NEW YORK, New York - The last time Conchita Martinez stepped in to coach a player at a Grand Slam was at Wimbledon last year and her then charge, Garbiñe Muguruza, ended up lifting the trophy.
This fortnight, Martinez is back in the coach’s seat helping out world No.8 Karolina Pliskova at the US Open, filling in for her good friend Rennae Stubbs, who is busy with TV commitments this tournament.
Martinez, a Wimbledon champion in 1994, has known Stubbs for decades and even traveled with the Australian as a coach towards the end of her career.
When Stubbs called Martinez to see if she’d be interested in working with Pliskova at the Open, the Spaniard was happy to step up to the plate.
While trying to make an impact within a two-and-a-half-week period is quite the challenge, it is one Martinez is willing to take on.
When Martinez worked with Muguruza last year at Wimbledon in the absence of the Spaniard’s regular coach Sam Sumyk, it was hardly a surprising partnership. After all, Martinez had known Muguruza for years and was always in close contact with her as Spain’s Fed Cup captain from 2013 to 2017. Muguruza even prepared for some tournaments by training with her in Barcelona from time to time.
Pliskova, however, is not someone Martinez had interacted much with prior to the dinner they had in New York the Thursday before the US Open.
“It was great," Martinez told WTA Insider. "That Thursday I arrived, we had dinner together and I got to know her a little bit more because I thought she was very private, very quiet."
“I’m actually a quiet person, but when I know the people, and we trust each other, you get to know me and I’m open. But if not I’m quiet and I don’t like to be the center of attention.
“Karolina’s actually quite talkative and she smiles a lot, she has a very good personality. It’s been really nice.
“I’m happy to be back coaching because of all the things I do, this is what I like the most. To be out there on the court, coaching and making people play better.”
Pliskova, a runner-up at the US Open in 2016, has made a solid start to her campaign this fortnight, defeating Zarina Diyas and Ana Bogdan in straight sets to set up a third round against Sofia Kenin.
The Czech former world No.1 is pleased with the time she’s spent with Martinez so far.
“It's working pretty well actually," said Pliskova after her opening round win. Also, I need some Spanish drills a little bit. That's what we did for last few days."
“I feel much better after some intense practice. She just loves to play tennis, to play a lot of tennis. Actually we use every minute of practice that we have, which is good.”
“Also they are both [Martinez and Stubbs] so much positive. We don't have people like this in Czech, that's why it was an option for me.”
Indeed positivity is the bedrock of the Spaniard’s coaching philosophy. That and communication.
“The first thing I told her when I was going to come here – because I spoke to Rennae and she told me a lot of things so Karolina’s like ‘oh, you probably know everything about me’, and I said ‘No, I know some things but I’m not going to let you off the hook that easy because you’re going to tell me and for me to be able to help you the most, I want you to be open and tell me what’s going on and tell me everything, and that’s when I’m going to be able to help you’,” recounts Martinez.
“It’s been great, I don’t want to say ‘stress-free’ because we’re in a Grand Slam but it’s been very positive, we’re in a good mood. I want her to enjoy what she’s doing.
“I think we’re very fortunate to be in a situation like this. And if you enjoy practicing, you practice with a smile, and I know it’s very difficult sometimes but you go out there with a good attitude I think a lot of good things are coming.”
— Michal Hrdlička (@michalhrdlicka) August 26, 2018
While this is only a short-term partnership, Martinez is aware of the responsibility at hand, and knows how to handle such a delicate situation, of trying to help a player she just met at one of the most important tournaments of the year for her.
“It’s almost what you tell your players a lot. If you do serious hard work and you work good and hard, the job is done, you cannot ask for more,” Martinez says of how she takes on this responsibility.
“I like a challenge, I enjoy trying to make my player better and stronger. Because she’s already so good, but sometimes you lose a little bit of confidence or not, but to get there again, I think I can make them get there again and that’s very satisfying.”
Getting the opportunity to actually work with Stubbs as part of Team Pliskova was a nice incentive for Martinez, especially that there aren’t that many set-ups out there that feature two women coaching a top player.
“That’s the beauty of it,” admits Martinez.
“If you want the best for the player, two strong forces are going to be better. We want the best for Karolina. For us, to see her play well is our main goal.”
Pliskova won just one of the five matches she contested on the North American hard courts entering the US Open, losing in the second round in Montreal and Cincinnati, and the first round in New Haven. She feels that has little impact on her US Open chances though.
“I feel actually pretty happy to be here and to play here every year, doesn't matter in which shape I am,” Pliskova told reporters in New York.
“Doesn't matter that I just didn't play well the previous tournament here in the States. Somehow here the energy is different. I feel just a little bit more confident here coming to this tournament because of my results in past.
“I felt like I had a lot of matches here last few years. The conditions are great. I always felt good here. Doesn't matter if I just lost. Still having a lot of matches here makes me feel extra confident.”
For Martinez, she feels the key with Pliskova right now is to go back to basics and focus on the fundamentals.
“We just started the tournament, just two rounds. I think yesterday she played better than the first day, which is always an improvement. When you maybe come without doing the results you’re used to, you put pressure on yourself, sometimes you stress too much, so for me it’s very important to go back to simple, go back to basics and go from there,” said the 46-year-old Martinez.
“Sometimes it’s not that complicated. Just go back to basics and start building a nice strong base and maybe the first match, it’s always difficult for everybody in a Grand Slam, maybe it wasn’t that good but the second match was better. So what I want to do is build up for the next matches and hopefully by the end of the tournament, very late, she’s going to be full of confidence.”