New Victoria Azarenka coach Michael Joyce talks to Tennis.Life

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INDIAN WELLS – Coaching on the women’s tour has become a game of musical chairs in recent years. But every once in a while, there’s a blockbuster move that stands out.

When former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka returns from maternity leave this summer, she’ll have an experienced guide at her side in Michael Joyce, the longtime coach of Maria Sharapova.

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Joyce has had two coaching jobs since 2004. First came a 6 1/2-year run with Sharapova, then a five-year stint with American Jessica Pegula.

Barry Buss reached out to Joyce to find out what precipitated the change, in this Tennis.Life exclusive.

TL: I saw the news come through yesterday of your hiring. First of all, congratulations. Can you share with us how your pairing with Victoria Azarenka came about?

MJ: It came about pretty randomly. I was speaking with her agent in January  about something entirely unrelated, when he mentioned Vika was cranking up her training in order to come back sometime later this year. In the course of the conversation, he asked in passing if I might be interested in working with her. Initially I said no, that I was happy where I was with Jessie. But then I started giving the opportunity some thought. We spoke again. I came out to California to talk to Vika and hit some balls with her. I was immediately impressed by how focused she was and how hungry she was to get back to playing. But pulling the trigger was really tough. I’m incredibly close with Jessie and her family. I agonized pretty hard about the decision. It wasn’t easy at all.

TL: You’d been with Jessie for five years. Where is she at in her career?

MJ: She’s had some real tough luck. She’s been knocking on the door of the top 100 three separate times the last few years, only to get hurt and have to take time off. Last summer she was playing some of her best tennis. She made the semis of Washington, beating Stosur along the way. But her back and hip were giving her trouble. She kept trying to play but it was getting harder and harder for her. Her doctor said she’s going to have to get surgery at some point, so we shut her down in January where she got her hip operated on. She has a protected ranking, and I plan to help her with her transition to make sure she’s in the best hands possible. If all goes well with her recovery she’ll be back playing again by summer, we hope.

TL: Does Victoria have a time table to return to competition?

MJ: No, she doesn’t. Right now she’s gradually picking up her training. I’ll be joining her in Europe in a few weeks to kick it up another level. But there’s no set date, and more importantly, there’s no rush. We talked optimistically about being back for the grass courts season with maybe Wimbledon as a target, but realistically, more likely sometime during the summer hard-court season.

Just 12 months ago, Azarenka was winning the BNP Paribas Open. After having a baby, she’s setting her sights on a summer return to the WTA Tour. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

TL: There’s precedent for new mothers to come back strong and get right back to the top again, with Kim Clijsters as the most recent example. Have you discussed what goals you have for the partnership?

MJ: Absolutely. As I said, her hunger to get back to the top of the women’s game was what made working with her attractive. The fact that she’s won two Slams before and been number one, yet is driven to work even harder to get better than she ever was before. That really impressed me. And the fact that I have experience coaching at that level during my time with Maria. I think I can really help her achieve her goals.

TL: In the coaching world, you are the exception, having two relationships that lasted more than five years. What is it about your style that allows you to develop these long-term bonds?

MJ: Couple things. I see every player as different with unique needs. One style can’t fit all. I’ve worked very hard at remaining flexible with my players. Coaches have to understand their players intimately first and foremost, and work within that understanding. A mistake a lot of coaches make is they have success with a player doing things a certain way. Then they get a new student and apply that same style with an entirely different player and person. That rigidity doesn’t always work. Hence a lot of the high turnover.

Secondly, if I’m trying to get a player to do a certain thing and its not happening for whatever reason, I’m not afraid to bring in outside help. I think my players appreciate that, that its not all about me and my job security. That their best interests always come first and that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help them become their best.

TL: Ok. Now for the important question. You’re a new father yourself. Who’s baby is cuter, your Maya or Vika’s Leo?

MJ: Ha. They’re both adorable. And big! Two big kids. I think we have some good tennis DNA between us. I see a future mixed Slam in their futures.

TL: All joking aside. You both are new parents. Do you think that will enhance your working relationship?

MJ: Absolutely. You know how it is. There’s a lot of downtime in coaching. You can only talk about tennis so much. Now we share this awesome experience of being new parents, so there’s so much more now that connects us than just the tennis. Its uncharted territory for us both. We can exchange tennis and parenting tips with each other and help each other along.

TL: I was one of your coaches as a junior, and now you’re coaching Vika. Does that make me her grandcoach?

MJ: Ha. Only if you babysit and spoil them silly.

TL: Thanks for your time. And best of luck to you both.

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