Serena Williams (United States, aged 31, world No 1)
No matter how talented you are, you ain’t gonna succeed unless you’re happy. A few years ago I wondered where Serena was heading. She wasn’t happy and she wasn’t winning.
Today she’s a changed person. She’s clearly very happy with Patrick Mouratoglou. He’s been clever enough to realise that nothing needed changing with Serena’s game: she just needed to be in the right frame of mind to go out and play.
Serena owes so much to her parents. Oracene’s a great supporter, as is sister Venus (and how sad it is that she won’t be playing here this year). As for Richard, he has disproved all those people who used to say he was crazy. He just did things differently. That’s the difference between great people and the rest: they are not afraid to do different things. Most people want to work within their comfort zone.
Can Serena go on winning Grand Slam titles? Do Italians like ice cream? To my mind she is the greatest female player ever – better than Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Margaret Court. Serena has such power. I’ve never seen a woman with a better serve. Most men would love to have a serve like that. And it’s been a long time since she has looked this fit.
We stay in regular contact. I texted her after she won the French Open and she replied immediately: “Nick I love you and I’ll see you shortly.” When I was sick with pneumonia last year she filled the hospital room with flowers. I could have opened a stall outside and made a few bucks selling them.
Maria Sharapova (Russia, aged 26, world No 3)
Yuri, Maria’s father, brought her to my academy when she was nine. I remember when she was 12 or 13 we had two other top girls in the same group – Jelena Jankovic and Tatiana Golovin. Maria used to scare the sh*t out of them. She intimidated them with her game and with the sheer force of her personality.
We only see Maria occasionally these days. I remember her practising last Christmas just before the Australian Open. She was out on Court 7 with Tommy Haas. Holy cow, it was as if they were playing in a Grand Slam final! It was so competitive. Neither showed any mercy. There were no smiles.
Maria’s just like Monica Seles used to be: once her work is done she’s gone. She doesn’t like to hang around. There’s no bull-sh***ing afterwards with the other players. It’s all business. Her coach, Thomas Hogstedt, doesn’t say much. When Maria practises she doesn’t want too much conversation. It’s just: “Let’s get going. Hit me another one.”
Robert Lansdorp played a big part in Maria’s development but the guy you have to give most credit to is her Dad. In the beginning he would always have a notebook. It was like he was from the Federal income tax office. He’d follow you around and he’d be writing all the time.
Serena Williams has pulled away from Maria over the last year. I think the match-up with Serena just doesn’t work for Maria. Serena has the advantage with the bigger serve. When you’re down 15-40 and you can hit monster serves like that, hell it makes a real difference. And while Maria can come forward and hit a swing-volley, Serena’s more comfortable at the net. She comes up with shots that are almost impossible to play.
Jelena Jankovic (Serbia, aged 28, world No 16)
Jelena seems to have some of her confidence back, but she’s still not what she used to be. Her problem is that she’s had more coaches than I’ve had wives. She’s listened to too many people. That’s a shame because she’s one hell of an athlete.
Jelena spent several years at my academy but we haven’t seen her for a good while now. That’s a shame because she’s a great girl. I also miss seeing Snezana, Jelena’s mother. What a character. She never stops talking and is always protecting her daughter. If the wind is blowing the wrong way, she says: “They’re picking on my daughter again.” She would have had a great career in TV.
Sabine Lisicki (Germany, aged 23, world No 24)
Sabine loves Wimbledon. She’s made two quarters and a semi in her last two visits. However, I find it frustrating that she has yet to realise her full potential. There are a couple of fundamentals she needs to put right. She plays too quickly and her serve disintegrates under pressure, partly because her ball toss is too high.
She’s a great kid, but I worry that there are too many influences around her. Her parents are very supportive, but I believe that if you have a coach, a father and a mother all having their input, it’s like having too many chefs making the spaghetti bolognese. One’s going to put in a bit more pepper, the other a bit more butter and you end up with a mess.
I believe Sabine needs a coach who tells her straight: “Sabine, I’ve seen you play. You must do it my way. You’ve got so much ability, but look at your record. It could be so much better.”
Heather Watson (Britain, aged 21, world No 57)
I knew something was wrong with Heather earlier this year. She got tired very quickly and lost her smile. She’s done well to come back from glandular fever but has to be careful. It can linger for years.
