were you playing when you began to focus on tennis as a primary sport?
ES: During the week I trained at the Federation and played tournaments at the national level on school holidays. I didn’t start traveling until around sixteen years old. At eighteen I stopped school and began to travel and play a lot.
Examiner: How did your mental toughness develop to take you to the heights you achieved as a player?
ES: Actually my mental toughness developed when I began to win. I couldn’t think about a career in tennis until I was sixteen years old. Before that time I couldn’t compete with guys 20cm taller. I was losing all the time and not mentally tough. The only thing that helped me become mentally tough was when I became good. When I grew I started to beat everyone. That developed my confidence and helped me become mentally tough. Winning makes you believe. When I began to win my career changed completely and I felt very fresh. All the previous loses didn’t affect me. It’s like I had erased a data disc. When you grow into a man you start over and that gave me lots of strength.
Examiner: What kept you playing when you were losing? A lot of kids just drop out when they are not doing well.
ES: Probably my background and the effort that my family gave for us to be able to play. I had a drive to do something, I had a dream. It was also a good time in Spanish sports. My coach at the time also gave me lots of tips on the mental aspects to make me believe in myself.
Examiner: You coached your sister Arantxa to the number one ranking on the WTA. There are many distractions along the way in professional tennis. Were there things you did or talked about with Arantxa to help her with her mental toughness?
ES: Arantxa was the national women’s champion of Spain when she was thirteen years old. So at thirteen she was the number one player in the country. She had the drive from scratch. At sixteen she was the first female tour player to reach the semi-finals at Roland Garros. At seventeen she won the tournament. Players like Arantxa are born with mental toughness. The thing with tennis is that it’s such a long career there are let downs and the player begins to struggle. She was in a let down stage in her career when I began to coach her. Her WTA ranking had slide from number two or three to almost twenty. After so many years at the top competing with Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, Arantxa began to lose. Changing someone that’s been a winner and suddenly forgot how to win is a difficult task for a coach. You have to help the player find the drive and discipline again to work hard and do well. But she was so determined and talented that after many months she began winning again. The most difficult part of the process for me was changing hats from being the coach who needed to push her to the limit and when I needed to act as her brother. I admired her a lot in making the effort to make it back when she had accomplished so much in her career. When a player like Arantxa is winning and then for some reason, either your opponents improve or someone new comes along and challenges you, and you lose belief in yourself that’s when coaches and psychologists have to find ways to help a player. The experience made me grow a lot as a person. I also found that there are differences between the men's circuit and women’s circuit that I wasn’t aware of before. The physical and mental stresses are similar, but emotion in women’s tennis is a roller coaster and much more difficult to control.
Examiner: I don’t think people realize the challenges for players week after week on tour. There are different time zones, different countries, different surfaces, the time of day you are scheduled to play, weather, different hotels, pressures of maintaining a winning season demands consistency, remaining healthy, not injuring oneself, there is a large host of challenges each week.
ES: Nadal recently won the Rogers Cup in Montreal on a Sunday and was very happy. But by Tuesday of the next week he is playing again. At the end of a tournament a player starts all over again. All the effort is put forth again and it’s very, very tough because everyone is trying to win. There are a lot of factors that have impact on players.
Examiner: It’s important for players to have a strong support team around them.
ES: On tour now the top five guys are traveling with five or six support people. They have a physiologist, a mental coach, a playing coach, a nutritionist, managers and lawyers. There are a lot of things the guys are going through to play their best.
Examiner: What were the biggest challenges for you in making the transition from ATP player to coach?
ES: The biggest challenge is that when you are a player you only think about yourself. You have to believe you are the best. When you switch to being a coach you are teaching someone else. The most difficult is passing from thinking about yourself to thinking only about your students needs. To do your job and support your player you have to do this. Once you do this it’s easier to do your job. Your goals change. That and figuring out how you are going to talk to the player and make the player believe in the changes you are trying to help him/her with. With Arantxa it was helping her develop an all court game, not only counter punching but being more aggressive in matches.
Examiner: During your playing career you won three Grand Slam doubles titles and fifteen singles titles. Did you experience nervousness before or during big matches?
