The Game According to Sam Sumyk

We had the pleasure of spending time with Sam Sumyk at the Mutua Madrid Open 2016. Sam is one of the most successful coaches on the WTA. With over twenty years of experience coaching professional players, Sam has worked with many of the top players on the women’s game including former number 2 Vera Zvonareva, former number one Victoria Azarenka and, his current charge, Garbine Muguruza, 2016 French Open Champion.

Thank you Sam for this great insight into professional tennis.

Video Transcript

Edgar: I am here with Sam Sumyk, a veteran coach on the WTA, great friend and… let’s talk some tennis Sam.

So you have been on the tour exactly how long, tell us about that.

Sam: I never count, but I think close to twenty years now. I did not travel full time at the beginning but then you know…year after year that is all I have done basically, privately with one player. For four years I worked with three professional girls at the same time. That was great but challenging, a lot of work, a lot of hours on the court.

Edgar: Was that a team or was it separate?

Sam: No, different people asked me if I would help them out, and I said yes but I am working with this player. Let me ask if she agrees to share and if she agrees I can help you out. Obviously, I don’t go by ranking. I never go by ranking so if I am working with one, so she has the priority, then the second one and eventually the third. I was surprised they said, ok let’s do it. It worked out pretty good actually, but then after that I needed a glass of red wine every night, you know. Ha ha…

Edgar: What about the rankings? How low and how high have you been working with? more or less the range. You worked with players that were starting on the tour…

Sam: I did that also. At the beginning, they were maybe 150 and then they ended up higher. If I take everybody’s highest ranking over their career, I worked with players between number 1 and number 35.

Edgar: Mostly!

Sam: Obviously the number 1 did not start at number 1 or the number 35 did not start at 35 when I started working with her.

Edgar: You did not start when she was 10 and went to 35, ha, ha.

Sam: It happens, I tell you. It does happen, ha, ha.. It is just the way it is.

Edgar: I know you took Azarenka to number 1. Where was she when she started with you?

Sam: She was very good already. She was top 10, I think she was 8 or 9. So, she was already right there. So, I just happened to be there at the right time.

Edgar: That must be very challenging to take one player that is that close, because there is not much room. If you take one that is very talented, let’s say 100, and you know she is great, she is going to go quickly up.

Sam: The progress is obviously not as obvious. It is kind of baby steps because it is more like details. The challenge there is somewhere else. You arrive and you are a new person. You arrive with maybe a different way of doing things and you come and tell somebody that is already in the top 10: “I think your backhand can be better.” They don’t really understand that. They are like: “What do you mean?” “I am 8 in the world, my backhand is good.” “Yes, it is true but we can make it better.”
Sometimes that is the challenge there, and maybe with me the way I talk, I don’t know, it is just like, you don’t want them to feel like, you are a great player…they know it their ranking… and then you make them feel like…maybe you are not that good or something like that..

That is the challenge. Basically to say: “Maybe we can be much better.”

But there is a big difference between 8 and 9 and number 1 in the world.

Edgar: Definitely!

Sam: For sure!

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Edgar: And so with her what was the main thing…

Sam: With who?

Edgar: With Azarenka. What did you worked on to get her there, I mean what are the things that she improved?

Sam: I think, she became overall… everything a bit more professional. So, I know she was very intense and I know she had the drive and the desire to be good. That was obvious, but maybe I gave her a little…I hope I gave her a little bit of guidance, you know, and a good one, but I think she would have done it with or without me. She is good, ha, ha. She is really good obviously. I think that would have happened for her. She has the drive, so if she puts her mind into it… you feel she can be unstoppable.
So, we worked a little bit everywhere, details everywhere. You know, 1 percent plus 1 percent, plus 1 percent… then you have 10 percent improvement. That is huge when you are top 10 in the world. That is huge, so that is kind of how we worked, all aspects, fitness, technique, movement, a lot of movement, those types of things.

Edgar: In the women’s tour and also in the men’s tour, there is always a lot of rotation of coaches. Why do you think that is?