Heather’s a great girl. She’s been at my academy for eight years and has made excellent progress. Her smile lights up the place like a car’s headlights, but I worry that she’s too nice. There’s nobody nicer than Roger Federer, but he’s a mean dude on court.
In crucial times on the court I think Heather’s niceness hurts her. She has to dig deep and think: it’s my life or your life. The next two or three years are going to be crucial. What I would say to Heather is this: “Put away your cell phone. Forget Twitter. Just get out there and beat the s*** out of your opponent.”
Kei Nishikori (Japan, aged 23, world No 11)
Shot makers like Kei come once in a generation. I think the only player I’ve worked with who could compare with him was Marcelo Rios. Kei has the ability to beat anybody. He tends to get down on himself when things are not going his way, which he has to work on, but the biggest threat to his career is injury. He’s not the strongest of guys, though he works hard.
He’s the sort of player who needs a calm and quiet coach – yelling at Kei won’t get you anywhere. He has a great coach in Dante Bottini. When Kei came to my academy at 13 he couldn’t speak a word of English. He missed his home and his food. But a racket and a ball can speak many languages.
Xavier Malisse (Belgium, aged 32, world No 60)
Xavier’s footwork is as good as Muhammad Ali’s. He has a big forehand, consistent backhand, a damned good serve. So why has he not won a title for six years? I don’t believe Xavier has ever made full use of what the good Lord gave him. His problem is that his mind goes astray at times and on key points in matches he can falter.
Ryan Harrison (United States, aged 21, world No 84)
Ryan has a game that could hurt anybody: a huge forehand, a big serve, good returns and volleys. He’s still young, but he hasn’t made the progress in the last year that we all hoped he would. I’m biased, but I think he made a mistake leaving my academy to go and train in Texas. Maybe he got success too soon. What everybody in this sport has to realise is that you should never stop learning. Nobody – not even Roger Federer – knows it all.
Tommy Haas (Germany, aged 35, world No 13)
Tommy has been at my academy for 22 years. I hope he stays for another 22 because, boy, what an example he is to everybody. There’s surely never been a greater comeback by anyone of his age.
Two years ago, when he began his latest comeback from injury, Tommy was ranked No 896 in the world. Now he’s playing some of the best tennis since he got to No 2 all those years ago. This year he’s beaten Novak Djokovic, won a title in Munich and reached the quarters at Roland Garros for the first time – at the 12th attempt.
He’s done it through sheer hard work and dedication. When he had his third shoulder operation almost everybody – including the medical guys – thought he was finished, but I knew that if anybody could come back then Tommy could. He’s the ultimate competitor and living proof of one of my big beliefs – that anything is possible if you give it a try.
Tommy’s been so unlucky. Holy mackerel! He’s the sort of guy who would pick out the winning numbers on the Lottery and then lose his ticket. He’s had more injuries than I’ve had bowls of pasta. He’s broken both his ankles and he’s had to quit in the middle of Wimbledon three times. Eight years ago he trod on a ball in the warm-up before his first-round match and was out before he’d started. Another time he missed Wimbledon after his parents were seriously hurt in a motorcycle accident.
He has a great all-round game. These days he’s attacking more. He’s got a big serve, one of the best slices and great touch. He turns well and moves well. Some people just have animal instinct for where the ball is going. Tommy is one of them.
Earlier in his career Tommy had difficulty controlling his emotions, but that was his character. He was the sort who had to explode every now and then. He’s more in control now – I think having a daughter helps – though there are still times when the volcano erupts.
I remember him boiling over with one of his coaches a few months ago. I had just explained something in simple terms to Tommy and he went over to the coach and said: “Look, a*****e, you don’t know how to explain it. Nick told me in one second.” Tommy sat there ranting: “I don’t know why I pay this guy. He’s not doing anything.” Thankfully I was able to play the mediator and Tommy was soon back doing what he does best – working his butt off and making himself the best he can be.
Max Mirnyi (Belarus, aged 35, world No 25 in doubles)
In 60 years of teaching I have never come across a kinder, nicer person than Max. At the academy he’s wonderful with all the young kids. When he’s away he’s always texting me, asking how my boys are. He practises harder than anybody and works harder in the gym than anybody. What an example.
Nick Bollettieri will be writing for The Independent throughout Wimbledon fortnight.