WUHAN, China - For veteran coach Nigel Sears, the opportunity to work with a talented young prospect like 22-year-old Anett Kontaveit came at the perfect time. Sears has coached Amanda Coetzer, Daniela Hantuchova, and Ana Ivanovic through their careers, but found himself as more of a triage unit than mentor over the last few years.
"I've been very fortunate to work with some very good players but I started towards the back end of my career I get the call from players in crisis," Sears told a small group of reporters this summer at WTA Coaches Media Day at the Western & Southern Open. "When someone's in trouble, give Nigel a call.
"Whereas I feel at the start of my career, after Amanda Coetzer, Daniela Hantuchova when I started with her she was 18 and I worked with her for five years. I was with her on that journey up through winning Indian Wells and you know getting to five in the world. So that was really exciting and I don't think I've worked with a young player with that kind of potential since, because when I worked with Ana Ivanovic and Ekaterina Makarova, they were ready experienced established players. They were in a dip and they wanted me to help.
"So that's a different situation than working with a young player and having that journey with them. I think I'm ready for that scenario again now. So that's why I was excited about this challenge."
Kontaveit has enjoyed a rapid rise through the rankings over the last two seasons, becoming one of the most dangerous young players in the draw. Since finishing her 2016 season outside the Top 100 at No.110, Kontaveit hit milestone after milestone in 2017, winning her first WTA title in s'Hertogenbosch, and earning her first Top 10 wins, defeating Garbiñe Muguruza in Stuttgart and then-No.1 Angelique Kerber in Rome.
Kontaveit continued to build on that success in 2018, making the semifinals of Stuttgart and Rome, and the Round of 16 at Roland Garros. She has tallied six Top 10 wins this season. Only Kiki Bertens, Daria Kasatkina, Petra Kvitova, and Aryna Sabalenka have more.
Kontaveit gave Sears the call after she split with Glenn Schapp ahead of the grass season.
"He's quite strict with those specific things," Kontaveit said in Wuhan. "Some are to do with footwork, some are to do with positioning, some are to do with how I start the points, all those different things."
"I think it's going really well. I'm really happy with it. Yeah, I think I'm starting to understand him better and better every week. I'm really, really pleased with the way things are going."
After a tough grass and summer hardcourt season, which saw her come out on the losing end of quite a few tight matches, Kontaveit has had a stellar week at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open. She rallied from a break down in the final set to defeat No.9 Sloane Stephens and has built on that confidence to roll through the draw and into the biggest final of her career.
"She's an exciting girl to work with. I think she's got a lot of potential," Sears said. "When I look at her last year, she's had a lot of good performances but she's had a lot of first-round exits. So I think one of the main goals for me is to try and help Anett perform better more often on a week in week out basis so the differential between a good day and a bad day isn't so great, to try and bring them together. So she really understands how to be effective with her game against a given opponent on a given surface, instead of it sort of being quite so random in terms of results. And obviously, that will take time."
"She's not really defending that much until after Australia, really. So that's a great opportunity for her now, and for us.
At a time when the tour has been dominated by aggressive counter-punchers, Sears believes Kontaveit's natural instincts are perfectly set up to be consistently competitive against the tour's best.
"Anett falls between a counterpuncher and an out and out striker," Sears said. "I believe she fits the game plan in between them, and that's great. I think that's exciting.
"When I look back, the last person who sort of hit that blend a bit, Jankovic when she's world number one she used to hit it big be quite aggressive. She wasn't a small player, I think. Ana was a very aggressive striker, but she had wonderful talent and she had hands and skills. In my coaching experience, I haven't worked with anybody as gifted as Ana and could really do anything with the ball, but yet still had power."
"Anett has a natural instinct to be aggressive. She's not scared of going for the lines and that's a big strength of hers. But it's a high risk attached to that so it's just using a little more discretion. No one wants to take that aggressive natural instinct away from her, so I want her to go for her shots perhaps with a little more margin, perhaps at the right time. Her second serve needs development.
"I like her game very much. I think she has no real weakness technically. As I said the second set needs refining, it needs to be better. She needs to have more options on the second serve and she could do with hitting her spots more regularly on first serve. But she hits it pretty well and she has a decent physique and she's ambitious. She has an appetite to work and I like that, I respect that.
"That's why I took the job because it appeals to me anyway. I think it's a challenge because there's a young player that you can really work with."