Sam: Because I think everybody and specially the player and the entourage they are very impatient. Patience is not a real virtue on the tour, and it is understandable because we are in sports and it is about winning or losing, so obviously it is hard for some people to realize that maybe I am improving a little bit but the results are not coming yet. But I think the best story, the best progression is people that stick with their team. When you do a good job it is going to happen. I think if you change too often nothing is happening. It is just one good week and then nothing, but for long term, obviously it is better to have that stability… if you find the right people.
Stability does not mean that you progress always this way (Gesturing up and up with the hand). A little bit down before you go up. There are plateaus. It is natural. It is normal. You have to accept that. Everybody is impatient but some people accept that more than others.

Edgar: As a coach on the tour, it is a very different…way…it is a different contract between a player and a coach than in basically any other sport because in other sports you have a coach that is not really paid by you as the athlete that is going to tell you what to do, and in tennis you as a player are paying a coach to tell you what to do. It is a very different dynamic.

Sam: You got to, at the beginning, to set up…kind of the rules, what everybody’s role is. You know? And obviously the player is the owner of the boat, but they choose you as a coach, they put you as the captain of the boat. OK, and then that’s it, done deal.

Edgar: And the player has to understand that!

Sam: Well you make decisions with the players. You cannot do anything without his/her green light, his approval or her approval and then you develop trust…if you have the time. Because you need time to build up the trust – back to the patience. It is not easy. It is tricky, but there are beautiful stories… it works, it works.

Edgar: It is not impossible but it is challenging.

Sam: It is a privilege to have the professional players who wants to work with you. It is a good place to be.

Edgar: What is the biggest challenge of working on the tour? To be a professional coach of a top ranked player, what is the biggest challenge?

Sam: Well you got to deliver. The coach does not hold the racquet when the player is on the court, in the arena to perform, but it is kind of like… part of your work, that you have in front of your eyes, and your job is to deliver. You have to win.

Edgar: It is black and white, you either win or you lose.

Sam: Something like that. You have to win – very simple, but you are not the one doing it, you are not the player… So, that is the tricky part but the challenge is in the results because we are in sports, and in the relationship with the player and the rest of the team. It is a closed circle at work and you have to… well it has to work, the chemistry has to be there. Sometimes you have great people but it does not click. It does not mean you’re bad, it just does not click. I think the challenge is more in the communication with each other.
The challenge – life is good- it is not a “standard life,” at home for lunch and dinner but that comes with the job. It is ok. It is all good for me.

Edgar: How has the tour changed in the last 20 years? How has tennis evolved in the women’s tour?

Sam: In the women’s tour, obviously, the level, my opinion, is better and better. Some people do not see it that way but I think it is better. For a simple reason, the girls are in better shape, women’s tennis is more and more physical. So, just because of this, the level of play is better. So, I think it is going in the right direction. I wish there were more “real coaches,” coaching women athletes, coaching women tennis players, but hey, it is not my decision.

Edgar: A coach takes a lot of roles, some players want a coach that organizes very well, some players want a coach, or at least someone like a coach. So, there are a lot of roles, really.

Sam: Every player hires someone for specific reasons, you know?

Edgar: Exactly

Sam: But we are more and more like a manager. Not the business manager…

Edgar: But the day to day.

Sam: Exactly, we manage the project. We manage the team. We have an input on
the full organization, and let’s not forget that we take care of the game on the court.

Edgar: Give me an example of all the things you take care of.

Sam: A lot about the organization for training. I can help for booking rental cars or airlines but it is not really my job. But for example, if next week we have a week to train, it is me who organizes everything. I make sure that everyone on the team has everything they need to do the best job possible for the player. I have to make sure the player is fine, she feels good, trains well, and all the training, everything that is related to the training: fitness, treatment… I don’t do the treatment but I need to make sure that the physio has everything he needs. What he likes also. If he likes this machine to work with, I have to make sure he can do it. He can help, but I am also there to take a little weight off his shoulders. But I can’t forget that I also need to be on the court.
My primary job is to be on the court, but you kind of supervise everything.

Edgar: How many players on the tour work with a sport’s psychologist or does the coach take that role a lot of times?