ES: If you want to be a big player you will be nervous. At the moment you are not nervous before a match it means you don’t care and if you don’t care normally that match is going to go in the wrong direction. But it’s a good nervousness. The line you keep with positive emotions and negative emotions are very thin. You can pass from one side to the other very fast. But the big players are capable of controlling those nerves, that why they are better players.
The ideal scenario is to know you are going to be nervous but also know you are going to compete and to compete is what you are looking for. During an interview at the French Open after Nadal won, a reporter asked him how he did it since he had an injury? How was it that he cared so much about winning? Nadal said that, “People who think I like to win are wrong. What I like is the challenge to be ready to compete and when I compete well I win.”
Another thing is everyone who plays for something is nervous. But good players are the one’s who control their emotions. They remember how to play in important points so they do their best. It’s a learning process handling those situations.
Examiner: Are you focusing on where you are going to serve or do you go through mental routines prior to beginning a point?
ES: I always tried to focus on what I was doing well. Tennis is about the physical need to do what you do well in the important moments.
Examiner: During close or important matches what did you say to yourself or focus on prior to beginning your serve or returning serve?
ES: I decided in my mind the next drill. I decided where to serve or return, gave options to my opponent by where I hit the ball, then knew the different options of his response. I worked on starting from the baseline and finalizing at the net. Building the point was the goal.
Examiner: You are president of the Sanchez-Casals academy in Barcelona, Spain and the new site in Naples, Florida. You’ve mentioned many times that the road to success is a long developmental process. What are your markers that a young player (13/14 yrs. old), is on track developmentally to make inroads to a higher level?
EM: Every stage of development is different. At age thirteen and fourteen a player is still in a phase of fundamentals and beginning to know themselves. At this age we focus on basics, on making the player understand the areas of the court and build a system to become an all round player. Not thinking about winning, just being competitive. Skill development is key for later success. The best is to build a very strong base for later.
Examiner: What do you say to parents that are anxious that their child isn’t improving fast enough?
ES: Career development can be between twelve to fifteen years or longer. Today to win you really need to be a mature player. The successful male players today mature around 23/24 years of age. When I was playing we were getting there around 18/19 years of age. Parents with no patience end up becoming the child’s rival. The child has chosen a difficult career and some parents don’t understand. There are few spots available on the tour, maybe a rotation of five players per year. So if you look at all the schools, academies, federations and probably only five players will make it, parents may think it’s easy but it’s a very difficult process and incredibly tough. It’s a huge success for a player to make it on tour.
Examiner: When a player is living at the academy and playing many hours each day what does the academy do to keep the game fresh, interesting, fun, motivational for young players in training so they avoid burn-out?
ES: Training can be the most boring thing that exists but it’s also addictive. You do well, you want more. Because of my training experiences we try to do lots of rotations and don’t play more than thirty minutes with the same opponent. We mix in a lot of drills and have fun. Tennis is a game of repetition and unfortunately there is not a shorter road. Players have to play many hours to do well so we do that and try to keep it fun. When the coaches give 100% to the players the player’s tend to do the same and that’s very rewarding. You asked me before why when I was losing a lot I didn’t quit? I had the drive to continue but I was also lucky enough to have a coach at the time who followed me. I had a coach who when I lost could explain why I lost. When there is an explanation for why I lost then I could have a goal to improve on that. I didn’t lose faith. One of the problems I see in the U.S. is that there is a lot of private coaching but not so many competition coaches to help the player understand what happened when they lose.
Examiner: Are there any players from the academy we should keep an eye on as an up and coming player?
EM: Sixteen year old Ana Paul Neffa from Paraguay.
Examiner: You’re traveling an interesting athletic professional path. Do you have any favorite quotes, tips or stories that guide your professional life as a player/coach?
ES: Rafa’s statement after winning at Roland Garros, “I don’t like to win. I like being competitive.” Also what I learn as a coach in life is that apart from technique and tactics you have to create the ideal state of competition. You achieve that by finding your best energy in the physical, mental, emotional and inner self. With that you can play any tennis match or any other type of match. Everyday you play lots of matches with family, friends, work and and finding that energy in all those matches allows you to be a winner in life.
Examiner: Emilio it’s been a great pleasure chatting with you. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview.