From Coach to Coach – Interview with Craig Kardon

During the last few days the name Coco Vandeweghe has become a household name by beating the number one player in the world, Angelique Kerber and reaching the semi finals of the Australian Open. However, you may not be familiar with the man behind her success, her coach Craig Kardon. With more than 30 years coaching on the professional circuit, Craig is one of the most experienced coaches on the tour. His charges include: Martina Navratilova, Ana Ivanovic, Lindsay Davenport, Mary Pierce, Lisa Raymond, Xavier Malisse, and Alex Bogomolov among many others. In this candid interview at the Mutua Madrid Open 2016, Craig provides us with an insiders view of tennis at the top.

As you can hear at times, it was a very windy day in may 2016 at the Mutua Madrid Open. Since then a few things have changed: Andy Murray replaced Djokivic as the number one player in the world and Roger was absent from the tour for a while. But what has not changed at all is the value of the words of wisdom that Craig kindly shared with us.

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Video Transcript

I am here with my good friend Craig Kardon a veteran coach of the WTA circuit. Coach, if I am not mistaken you have been on the tour about 30 years, correct?TennisGate
Yes, about 30 yearsCraig Kardon
That is a long time.  You started with Martina Navratilova and have had a lot of players throughout the years.TennisGate
I have been really fortunate to have had started at the top and work my way a little bit down, a little bit up sometimes, but it has been a great experience thus far.Craig Kardon
So, you have coached basically, a broad range of levels on the WTA?TennisGate
A broad range, anywhere from 200 to 100, to top 10, to number 2 in the world, with Martina, but also on the ATP Tour as well, Xavier Malisse when he made the semi finals of Wimbledon, Vince Spadea, Alex Bogomolov, anyway, some random ATP players in there as well.Craig Kardon
After 30 years, you still love to coach and play tennis?TennisGate
I love tennis, and I love coaching.  I love the idea that you can help somebody even if they have an accomplished game and make them a little bit better.Craig Kardon
What challenges you every day when you get up?  What makes it fun?TennisGate
What makes it fun for me Edgar is going out there every day knowing that what you do, how you carry yourself to the player, really matters to them and that you can bring something more to the table that maybe they haven’t though of before.  They do all this training their whole life, and they become this great player, but then it is your job to make them even better than they thought they could be.Craig Kardon
And, do you think it is more fun to coach, let’s say somebody top 10 or somebody top 200 or actually coaching is coaching?TennisGate
Well, I mean, it is a little bit different coaching a top ten player than coaching someone ranked between a 150 to 200.  It is a different type of mentality where they are. What’s interesting though, are the goals and the drive. It is still coaching. The fundamentals stay the same.  That is one thing about coaching.  The fundamentals stay the same no matter what level. From coaching the ladies at the Four Seasons Hotel, to coaching women’s doubles, to coaching, you know, top players on the ATP Tour, the fundamentals of tennis stay the same.
Craig Kardon
Talk to me about a couple of those fundamentals.TennisGate
Well for instance, playing on clay, like here in Madrid, you’ve got to be patient. You are going to have to hit one or two extra balls, more than your opponent.  You know maybe you… the movement is also a little bit different.  Sometimes you will slide into your shots, but us, as Americans, we have a little problem with that.Craig Kardon
And for instance, how does someone like Coco Vandeweghe, whom you are coaching right now adjust her game, let’s say from hard court to clay court to grass.TennisGate
Yeah, an interesting point.  For her to play on clay courts requires and enormous change of attitude, because she is used to winning points rather easily and getting rewarded for her really powerful forehand, great backhand on the rise and powerful serves. On clay she has to change her mentality, she may have to hit not 1, not, 2, not 3, maybe even 4 winners and still the ball comes back so she has to create a way to end the point or allow the opponent another option to miss. She is used to winning the point but she has to change her mentality to play long enough to allow her opponent to make a mistake.Craig Kardon
A winner for you or a mistake from the other person is the same thing, right?  It counts the same, one point.TennisGate
It still counts the same, doesn’t it Edgar?Craig Kardon
In my book it counts the same.TennisGate
I remember a story of José Higueras telling me about Jim Courier, and maybe you are familiar with this:  When Jim was climbing up on the ranks, he was so concerned that he couldn’t hit a winner, and he was still winning the match.  He was up like 6/4, 4/2 but he could not hit the ball by the guy. The guy was just getting the ball back or missing in the net, and Jim was winning the points but he wasn’t hitting a clean winner. José said to him, it is still the same.  You are still winning, right?  Just because you don’t blow the guy off the court doesn’t mean that you are a failure, anything counts , as long as you are doing your best to beat your opponent on that point.  All you have to do is be better one point at a time.Craig Kardon
Yeah, the other day I read a statistic that really caught my eye. It was saying that at the top, the top players maybe win 55… 58 percent of the points.TennisGate
That is correct.Craig Kardon
For the whole year, that is the average amount of points that they win.
That is right! In fact, the highest percentage of any player so long as we’ve been tracking these statistics is Serena Williams, 60%; 60%, which is amazing over the career.
The number two player is Roger Federer at 50…I think it is 58 maybe 55 to 58% winning of the total points in a match.  That is the average.Craig Kardon
That means, a guy that is number 1 in the world, basically is winning less than 6 points out of 10 points.
Correct, and so you know being a layman, being amateurs as we are and trying to coach that point across to players.  Cause players are perfectionists. They miss 1 or 2 balls and they really get down on themselves, but you only really have to be correct…if you are correct for 55% of the time…
Craig Kardon
…you could be number 1 in the world.
…Yeah, exactly. LOL
Craig Kardon
That is awesome. OK, on another note.  On those 30 years that you have been on the tour, how has tennis changed?
Oh, my gosh, Edgar, it has changed tremendously.  I think with the evolution of the racquet technology, the evolution of string technology and just the physical aspect of the game.  Players are much more fit now than they were 30 years ago. The top players were fit 30 years ago…only the top… but now you have every player being so fit that fitness is a given.  You have to be fit. Now you bring in the strokes. You know there are much more Western Grips and brushing over the ball and open stances.  Tactics have changed, there is no more serve and volley, so much.  It is almost extinct. Because the racquets are so powerful and the strings are so powerful, it is really hard for a big server because the serve comes in so fast and the return comes so fast.  It almost takes away the art of serving and volleying. So it is really:  You have to be fit, you have to have a weapon and you have to be consistent to win these days.

Craig Kardon
So you have to play aggressively, with a weapon but be consistent at the same time.TennisGate
Consistent, yes.  You still have to win more points than your opponent… 55% of the time, LOL
Craig Kardon
No matter how hard you hit it, it has to be in the court.
It has to be in the court.  That’s really what I struggle with the juniors these days.  You know.  Every kid loves to watch Rafa and Roger hit amazing shots, but you still have to hit them in, right?
Craig Kardon
They still have to be in the court, LOL – What strikes me a little bit is the physicality of the sport. If we look back 20 years or so, McEnroe was playing singles, doubles and mixed doubles sometimes in the Grand Slams. I don’t think anybody can do that, or?TennisGate
No… he also did not practice too much. That was his practice. LOLCraig Kardon
I think the physically of the sport has really transcended anything that we imagined a long time ago, because there are so many tournaments. There are so many opportunities every week for these players to make a lot of money, to win titles and there is all this pressure to go an push themselves to go further and further.
The top players schedule themselves so that they peak at the majors.  Roger is a great example of that.  My last couple of years with Martina, she skipped the French Open, the whole clay court season, in order for her to peak at Wimbledon. It’s a big gamble sometimes, but you are saving your body. The players that win more, play more matches.  It is a lot more wear and tear on the body.  So injuries are much more prevalent now than they were a long time ago.
Craig Kardon
What about the training itself.  Whatever, you do on the court now is probably a little bit different than what you used to do before.TennisGate
Absolutely! It’s a lot different.  The technology… you are measuring what the human body can do.  That has become much more prevalent in todays training. Tennis-specific training.  They have broken movement, tennis specific movements and strengthening those parts of the body for short bursts of explosion, plyometric. They have changed the running technique.  You do not need to run 6 to 10 miles, 3 or 4 times a week anymore like we used to think. Tennis is only played on… you know 36 by 78, right? So you are running short bursts of 10 to 20 yards or even less, quick, quick, quick, with 20 seconds in between points, so you want to train like that. The dieting has also changed, obviously Novak with his gluten free.  Tennis players are a lot more lean today.  They are strong but they are lean, and the diet has affected that.
Craig Kardon
Another thing that I have noticed is how tall they are getting.
Yeah, what is that?  I used to think in Holland, there were all these tall people.  It was all in the dairy LOL but no it does seem…taller athletes are just gravitating towards tennis because they are more successful at a young age when they are tall.
Craig Kardon
So Craig, I would like to hear from you a couple of things that you do on the court that may be are a little more applicable to the women’s game than to the men’s game.
Women and men are basically different on how we think, on how we feel and what not, and sports its no different but some of the same drills I work with men and women but maybe the emphasis is a bit different. For instance, with the women I give them maybe more cues on things to think about during the drill such as:  You are going to hit a little bit more angle at this point.  You are going to establish this part of the court to be ruling on, meaning it is more important to focus on specific issues during the drill. With men it is more about how to establish dominance to win the point using this drill. In a simple crosscourt down the line drill with men I go:  2 crosscourt, 1 down the line try to hit a winner. With women, I go 2 crosscourt, 1 down the line but keep the ball in play, just one more shot than your opponent.
Craig Kardon
OK great!  What would you say in terms of the strategy of the game?  What is the big difference between coaching the men and coaching the women?
Strategically it is no different. It is really working the court to the best of your ability. Take gender out of it.  What do I have that can win the point? But, emotionally it is different coaching men than women. Men respond to different cues, different ideas on how to win the point. Women tend to be more emotional and react.  Men do react, the same but they keep more things inside. With men, obviously it is strength. You are looking to impose your power upon the other player. Also impose your power with your stamina. With women, a lot of times it is outthinking your opponent and letting them know you are a better player than them just by showing your game an showing that you can control your emotions more than they can.

Craig Kardon
So a lot more emphasis on emotions?TennisGate
Controlling your emotions and how you carry yourself on the court during a match is very important. Take gender out of it.  In tennis in general, it is one on one. You train, you practice for this moment and maybe the other player is getting the better off you but you have to control your emotions in order to win.
Craig Kardon
Definitely, no doubt about it. Where do you think the game is going? You were saying that obviously groundstrokes are more important, that serve and volley is getting tougher. But on the other side Roger Federer has demonstrated that you can actually attack the net successfully by coming in more that he had been in the last few years.
I think he started using that aspect of his game a little bit smarter, he realized that he can’t stay back against the power of the Djokovics of the Nadals of Andy Murray.  He realizes:  I have to add something else that I already do have.
The way I think that the game is going, Edgar… I think we are going to come back to power inside the court.  I look at Novak Djokovic, he is number one in the world.  Ok, what does he do well? He takes the ball early, he returns impeccably well – nobody returns like Novak. So I believe the game is going to go to shorter rallies but power inside the court mixed up with a few volleys. The serve will continue to evolve and be a very important part of the game. I think the groundstrokes … will make the court shorter and people will find a way to take the ball earlier and shorten the points.
Craig Kardon
Yeah, the other thing that Novak has definitely brought to the game is the flexibility aspect.  It is unbelievable how he can hit those strong shots from those positions.
The most important thing to learn from Novak about flexibility is his ability to defend on his backhand side. He can put his legs and his body and turn in places that we have never seen before, and that is why he has done as well as he has.  He is number one in the world.  He has taken flexibility to another level. I mean, we thought touching your toes was great or some of the girls doing the split but he takes it more, as I talked about earlier, tennis specific flexibility. He can rotate his upper body like nobody else. He can rotate his legs and his hips like nobody else and still have a position of strength. So that position of strength will give you offense as well as defense.

Craig Kardon
Totally agree!  Great!  Well, after 30 years on the women’s tour, I guess you are an expert on women.  Any problems we may have, just come to you right Craig? LOLTennisGate
The best advice I got was from a woman who says:  Don’t try to understand us just love us.

Craig Kardon
Great! Great advice.  Thank you Craig that was awesome.TennisGate
Thank you Edgar

Craig Kardon

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Comments 8

  1. Edgar, Thank You for Sharing Your Experience with all of us! I have vivid memories watching Craig Kardon coaching Martina Navratilova on Hilton Head Island before winning Wimbledon. He continues to combine Emotional, Mental and Physical Training with his athletes! Thank you to two great guys and coaches! Dr. Bryce Young Sport Psychology/Mental Coach

    1. Thank you Bryce! Any great coach has to be a bit of a psychologist, as you very well know. Craig has been coaching pro players for more that 30 years, so it was great to be able to pick his brain. All the best to you! Hope to see you in February in Hilton Head!

  2. i found this interview very interesting and plenty of information. As a coach i think we need more of these interviews to understand different views about how tennis changed and which way its going a modern tennis. Thanks a lot Edgar Giffenig and Tennisgate you are doing an amazing job helping coaches and players with this website.
    Martin Torretta

  3. Edgar and Craig:
    Congratulations to you both! Very good and interesting interview, I listened to it and then read it.
    Hopefully, we will listen an see more from you. Great job, keep it up!

  4. Wonderful interview. Ground breaking idea to discuss the heart of coaching good and great players: the concepts and personal methods that work for individual coaches.
    Two ideas perhaps worth exploring he mentioned. Increasing serve speed and hitting sooner.
    Hope interviews become a regular feature.

    1. Thank you Ed,
      We will try to bring you more interviews in the future, and the topics of serve speed and hitting the ball closer to the bounce are certainly on our radar.

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