Sam: I think there are more than it is said. I think there are some people that try and experiment with it it. Some people work with a sport’s psychologist but people keep it to themselves. I think there is more than we think. But that is also sometimes a little bit the coach’s work. We do that a little bit, good or bad but we do it. We have to have a little knowledge about sport’s psychology because if I need to help my player with something, I got to be able to find…options…guidance, not solutions. You find out later on if you did the right thing or not. We are a little bit of everything… but you got to know the game obviously.

Edgar: On the women’s tour you see a lot of the girls playing very fast, not much spin, deep, while on the men’s tour you see a lot more height over the net, spin….

Sam: More variety.

Edgar: More variety. Is that something that is going to change or is that something you think is going to stay for a while.

Sam: I think if you want to be one of the best in the world or the best player in the world, in my opinion, if we check for ten years who was the number 1 female we will see that there is a lot of them who have a lot of variety in their game. You can take Justin Henin, Mauresmo, even Serena, people always see the power but there is a lot of variety. And of course, over the years she has more and more. I think Sharapova was also trying over the last few years, but she may be the only one in my mind who in the last ten years was number 1 and played one-dimensional but she tried. We could see some variation in her game over the last 2 or 3 years. That is just looking from the outside. Maybe she has been trying for a long time. But I would say she is the only one that comes to my mind. Even Clijsters had a lot of variety in her game. So, you take all those people who reached the top – well there is variety.

It is difficult to have a one-dimensional game and be at the top. Azarenka, the same… I think she had variety. People do not necessarily see it, but us, we know.

Edgar: So, if you have a junior player, starting who wants to be competitive, as a coach you would make sure that from the beginning he/she develops a little bit of everything?

Sam: Sure, for sure! I would make sure they would have… I say a stupid number but: 3 forehands, 3 backhands, you know whatever it is but different. For sure! But also it depends what age. I think it would be interesting to have a young player and maybe a young girl and start teaching her tennis at the net. (backwards) instead of starting with groundstrokes.

Edgar: Ok, start with volleys.

Sam: Build the net game and go back, instead of starting from the back and then go forward. I would do the opposite. I would be curious to see what happens.

Edgar: That is an interesting approach. It makes sense.

Sam: I do not know if it makes sense but to learn a forehand and a backhand from the baseline that is kind of easy, but to learn how to move on the whole court, and were to be at the net, and it is a much scary position, at least for girls. It is not as fun as for guys. It is scary! Let’s start there first.

Edgar: Maybe with this change to the smaller courts and the different balls…

Sam: It is good!

Edgar: Maybe there is going to be a little bit more variety.

Sam: For sure! It is good! It was needed, to adapt. You know, you put a nine year old playing from the baseline to the baseline it is like a soccer field.

Edgar: And if you tell them to go to the net. Obviously they will get passed every time.

Sam: Fur sure! For sure! They will not even get to the net. It is too far. And then when they arrive at the net. The tape is above their heads…It is like volleyball.

Edgar: I agree with you.

Sam: So, it had to be adapted! No question about it. But I think it is happening. It is happening for a long time already.

Edgar: Slowly it is getting main-stream.

Sam: I think they have started to realize the benefit of it. Sometimes when you start a new program, it takes ten years to realize: “We were right.” These are the best few kids that started and are now the best in the country. Mini tennis, or whatever you call it… it takes a little bit of time to see if the system is working. But it is working! Now it is everywhere in the planet.

Edgar: Yea, it is everywhere in the world.

Edgar: To finalize, what makes it fun to be a coach of a top professional athlete?

Sam: What does fun mean?

Edgar: What makes it exciting to wake up every day? And what are you looking forwards to?

Sam: I do not know for the other coaches. I can only speak for myself. What I like is the journey. I like to go from a blank page and say ok, how do we start? and then go on and go on and go on and see the progress. I like to start from, not zero, but I like the process of it, I like the preparation.

Edgar: So when you see a player that you are starting to work with your say: We are here. This is where everything is and we need to be going to here.

