MELBOURNE, Australia – There’s a rigidity with which tennis goes about its business.
You’re a technical coach or a tactical coach. You’re a “development” coach or a “day-to-day” coach. Or you’re “that coach who adds that extra one or two per cent to get a player over the line.”
You’re a men’s coach.
Or you’re a women’s coach.
So when rising star Denis Shapovalov chose to begin working with fellow Canadian Rob Steckley last fall, more than a few eyebrows were Rafa-raised.
The task of helping the talented 19-year-old climb those last, steepest steps to the very top of the men’s game would have been a much sought-after gig.
“But …but … Steckley is a women’s coach,” was a popular refrain.
That didn’t dissuade Shapovalov, not even a little.
Tennis is tennis
“It really had nothing to do it. He worked with a great lefty player (Lucie Safarova), and I felt he could really take my game to the next level. He’s got a really good eye for the game, and it really doesn’t matter which gender it is,” Shapovalov told tennis.life over the weekend, as he prepared for his first-round match Tuesday against Pablo Andujar of Spain.
“Obviously female tennis and male tennis are a little bit different in terms of tactics and stuff. But he’s been around long enough, and he’s seen the greats on both sides,'” Shapovalov added. “He’s really helped me out so far. It wasn’t even a thought for me.”
The move isn’t as out-of-the-box as, say, Andy Murray and France’s Lucas Pouille hiring Amélie Mauresmo as a coach. But it’s still true that while some coaches from the ATP move over to the WTA Tour, the reverse is rarely true.
“Am I ready for it?”
“They’re taking the initiative to take that gamble, but I think the pressure was more on my side. That’s where I get to push myself with my coaching career. And let’s face it, I came from the men’s side when I was playing,” said Steckley, now 38, who dominated the juniors in Canada and played the Futures and satellite circuits through his mid-20s.
“It was a transition for me to wrap my head around, because when I started talking to them, it was like ‘Am I ready for it?’ … It’s not that I took a break from the men’s tour. It’s just that I focused on what I was doing with great players on the women’s side. And at the end of the day, tennis is tennis,” he added.
Mom is in the house
The other factor on Team Shapovalov is the fact that his mother, Tessa, is a tennis coach in her own right and the architect of his explosive game. She’s around – and very much a presence.
It takes a secure coach to have a player’s knowledgeable mother looking over his shoulder.
“My mom is always going to be involved. She knows my game better than anyone, inside and out. There’s a really good dynamic going on. She and Rob chat on a regular basis,” Shapovalov said. “She wants to travel a bit more with me – especially since now I’ve just started working with Rob, so we can start working together as a team. And for the future, we’ll see.”
Steckley: From one lefty to another
Steckley’s first WTA player of note was another Canadian, Aleksandra Wozniak. Wozniak reached her career best No. 21 and played her best tennis with Steckley at the controls.
He most recently had a long run with the recently-retired Safarova – a talented player he seemed to help draw out of her shell and instil some confidence in – along with a solid tactical base.
She made a French Open final and a Wimbledon semifinal under his guidance. And she formed one of the best doubles teams in the world with American Bethanie Mattek-Sands. She peaked at No. 5 in singles and No. 1 in doubles.
Their on-court coaching consults were full of sage advice.
As well, Steckley directed some pretty entertaining videos during their down time.
The self-professed chameleon is expanding and perfecting his skills on that side. And in Shapovalov he’s found creative synergy.
“First thing we discussed: we need to get the Instagram game on point,” Shapovalov said, laughing.
“This kid is one of the funniest kids I’ve ever met. I feel more comfortable when I’m around him because he brings out a side of me … I get to relax a little bit. But he’s a very serious kid when it comes to things he wants to work on, on and off court. We’re able to push each other,” Steckley said. “I’ve become a better coach, person, friend, videographer. He’s got great ideas. He’s not only a talented athlete he’s also a very talented creator.”
Shapovalov said he’s always had a creative side.
“When I was young it was a lot of video stuff: shooting, creating videos with my friends. Growing up it’s more of a music stage. I’m writing lyrics, writing songs,” he said. “I feel like the whole team is pretty creative. We’re always hatching ideas, and I think that’s why we have such a good dynamic.”
Communication the key component
And yet, when it comes to tennis, Shapovalov said Steckley is bringing out a side he didn’t necessarily reveal when he was younger.
“As I’m getting more and more professional, as I’m growing, as we started working together, he’s really forced me to get out of my comfort zone, out of my box, and really talk all the time. Discuss how I’m feeling, what’s going through my mind.” Shapovalov said.
“I think that’s another reason we really connected. He’s always constantly trying to push me out of my comfort zone and get me to talk about things that I normally wouldn’t discuss, or would keep inside.”
On the tennis side, Steckley notes a few basic differences.
“The tactics are slightly different. Their attention spans are slightly different. There are little things you have to wrap your head around. But if you’re a coach who’s able to transition pretty quickly – and I think that’s one of my strengths – as a coach you adapt and cater to the player you’re working with,” Steckley said.
“Guys favour forehands, girls are backhands. So the court changes just a little bit. But what the focus is – nothing really changes. He’s at the earliest stages of his career, so here are things he needs to learn. For me, the focus just needs to be on those specifics. … He’s a great kid to work with, and he’s easy to get along with. So he made it much easier for myself to be able to get used o that type of coaching again.”