CINCINNATI, Ohio - Dieter Kindlmann's new partnership with No.14 Elise Mertens is off to a very strong start. In the midst of a breakout season, the 22-year-old Belgian, who currently sits at a career-high ranking at No.14, brought the German on for a trial period after Wimbledon. She has proceeded to make the quarterfinals or better all three tournaments she's played since, making the semifinals in San Jose, quarterfinals in Montreal, and now scoring her biggest win of the season with a 7-6(8), 6-2 victory over No.3 Sloane Stephens to advance to the quarterfinals at the Western & Southern Open.
Prior to the start of her summer hardcourt season, Mertens said her goal for the season was unrelated to rankings or tournament wins. Her mission was to raise her level when facing Top 10 opposition. Her win over Stephens was her first Top 10 win since January, when she defeated Elina Svitolina to make her first Slam semifinal at the Australian Open.
"This is one of the reasons she hired me," Kindlmann told reporters at WTA Coaches Media Day at the Western & Southern Open. "If you look at her results, besides Svitolina in Melbourne, she was always losing very clear against Top 10 players. Like Halep, Konta, they destroyed her.
"Patience is not one of her best skills. I always look at the big picture. She reached No.15, Top 10 in the race, very fast. But she is, in my opinion, not ready to be a consistent Top 10 player. There are so many areas she can improve."
"She wants it so badly and that's why I like her. She's so into it. She wants to do the next step. But again, patience is the word. You cannot reach everything in one year.
Kindlmann's professionalism and intensity were honed during his three years serving as the hitting partner for Maria Sharapova. Since leaving Sharapova's team in 2016, Kindlmann has gone to coach Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Laura Robson, and most recently Madison Keys.
"My best education was the three years I had with Sharapova as a hitting partner," Kindlmann said. "If I started as a coach at this time, I was not ready for women's coaching because it's so different from men's coaching.
"When I started to work as a hitting partner, she had great coaches like Thomas Hogstedt, Sven Groeneveld, I also had some experience with Jimmy Connors. I learned how people tried to coach. At this point, I already had in my mind that after Sharapova I wanted to be a head coach.
"From every coach I took some positives, took some negative things out, and I created my own way. This is very important because otherwise I would fail so badly, because the mental part in women's tennis is so different than the men's side."
Kindlmann's first priority is to build up Mertens' fitness and build out her support team. The Belgian's rise was so rapid this season that she has yet to have the time to adjust her team to help her shoulder the load and do what's needed to break into the Top 10. Mertens isn't far off by the numbers, but Kindlmann is hoping his charge is ready to take baby steps in pursuit of the bigger picture.
"Everyone is saying they want to be in the Top 10 but not so many want to do the effort," Kindlmann said.
"I always explain to my players - because everyone says it's so expensive to add one more member to your team - I say when you win one more Grand Slam round, then you have the money for the whole year. You have to invest in your career and for your future.
"You will not make the Top 5, Top 10 constantly with a one-man show. This is not working like this. I am a big fan of structure and I have a lot of structure. I am confident in myself, but I am not a trainer. I would never go into areas that I am not specialized in it."
"So many people can work for one week, two weeks. You can only reach Top 10 and make big success when you work consistently for a long time. A lot of players don't want to do it, they're not ready to work consistently at the highest level."
Mertens currently sits at No.8 in the Porsche Race to Singapore. A Top 10 debut and Singapore debut are well within her grasp if her results hold up for the remainder of the season, but Kindlmann says that level of success could actually undermine her progress.
"Maybe everybody is surprised by what I say, and this is not confirmed with Elise: I would like to finish the season around 10, 11, or 12. Everyone would say why? She's already No.8 in the Race!
"I see so many ways to improve her and it would be a totally different situation if she is in Top 10. She can only play the higher tournaments. I'm a big fan of making small progress, step by step, but going always in the right direction.
"If we finish at No.11 or 12 and we're doing the right stuff and improving on the things she can improve and will improve and then next year we finish in the Top 10, then I'm more than happy. But if we go too fast in the Top 10 or Top 7 and she says why should I improve if I'm Top 7? This is always the problem you have with a player."
"My goal is I have to make sure he's healthy and she's fit. What happens if she's Top 10 and she's out for half a year? So we have to focus on our homework and go step by step. And we'll see how she is when she loses tournaments early. That's also part of the game.
"But I know which way she has to play to have success and we will see."