Heidi el Tabakh, the Egyptian-born Canadian who calls south Florida home, didn’t accomplish her goals as a player.
Excellent serve, big forehand, she had the tools to become a solid performer on the WTA Tour. But her body just wouldn’t let her.
And so, the 31-year-old is aiming to accomplish those goals as a coach.
She has been working on making the transition, wanting to give back and feeling strongly about the fact the need for more female coaches on the WTA Tour.
And on Wednesday, it was announced that el Tabakh would take over from Sylvain Bruneau as the captain of the Canadian Fed Cup team.
(We’ll have more on that later today).
Tough to call it a day
El Tabakh reached No. 149 in singles during her career. And between 2009 and 2014, she was always around the top 150.
But every time she would make some progress, she would get injured. Typically, it was a quad or leg injury. At times, if felt as though she spent as much time rehabbing as she did competing.
But by the Charleston ITF tournament in the spring of 2016, el Tabakh knew she didn’t have another comeback in her.
“During the match I literally had to retire, that’s how bad I didn’t want to be on the court. Mentally I was just so done. And I knew it,” el Tabakh said when Tennis.Life caught up to her at the French Open. She was leading Sachia Vickery 5-2 in the first set at the time.
“I was crying before my match. It was emotional,” she added. “I struggled towards the end; mentally, it was hard. A lot of injuries. I certainly didn’t reach my full potential. And after I retired, I was a little bit in denial, that maybe I’ll come back.”
El Tabakh said she still loves the game, enjoyed the competition. And if she could, she would still be playing.
But now, there’s a new challenge.
Working with the kids
El Tabakh took the Coach 3 certification course given by Tennis Canada. Following that, she took some tournament trips with some of the young players. She went to the south of France last year, and she has also been to the Eddie Herr tournament in Florida.
Last December, she ran into old friend Madison Brengle in Bradenton, Fla.
“She said, ‘Let’s have dinner.’ We started talking, and she said to let her know if there were any weeks I needed help,” Brengle told tennis.life.
The first week the two worked together was Miami. Brengle had a tough draw, but she felt they had a great practice week and when she saw that she was in the main draw at the French Open and Wimbledon, it seemed a perfect opportunity.
“With everything going on (Brengle is in the middle of a lawsuit against the ITF and connected parties regarding their blood testing), having someone who is a very good coach and a friend with me, it just feels better,” she said.
After she stopped playing, el Tabakh received an offer to coach at a high-end country club in the Hamptons called the Maidstone.
“I did that for maybe two months, made a lot of connections. I wouldn’t necessarily do it again. But I love tennis so much, and I really want to give back,” she said. “My goal is to be not only one of the top female coaches – because there aren’t enough and I feel women’s tennis need more females – I want to be one of the best coaches out there.”
The attrition rate among female players is high, especially compared to the men’s game. That’s even true after the juniors. And it’s especially true in the pros.
“A lot of players out there who retire, they don’t necessarily want to become a coach or give back, because they’re done with tennis and just want to do something else with their lives,” el Tabakh said.
The advantage el Tabakh has is that she’s still young, and she can still hit with a player she coaches.
That’s not an insignificant advantage. Other than at the very top level, the players can’t afford both a coach and a hitting partner on the road. So even if they were predisposed to having a female coach (many are surprisingly not that comfortable with the concept, because it’s not what they’re used to), the finances don’t work.
So it’s a great niche for someone like el Tabakh, who is taking what she learned in the coaching courses and adding some real-life experience and observation to the mix.
“Being there, watching other coaches, talking to coaches, seeing different coaching styles. I try to learn from every single person I meet, whether they’re a 25-year-old who’s just starting, or a veteran coach,” she said. “Sometimes I watch the top players practice a couple of days before a tournament and see what they do.
“I’ve obviously had a lot of good coaches that I’ve worked with, so I take a bit from each one. You never stop learning. I have still have lots to go. I’m pretty confident in myself, my personality, my coaching skills on court. But there’s still so much for me to learn.”
As el Tabakh was telling her story at Roland Garros, some young girls came by and asked her for her autograph. They presumed, not unreasonably, that she was a player.
El Tabakh wasn’t quite sure if she should sign. But in the end she did.
Press conference moments
The Canadian has always stood out because of her exotic good looks.
Let’s face it, she’s a knockout. Even better, there has never appeared to be any of the attitude that sometimes can come with that fortunate twist of the DNA wheel.
After el Tabakh had her career moment at the French Open in 2010, playing France’s Aravane Rezai on Court Philippe-Chatrier, a number of Italian journalist types crowded the small press conference room at Roland Garros.
Every second question they asked, rather leeringly, was whether she had ever done any modeling.
El Tabakh brushed it off politely and deftly – the first four times.
By the fifth time, she smiled and told the eager fellow that if he had any connections in that business, she was quite open to the idea.
Even as she chatted with tennis.life in Paris, none other than Juan Martin del Potro spotted her as he walked to practice, and came over to flirt a little.
But while she’s conscious of the pluses and minuses involved – there is always the danger that she might not be taken seriously as she breaks into a still male-dominated profession – she thinks it can be a positive.
“I actually haven’t thought about that. But whatever your asset is, you use it to your advantage. I’d be stupid if I don’t use my personality and try to make good contacts, network, connect with people. I don’t know if it gives me an advantage, though,” she said. “The one thing that I have is that my tennis career backs me up. I was top 150. I played Grand Slams, I’ll always have that on my resumé, and that helps a lot.
“It’s not just the looks, I played. There’s proof!” she added, with a laugh. “I’m pretty tough. I work hard, I throw myself out there. If I get shot down, that’s totally fine, you just get right back up again. I know in the beginning when you’re starting your coaching career things don’t come easily. Slowly but surely, I believe I’m going to get great opportunities because I know I work hard, and I believe in myself.”