LONDON, England - Halfway through her breakthrough 12 months, Simona Halep did something funny: She changed coaches.
After winning a career-high six singles titles in 2013, the Romanian upstart decided it was time for a change in her coaching staff: she needed someone to take her to the next level. Halep chose well-known women's coach Wim Fissette, who had worked with Kim Clijsters and Sabine Lisicki in the past.
"It's not easy to have the people who you need every time before matches," Halep said at the Australian Open. "But I think myself, I have to improve more in relaxing before the match and to be ready. I think my mind needs to relax more before the big matches and a new coach will help that."
Help he has. Fissette has guided Halep and her burgeoning talent to a career-high No.3 ranking, her first ever Grand Slam at the French Open and Wednesday she remains the highest seed remaining at Wimbledon.
I sat down with Fissette to talk tennis, Simona, his style and how to crack the right balance in order to achieve big things.
Tell us about how you linked up with Simona earlier this year and the steps you've taken together.
Fissette: I got a phone call right before the Australian Open and I was very excited to start working with Simona because I was very sure of her potential. The first thing we did together is she told me about the emotions she had during the quarterfinals in Australia and we had a point to work from. Her game was there, but it was about getting confidence to play the best tennis in the big moments at the Grand Slams. It was about steps, too: she won in Doha, made the semifinals in Indian Wells, the finals in Madrid and then the finals in Paris. Everything was about taking the next step. Her game is improving, it's getting better and bigger.
You came in at a time when Simona was doing well. How were you careful to make sure not to change things that were already working and implement others to be effective?
Fissette: If you win six titles in one year then that means you're a great player. At this level, it's all about details. Some little details come automatically with confidence, so that's what I'm worrying about: how do I give Simona confidence on the court? You can see it during the match that she believes in her tennis, even more so than at the beginning of the year. Her expectation at the beginning of the year was that she wanted to stay in the Top 20 and maybe go to the Top 10 if there was a chance. But No.3? She didn't believe that at the beginning of the year, but now she believes it more and more. She belongs where she is right now.
So then how do you set little goals once she's reached this level?
Fissette: We don't talk too much about results. We talk about improving her game. The goals are about her game, and for us then the results will come automatically. Results you cannot control, but we can make her game as good as it can.
A loss to Radwanska (Indian Wells) or Kuznetsova (Stuttgart), you guys talk about what went well and what didn't?
Fissette: Simona, even during her matches, she's very intelligent and very smart - she's analyzing her own game. But we do sit down and give the match an analysis. She knows where her game needs to move and what she needs to work on.
What about the fitness? That is a part of Simona's game that she's been lauded for.
Fissette: Simona is very strong naturally, always moving well on the court. She works very hard on her fitness, this year hiring a fitness coach and a physio to take care of her. She knows she has to treat her body really well. If she can move well, the game is on.
What aspect of her game do you think is most underestimated?
Fissette: Maybe her serve. She's a great defender, but her serve is very precise. More and more, her serve is getting faster, close to 105 and 110, which is really good for a girl of her size. On the second serve she can be aggressive with that and play it in all directions. Nobody talks about her serve, but she has a great one.
In Roland Garros, she was in a Grand Slam final for the first time in her career. Are these the type of situations - like playing on Centre Court here - that you guys talk about?
Fissette: When her manager called me, they wanted someone who had experience at the majors. Yes, of course we talk about it. In Paris there was a lot of expectation from the early part of the tournament, and I think she handled it very well, from first match to last. We talk about these situations, yes, but she always has family and friends around which is smart for her: she's not always thinking about the tennis. She's found the perfect mix.
How important were the few days after the loss to Maria Sharapova in the final? She went home, relaxed.
Fissette: She played such a great match that day; she was close to winning and obviously proud of her performance. A first Grand Slam final is never easy. An effort like that takes a lot of your mental energy and when we met again in 's-Hertogenbosch I could tell that she was tired. She slept sometimes 14 hours a day, but her body needed that. We didn't hit very much those first few days because I knew she just needed rest, needed to take things slowly.
It sounds like players really need that balance.
Fissette: Every player is different. But, it's important to find the right way between playing enough matches and being fresh for the Grand Slams. You have to find the middle of where your focus is best, listening to both your body and mind.
Approaching each match, how do you go about that? Obviously you've coached Sabine Lisicki, so that will be a little different.
Fissette: You cannot control the opponent's game, so if she gives her best that is out of our hands. I watch her opponents when I can and I'll give Simona details, but I don't want to give her too much information. My thought is that if I give her too much information, she won't feel free anymore. As a coach, it's a difficult proposition: you want to give some guidance, but not too much.
And what about your experience as a whole, working with Kim Clijsters and then Sabine?
Fissette: I had the chance to work with Kim, starting off as a hitting partner at the end of 2005 and at first I just learned from her. I tried to talk a lot with good coaches and go to international seminars, but I wanted to find my own way. Women's tennis isn't just about techniques and tactics. Obviously you have to have a good base, but you have to have the total package. The player needs to feel well - the best she can - to perform her best. That's what I'm trying to give the player. As a coach, I'm trying to think what the player needs at that moment. You have to focus on the strengths of the player.
What's one thing that Simona enjoys away from the court that gets her mind off tennis?
Fissette: Shopping. [Laughs.] Always, shopping! She likes to have a lot of people around her and she treats everyone really well. On a day off, we all go shopping together and we have a nice dinner - with nice dessert, she loves dessert - and just not think about tennis.
When I interviewed Simona in New Haven after her win, she said she wanted to improve her English alongside her tennis. How do you guys communicate? English?
Fissette: Yes, yes. I remember that when I first emailed her she wrote back apologizing for her English, but I told her we'd work on it. Her English was not bad in January, but she wasn't speaking it much outside of press. Speaking more and more with me, it's improving. I feel like something like that is making her a stronger person, it's making her more confident. She can express herself better to the world.
Lastly, Simona is just one of two players to make the quarterfinals at every major this year [Genie Bouchard, too]. What expectations do you set on this weekend?
Fissette: It's match by match. Simona has played a lot of tennis these last couple of weeks. It's not easy to make the clay-to-grass transition. With Sabine, we have a grass court specialist, but I believe in Simona's strengths and she's playing very good tennis. We'll take it from there.