“Knowing what the players are doing wrong is easy. Knowing what they should do right is not so hard. Helping that transition is the real art of coaching.”
It’s a motto that WTA coach Iain Hughes takes to heart, and a bridge he aims to build with new student, WTA Doubles Co-No.1 Katerina Siniakova. Compiling a resume that includes stints with reigning BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global champion Elina Svitolina, 2015 junior Wimbledon champion Sofya Zhuk, and former World No.7 Belinda Bencic, Hughes has worked with some of the most intriguing players of the game’s next generation at various stages of their careers.
“I actually went straight into coaching when I was 19,” he wrote in an interview conducted via email.
“I was fortunate to live in the same area of London as the only full time tennis teaching academy in Europe, an academy designed specifically on training coaches through the complete process of teaching Adults, Juniors, Beginners all the way to Elite performers. The intensive year long course gave me the passion for the game and for teaching.”
A former Men’s Travelling Coach for the Lawn Tennis Association, he was also a member of ATP World No.1 Andy Murray’s support team before pairing with Svitolina as she began her WTA rankings ascent in 2014. Under Hughes, she made her Top 20 debut, reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the 2015 French Open, and finished runner-up at the 2016 Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai.
“When I started working with Elina she was a good student, on and especially off the court. She was always reading, mostly about successful people or psychology and trying to learn new skills, like languages. It was about helping her adopt these learning skills onto the court and add to what was then a more passive game style.”
In Singapore alongside Siniakova as she secured the 2018 Year-End WTA Doubles Co-No.1 ranking with Barbora Krejcikova, he also witnessed Svitolina’s latest career milestone, noting her continued growth since their 2016 split.
“Elina had a tough middle of 2018 but I felt it was never a doubt that she would come through. She was continuously pushing her tennis boundaries and it was all about when she would find the right balance; that was in Singapore.
“She is an unconditional competitor and this is her biggest strength. She was and is always trying to improve. Obviously, her athleticism and her mental toughness are considered her strengths but I think her hand skills are underestimated.”
Where he helped Svitolina make her career breakthrough, he later worked with Bencic towards a career comeback following over 18 months of injury struggles, culminating in an emphatic upset of five-time Wimbledon winner Venus Williams at the 2018 Australian Open.
“I actually started working with Belinda shortly after her wrist surgery, so our primary goal was always to come back healthy and injury free. It took many months of slowly getting her through what was a tough and nervous time. Having her back on court, where she was her happiest, was the key.
“After the successful comeback, we worked mostly on her serve and her tactical decision making. She also worked very hard on her fitness level again. Her game style is unique and if she stays fit and hungry for the success, she'll be back up the rankings very soon.”
A force in both singles and doubles, Siniakova presented the latest challenge to Hughes, who began working with the fiery Czech youngster last summer. Since their partnership began, she not only achieved further doubles success with Krejcikova, she also earned her career-high singles ranking of World No.31 - “A few small changes on the practice court, and next the target will be to move closer to the Top 20” - and reached her first Premier Mandatory quarterfinal at the China Open.
“Katka's hand skills and 'want' for the ball, especially at the net, are very special qualities. On the singles court it has given her a few different tactical options.”
A cool contrast to Siniakova’s more fiery on-court demeanor, Hughes believes winning the psychological game is paramount to achieving success on the WTA circuit.
“I am always looking at the bigger picture when working with a player. One of my first mentors taught me the philosophy of ‘roots to grow and the wings to fly’ which empowers a student. I would like to think I am very organized and I have made major sacrifices in my life to get to this level of experience. I study the game and everything that surrounds it.”
Critical to that study is the SAP Tennis Analytics for Coaches, which he often employs during his pupils’ matches.
“It adds a solid dimension to my coaching and with so many conversations revolving around opinions and thoughts, it’s great to add some facts and figures to these opinions that can really help a player understand a coach’s thoughts. It can also illuminate some things that were maybe missed during match play. I also use it to highlight strengths and weaknesses of opponents.”
Though she fell in the first round of the Australian Open’s singles tournament - ironically to Bencic after a three-set tussle - Siniakova remains in Melbourne as the top doubles seed with Krejcikova, a partnership that mirrors the kind Hughes tries to create between coach and pupil.
“They trust one another on the court and this is the key.”