WTA Insider: Can you describe your journey into tennis?
Nigel Sears: From a very young age, 8 or 9, I always wanted to be involved in professional sport. So when the teachers used to ask me what I wanted to do I used to say I want to be a professional sportsman. They said, any sport in particular? I said no, I haven't decided yet. I knew I wanted to do that from a very early age.
I developed a real passion for tennis. Tennis became my whole life. I played pro for six years, but I never felt I was going to get a lot better. By the time I was 24, I was fringe tour level, spent most of my time playing Challengers. I was ranked nine in Britain but just outside the Davis Cup team.
At 24, I stopped playing, so I stopped playing early. I never decided on the path of going into coaching or going into TV, which I find myself doing now. These are things that have happened because I always had a passion to play tennis.
WTA Insider: How did you become a professional coach?
Sears: When I started coaching at the age 24, it was really to extend my life in tennis at a high level and for no other reason. I was still playing a decent standard, so I could hit with the players that age as well, and then I was encouraged to take my coaching exams. I was fortunate enough to be offered a job with the LTA by Paul Hutchins, who sadly passed away last month and he's been a lifelong friend of mine ever since. He gave me my first job in coaching and working for the LTA.
I spent time traveling initially with the men. I took Jeremy Bates away to Brazil. That was the first player I traveled with in kind of a coaching role. I played doubles with him at the same time. I guess after running a National Centre at the LTA in England, the first female player came to me, Clare Wood, British player, former British No.1.
From there, I got calls from WTA Tour players and started with Amanda Coetzer. I've been fortunate enough to work with some fabulous players. Had six Top 10 players, started with Amanda Coetzer and then I was with Daniela Hantuchova, Barbara Schett. Then I worked with Maria Kirilenko, Ana Ivanovic, and recently actually with Ekaterina Makarova before working with Anett Kontaveit.
I've been working with Anett since June of last year and I'm loving every minute of it.
WTA Insider: As someone who has had both formal training and testing as a coach and loads of practical experience, how do you see the benefits of each type of avenue into coaching?
Sears: There's a shortcut and there's long hard yards. I've been very lucky and been exposed to performance players at a high level from early on in my coaching career. And then, of course, there are the coaching courses in the structure within the federations. I think it's very useful that you're going to form your own philosophy and coaching through the experiences you have, more than from what you learn in the books really.
But I think a combination of both is best. It's rather like when they ask you to use a stats tablet. Where's the feel factor? Stats are very useful and I think that there's a place for stats, but it's not the be all and end all. It's the experience, the feel factor, what you're seeing, the way you react and so on.
WTA Insider: What was the adjustment like for you to go from being a player to coach?
Sears: Well it's been a great journey and as I say I've been very fortunate because when I initially worked under Paul at the LTA when I was 24, he exposed me to a range of different age groups so I wasn't just working with the pros. I was also working with some of the really talented juniors and working with both male and female players. And then when I was asked to run a national center there I obviously had male and female players at that center. So it was great.
It was only when I then got a call out of the blue from Amanda Coetzer and I was ready for a change anyway, that she asked me to travel with her that I think I then became established as a female coach. And then most of the opportunities came on that side after that. So I've specialized in that side and that's the part where I took.
WTA Insider: Is there a difference between coaching men and women?
Sears: Well yes. I'm not saying you can't do both. Now we've got female coaches on the men's tour, we've got female coaches on the women's tour as well, and vice versa.
I don't think it's a restriction in any way, but it is very different and I think that most coaches that work to the top end of the game would tend to be one or the other they don't usually traverse from one to the other, and the opportunities are usually the side that you specialized in right.
WTA Insider: What makes coaching women different?
Sears: It's different in many ways. You have to do a lot more listening. I think that obviously because of the nature of the traveling and it being more difficult for younger women to travel on their own and so on, there is more interaction with the families, the parents on the women's tour than there is on the men's tour because a lot of the families travel with some of the women players, especially the younger women players.
There are lots of differences. For example, there's on court coaching on the women's tour but there isn't on the men's tour. That's a fundamental difference. and learning how difference and use that as well or not. But essentially it's the same game.
WTA Insider: Do you think that the underlying principles of the game are different for the men and women? For example, holding serve is the presumption in the men's game, while it is less so in the women's game. That could change the basic fundamentals and philosophies of the game.
Sears: I hear what you're saying, but the women's game is evolving at such a pace at the moment in terms of quality and depth and the general level is improving all the time. So it's getting closer to the men's game all the time.
For example traditionally, women have always hit with less spin. They haven't served as well, they'd be stronger on return of serve, for example, in terms of the stats. But now you've got a lot of women hitting with a huge amount of spin, getting fitter, quicker, faster all the time. Staying fitter for longer, serving harder, improving the quality of the second serves, more versatile with their second serve.
I think that they've closed the gap enormously in terms of the stereotype view of men's tennis and women's tennis. I think it's getting closer to that. So I think the levels are improving all the time.
WTA Insider: What is a good day for you as a coach?
Sears: When you feel that you've done everything in your power to make a difference to your player. Even if it's the smallest percentage out there if you feel that you've helped them move in the right direction then you're doing your job the right way. You want your player to be the best player they can possibly be. You want them to fulfill their potential. Especially if you're working with a younger player, that can be quite a journey.
WTA Insider: What is a frustrating day?
Sears: It comes in in many different packages doesn't it, but the bottom line is everybody has frustrating days at the office, but you've got to realize it's part of sport and you have to weather the ups and downs of that and you come to terms with it. You put it in perspective and you move on. As long as both you and your player have given your best to the cause, day in, day out, week in, week out, and you're committed to the same goals then you accept what comes with that. And it comes in under a bunch of different labels.
WTA Insider: What's your coaching philosophy?
Sears: I've always had a favorite saying and it's one that found in years and years ago but it's been with me all of my life, and that is that excellence is perseverance in disguise. And that's really what I believe in more than anything else. I think that perseverance and work ethic and dedication, provided you have a certain level of ability, rate so much higher than that word everybody refers to as raw talent.
WTA Insider: Can work ethic be taught?
Sears: Some players work a lot harder than others. It comes down to how important it is for any one individual, how many sacrifices they're prepared to make. It's not just about trying hard, because I think trying is a minimum requirement. It's how you apply that work ethic.
Some people don't need to put in as many hours as other people. In fact, it might be beneficial not to. Everyone's different. It's an individual sport. I think that's part of the fascination with the whole thing.