Sam: Kind of. I look and I see where things can be better. I don’t destroy to rebuild. I take what is there, and I am building up around that. Everybody kind of has a vision. This can be better, that way, that way…It is a long process, but at the beginning… you must know the potential and if you can take him or her there. And, if the player agrees and is ready to do it, that is the pleasure right there. It is great every day. There are some rough days, but overall…again, it is a good place to be. I think we are privileged. There is no question about it. I cannot complain, and they are all pretty damn good, seriously. The level is incredible. You do not have to work with the number one player to enjoy it.

Edgar: It is probably always fun, it does not matter what level because the process is the same.

Sam: I don’t know. I have been doing this for 20 years, and I am happy to take my bag every morning and go. What is interesting, even for a coach… I believe we are all students. Ok, we are coaches, we are supposed to know, but we do not know everything, so we learn along the way as well as the player.

Edgar: So after 20 years on the tour you still feel like everyday you are learning something new?

Sam: I don’t know about every day, but I am learning. I want to keep it that way. I want to learn. This is my feeling: I don’t know much about tennis and maybe what I know can fit in a small piece of paper, but that I am sure about it… after twenty year.

Edgar: Ha, ha…Those things (on the paper) you know for sure, Ha, ha.

Sam: That is what I would like to believe. I know this much after twenty years (showing a few inches between his thumb and index finger) but I know it for sure. But that is only this much, everything else, I am not sure, I do not know. Yea, it will fit on a post it stamp! But that is not bad.

Edgar: Ha ha, it is pretty good! Knowing 100% that at least these few things are right.

Sam: Absolutely, that is the way I feel. So yea, I want to be a student and the high performance is in constant evolution. But I think, if you think outside the box, if you keep open minded, yea, you learn all the time. Look everywhere to see if something out there can help you in your job. I think that is the beauty. And it is endless, that is cool, that keeps it interesting.

Edgar: Anything else that you would like to tell us about the tour that you think is interesting and that would help people understand what you do a bit better.

Sam: It is hard to talk about it because for me the most interesting part about our job on the tour is the part that nobody sees. It is what is happening behind the scenes.

Edgar: Give me an example.

Sam: The public sees that the player is going to play the final tomorrow, and they see the player with the sparring partner and the whole team warming up half and hour- big smile. Everything is good. But behind the scene it may not be like this. You may have an issue with the shoulder that nobody knows. So everybody freaks out a little bit! Shit! What is going to happen tomorrow? Can she play? You know, all the doubts. Because even if the player is showing a poker face, they are still emotional, you know.
Before a big final everybody is nervous.
Well, nobody knows what is going on, nobody knows the discussion that you are having.
A player’s life is a full day at work. It is not a few hours on the tennis court. It is in the gym, it is treatment, it is the recovery, maybe a nap. That is part of the program.

Edgar: Everything counts!

Sam: Yes.

Edgar: It is not the one hour they spent on the court.

Sam: Absolutely! So that is all behind the scenes. And the people that don’t know this do not realize all of this. They see you in a nice hotel, nice clothes and outside in the sun.

Edgar: A great job!

Sam: Well the best in the world. People say: I would love to do your job! And it is great but there is a lot to it. You are back in your room, you take your notes, you watch, you are on the computer… It is work! We are not on a soccer team where the team can hire coaches for every little thing. In tennis the coach does everything.
A great job! I love it, but is a lot of work.

Edgar: Thank you Sam, I know you have to go. Thank you for giving us an insight into the world of a top professional coach. Good luck!

Sam: Thank you!

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Comments 4

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  1. So often we see the coaches in the player boxes but rarely do we get to see the coaches interviewed. We always see the player thanking the coach but we never hear about the background story. I really enjoyed your interview with Sam. And thank you Sam for taking the time to chat with Edgar. Well done!

  2. Absolutely loved this. Great to get an insight into what’s involved at the very top level. Refreshing to hear that he doesn’t know it all and keeps open minded everyday and is always learning. I would love to coach at this level one day. Both of you to aspire too.
    Great interview Edgar, thanks for sharing! I’ve taken lots away from it. ?

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